Golems and Griefs Abound in Sarah Matthes’ Poetry

The author of "Town Crier" chats with Alma about the trendiest Jewish demons and poetry as Talmudic practice.

In describing Town Crier, Sarah Matthes’ debut poetry collection, its publisher writes that “the death of the author’s dear friend, the late poet Max Ritvo, became the cornerstone of the book, a foundational pain along which the poems are aligned.” So it’s probably not surprising to hear that I teared up while reading it. But it might be surprising that I also laughed out loud.

Sarah, who won the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book prize through Persea Books, has a voice that’s both very funny (her timing is good, somehow, even on the page) and achingly sad. Town Crier is also extremely Jewish: It contains not one, but two poems called “Golem.” In the second, debuting in Alma today, the author sculpts a golem from all the hair she’s ever removed from her body; in the first, Adam benefits from his lack of rib to do an activity of which many men dream. (Just read it.)

town crier
“Town Crier” by Sarah Matthes

Sex, food, and God mingle easily in Sarah’s imagery, which feels original, familiar, and highly accurate all at once. I was often certain that no other choice of words could have expressed her precise meaning. She describes dicks “gummy and white as gefilte fish,” and imagines ghosthood as “intolerable. / Like fruit salad — a grape disguised in the juices of a cantaloupe.”

Sarah writes about 17-year cicadas, about chipmunks, about the rat in her house, about New Jersey. As a pandemic-era New Yorker, I found “Transitory Mitzvah” especially recognizable and moving. Set on the subway, the poem tracks a yawn, treating human breath as connection rather than contagion. “613 Mitzvot” is another mitzvah-themed favorite.

Alma talked to the poet about grief, writing about writers, the trendiest Jewish demons, and poetry as Talmudic practice.

This conversation has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Every poem in the collection feels so inhabited, and you are so present in all of them. Over how long a time were they written, and do you still feel like the person you were when you wrote them?

I think the oldest poem in this book I wrote in college; I remember reading it at readings in college. It’s this poem called “Rodney the Mouse” about a mouse that lived in my house in New Haven: a famous mouse, a renowned mouse that met an untimely death. And it’s funny that that poem is still around; I feel a kind of relief at being able put it away. But in some ways, it was the poem that allowed me to move in the direction my writing wanted to go, and allowed me to realize that there could be humor in things, there could be levity, there could be myself, or some version of myself, even if it wasn’t always autobiographical.

That’s something also that I struggle with, in writing. Because this book is voice-centric, and because it sounds like me, if you meet me, you’re like, Oh, yeah, you’re the girl in here. And sometimes I am, but sometimes I’m really not. And that’s hard for people in any creative pursuit, that line between self-expression and feeling beholden to this perceived autobiography. When my mom reads these poems, she’s like, this happened to you? And I’m like, no. Yes. Medium?

In this book, you’re often writing about your friend Max, also a poet, who himself wrote a lot about his dying process. I know he was a creative force in your life. How do you write about someone who contributed so much to his own legacy, and who was such an active partner in your process?   

I love talking about this because it’s the truth of the book and of a lot of the poems. Some of the poems were written alongside him when he was still living. His hands were in versions of them; his revisions are living on the pages. I’m really grateful for that. I think some early poems actually made it in when I otherwise might have cut them because I can feel him there, in a word that I know he suggested. I mean, if that’s not a reason to put something in a book… that’s very meaningful to me.

Some of them I wrote while he was sick, and shared with him. We talked a lot about the difficulty of the desire, or the impulse, of someone who’s artistic to eulogize. I don’t want every poem to feel like an elegy. I know some of them are, but that’s not my experience of living within loss. It’s not a daily mournful practice; it’s much more accidental and surprising, and things will sort of pop up. When I feel grief in the poems, they’re usually preceded by a little spark, or a reminder, and almost a forgetfulness of the situation. You know, that sort of classic instinct to pick up the phone and call, but it manifests in so many different ways in the world that are less narrativized than that. I wanted some of the poems to have lightness to them because that’s often the experience that I have, carrying him around with me.

Talking about mourning and its unpredictable fluctuations makes me think of your poem “Accidental Yahrzeit.” I appreciate how Judaism codifies in ritual a lot of our human instincts around grief — shiva as a coming-together, for instance. Did the spirit of that play into how you wrote this book?

Yeah, it really did. Also in this poetry-world way, because there was a kind of internet shiva that happened. One of the weird things about social media around death is this amassing of a sudden collection of tidbits: poems, memories, pictures. I had just moved to Austin, TX; I was in a new place. Max died the day my classes [at the Michener Center] started. I was sitting with brand new friends on a bench drinking some wine and got this phone call. I just lost it in front of people I barely knew, and they were so kind — a lot of those people are my best friends now — but I needed to go to the people who knew.

I couldn’t really be a part of any in-person ritual of mourning at that time, and I wish that I had been able to, because I think it destabilized me a little bit. But the place where I did find that was in hearing so many people speak about what his life and work had meant to them. It happens to me even now; I get emails from people. There was a poet who did a bunch of pieces of music based off of things that he had written. So I felt it in this amorphous collective internet space.

In a weird way, maybe that prepared you for what grief has been like for everyone this year.

That’s true.

Your writing seems to marry the spiritual and the corporeal — I love the idea in your poem “The Burning Bush Is a Blackberry Bush” that the burning bush would have a familiar taste and texture. That feels very Jewish to me, too, the marriage of the lofty and the physical. Did you get that from Judaism? 

Absolutely. A lot of my poetic sensibility comes from Judaism, 100%. It’s hard to boil down. I don’t want to be like, this is my ars poetica. But it’s certainly sensory for me, that’s a huge thing. Rituals of eating, food as representation. Ritual was my way into Judaism, and I think that’s the case for a lot of people. That’s what I remember from my childhood as the most salient part: We eat this and it means this. Simple.

As an adult, I’ve been trying to learn more about Judaism. I wasn’t bat mitzvahed and didn’t grow up going to temple. My mom’s Jewish, my dad’s not, although my dad honestly was maybe more into it than my mom, which I think is kind of classic, I’ve heard other people say the same thing. I tried to get bat mitzvahed in college. I thought it’d be fun to do as an independent study — I was gonna invite everybody at school. I met with a Reform rabbi who was like, Don’t do this. She said, you have already passed that, you’re not 13 anymore, you’ve already taken on all the rights and responsibilities of being a Jewish woman, whether or not you understand what that means, and now your job is to decide what that means to you. I think I could have done that in an independent study class and had a really fun party, but still, what she said meant a lot to me. And so I was like, okay, this has to now be about which levels of entry I choose to take into this history and into this faith. For me, that meant a lot of folklore and a lot of ritual.

That’s when I first encountered the golem story. The Golem of Prague is the most famous, but there are many amazing golem stories. I was like, wait, you’re telling me that one of the foundational folkloric figures of Judaism is a body that is animated by the creative power of language? You’re telling me that language has the ability to give something agency and have it move, and emote, and protect? I couldn’t believe that that was a story told to children. It totally cracked open my relationship with language. I was like, that’s a poem. This is where I find power in spirituality. I think of language as my connection to any… divine experience is not the phrase I want to use, but that’s as close as I get. And then the fact that it’s given a body, that’s the other part of it, right? It’s not just language — it’s embodied language, language as perceived through the senses. That’s also foundationally important to my writing. So suddenly, I felt like I had a mascot.

The golem is feminine to me because I found out that its linguistic heritage has to do with the word embryo. It also has been historically used as a slur against women who haven’t had children to say that they’re golems: They’re unfinished until they participate in the Jewish lineage. That was interesting to me as someone who, I think, will conscientiously choose not to have children, but still also wants to engage with what that means, what the repercussions are within a Jewish lineage to not have my own kids.

All of this is very present in your poem “Golem.” This poem is great because it’s you, Sarah, living in 2021, processing your world, and then putting it into a Jewish folkloric shape. Did any particular image spark this poem?

I think I stopped shaving around the time that that poem started happening, circumstantially, and I was thinking a lot about how nice I felt not doing it anymore. Politics aside, I was just like, I hate this process, and most of the time, I’m bad at it.

Anyway, I was thinking about all the stuff that had been a part of me that had come off. You clean off your hairbrush, and you’re like, how is this possible? In thinking about that image of amassing, it occurred to me that I probably could make a full sculpture of myself with all of that, that refuse of myself, the little pieces that had been rejected. And then I just wanted to keep her around for a while. There’s something about the things that those discarded strands have experienced, the parts of me. When I looked back on, like you said, the different versions of me that are in this book, the different people that I’ve been, I felt like they collectively knew something about me that I didn’t. And I wanted to see what would happen if we spent some time together.

I feel like golems, and Jewish folklore in general, are having a moment right now — in horror movies and literature.

That is cool. I was really putting it out into the world that this was the thing I was reading about, and people would send me stuff all the time. There’s this book called The Golem and the Jinni that people were talking about for a while; I think they rock around New York together. A lot of people mistakenly sent me to A Serious Man, which is a dybbuk, to be clear, but was well-intentioned.

One thing that really got me when I was doing my research was that Ursula K. LeGuin, whom I love, may her memory be for a blessing — can you say that if someone’s not Jewish? — anyway, she wrote a piece mentioning golems. I understood her point, but I really disagree — she wrote about how Donald Trump was a golem. I understood what she was saying, that we gave him power through our communal language and our attention, that’s what allowed him to do damage. But it still felt really wrong to assign what I feel is this protective figure of Jewishness to such a monstrous person. I thought it was really misguided, and I was very disappointed, and I wanted to write her a letter telling her this, and then unfortunately she passed away, so that letter remains unsent.

Are there any canonical golem stories that particularly drew you in? I know you mentioned the Golem of Prague — is that the one that inspired the other poem called “Golem” in your book?

Yeah. The Golem of Prague was in the 16th century during a pretty rampant blood libel accusation situation where there were rumors around Jewish people using the blood of Christian children to make their matzah, which is obviously a horribly disgusting, untrue, harmful thing. Historically, this was a rumor sowed in order to create discord between the Jewish people and the other residents of Prague. The story goes that the rabbi, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, made a golem.

There are a number of ways that you can animate golems, and they’re all pretty metal, to be honest. In this one, you write the word emet, truth, on the forehead of a man you shape out of clay. There are a lot of rules if you go deep into the Kabbalah of it — it’s so fun and fascinating. You have one person from each star sign and the dirt has to be virgin dirt, which is a very weird phrase — what does that mean? When you write the word truth on the forehead of the golem, it comes to life and it can walk. It can’t usually talk because the power of speech is God’s alone. It basically served as a protectorate of the Jewish people during that time when there was a lot of violence going on against Jews in Prague, and would haunt the streets and save Jewish people as they were traveling around.

One issue with golems, which is part of the reason they then get co-opted and why you see that word show up in things like fantasy games, is that oftentimes the temptation is to make them too powerful. Once they become too cognizant, they have to be destroyed. And that is done by removing the aleph from the word truth, which leaves you with death, which is so poetic. Truth without aleph, which is the connective letter, the bridge between us and God — if you take that trust, that faith, out of truth, you’re left with death. Those little mystical workings of language — I mean, you can probably see it in my face, it gives me so much pleasure to think within them.

That’s the most famous golem, but there have been others — another one in that poem is this mystic poet in 11th-century Spain, Solomon ibn Gabirol, who made a golem out of wood who was the only female golem. That was a really difficult story to read, because she wasn’t given the golem deanimation; she was burned, which, with the many different histories of women and burning, felt really heartbreaking. I sort of fell in love with her.

In some interpretations, Adam was a golem for a number of hours before he was given the power of language. He was this walking, animated, sensing but pre-linguistic thing. If he was created as a golem, then the first actual human being was Eve. There’s so much within it that can be molded towards a feminist reading.

The way you talk about poetry and language feels almost Talmudic. Do you dream of a Talmudic reader who will come to your work and obsess over word choice like Jews do? I mean, we’ve built whole codes of law on the choice of one word over another.

I mean, yes. In my mind, so much of that also has to do with the idiosyncrasies of translation: how are your prepositions going to change the way that this comes out? How are your conjunctions going to change how we interpret this? We see this all the time. That’s where I get very obsessed in my writing process: I can’t control what someone’s associations are with an image, but I feel a little bit more related to what people’s associations are with a preposition. That feels actually a little bit more predictable — what it means to look at something versus alongside something. And so that’s where a lot of my really fiddly work happens, and so actually, it feels maybe like a little bit of a Talmudic practice in and of itself.

That brings us full circle: you can’t control how people read your work. But is there anything you want people to know about the real characters who populate the poems? Or do you just want readers to meet them on the page?

The book has no actual proper names in it, which feels right. There is a persistent “you” in the book, and that “you” changes. Sometimes it is discernibly Max Ritvo. And sometimes it is discernibly my partner. And sometimes it’s discernibly me. And sometimes it’s discernibly the reader, and sometimes it’s indiscernible. It would be interesting to me if I had readers who question the obvious recipient of that address.

I hope that the lack of proper names in this book allows people to put into it who they need. Truthfully, a lot of it is written for a real person who lived and who wrote. I hope people get to meet him, in a sense, and I hope they get to meet me. But I also would love so much if these poems could be vessels for other griefs, and that they could help people hold those. That would be the best thing in the whole world.

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