From the first page of “The Basics” in Town Crier, Sarah Matthes captivates her audience with unexpected images:
in a second, dead chipmunk,
its little mouth trembling in the soft still fur
Matthes wonders, as does the reader, if the animal is “mourning” or “at lunch” and questions the kind of mind that is “unable to recognize the difference.” The author sets the tone for her debut collection with this juxtaposition of beauty and horror, infused with a touch of ironic humor. Town Crier received the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry.
Dedicated to the memory of fellow poet Max Ritvo, her poems contain imagery saturated with grief. As noted in his New York Times obituary, her friend Max once named and wrote about test mice injected with clones from his cancerous tumor. Like him, Matthes addresses a rodent in “Rodney the Mouse.” She warns the patriarch of the mice living in her kitchen that she intends to kill them. The author dreams of mouse ears filling her hands and eating them one by one, “at a party, sexily, with olives.”
Bird imagery also appears in Matthes’s work. She considers “a bad thing eating birds” and says, “an important part of me is the smell of birds.” Perhaps this is another reference to Max, who had his wounds and scars tattooed with birds, turning the ravages of Ewing’s sarcoma into something wild and beautiful.
Sarah Matthes reveals her pain too:
The poet writes
in the tepid night
by a wailing fire.
Later she reflects on Hindu concepts of life after death when she says, “I will die in a glow. Samsara, samsara—I will never die.” She also taps into Jewish spiritual elements, from “The Burning Bush is a Blackberry Bush” to “613 Mizvot,” winner of the Academy of American Poets Andrew Julius Gutow Prize.
Town Crier contains many golems, but not the familiar ones from traditional Jewish folklore. In those, the soulless golem, a blindly obedient clay creature, protects Jews from persecution but stirs up chaos. Matthes, however, writes of surprisingly sexualized golems, male and female:
Sometimes women like me are called golems, too.
Not human until another human beats inside us.
She refers to the translation of the Hebrew word for “golem,” which means something incomplete or unfinished, like an embryo.
His body took the shape of the letter Tet,
Letter of concealed good,
Letter of the fetus.
In recurring themes, grief for her friend mingles with loss of the unborn.
Town Crier takes the reader to unexpected places, perhaps to unfamiliar references in the layers of her work. If a reader sometimes asks, “What am I missing?” it’s an intriguing invitation to return to the text, which reveals more on each reading.
Sarah Matthes is a poet from central New Jersey. Her debut collection of poetry, Town Crier, won the 2020 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. Poems have appeared or are forthcoming with Pleiades, the Iowa Review, Black Warrior Review, Yalobusha Review, poets.org, and elsewhere. Matthes has received support for her work from the Yiddish Book Center, and is the recipient of the 2019 Tor House Prize from the Robinson Jeffers Foundation and the 2019 Andrew Julius Gutow Prize from the Academy of American Poets. She holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers and a BA in English and creative writing from Yale University. She serves as the managing editor of Bat City Review and lives in Austin, Texas.