Winner of Persea Books Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, Sarah Matthes’s first collection of poems, Town Crier, is nothing short of revelatory. Written during the dying time of a close friend—also a poet, Max Ritvo—and after his death from cancer, Town Crier delves into themes of grief and loss, but also equally explores sex, humor, God, creation, and place. Capacious in its concerns, Town Crier relies on repeated motifs and Matthes’s distinctive voice to create a cohesive collection that is just as easy to read in a single sitting as it is to find a spare moment for a poem or two. These motifs come from the body and nature: ice, grapes, birds, fish, air, blood, bone, hair. Poignantly, Matthes associates death and dying with changing states of matter in the natural world. In linking the profane with the sacred and dailiness with faith, Town Crier is both accessible and miraculous.
Throughout the collection, Matthes refers to the second person “you.” As she said in an interview with the online platform Hey Alma, “There is a persistent ‘you’ in the book. … 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.” This “you” can draw the reader in, as in “All Spruced Up,” in which the second person address is both ambiguous and kind, affirming repeatedly that there is room in this “you” for you the reader: “yes you, / you, you / with the punim.” (Punim: the Yiddish word for face, used often to express affection.)
In the next poem this “you” refers to Max and pushes the reader into the space of a welcomed observer. One can feel the closeness between Matthes and Ritvo, but not occupy it. Neither voyeur nor participant, the reader is welcomed generously into their friendship. The poem “The Jungle of Sick Animals” remembers Max’s wedding, and closely associates him with grapes, a figure almost Dionysian:
You are there and you are the king.
This is announced by a wreath of grapes
cold and elegant against your head’s bare skin.
The poem continues to describe a joyous event, one tinged with sadness, and concludes with a single heartbreaking line: “It feels good to have finally written / a poem about your wedding.”
The collection potently tracks grief through time, on the effect loss has on the creative process. In the poem “Not Dying,” Matthes introduces us to a powerful metaphor that links grief to temperature shifts and states of matter:
Now that you’re not dying anymore
I don’t know what to do with those poems,
most of which I never wrote because
I didn’t want you to be dying.
In place of words, death filled my mind with a navy gas.When you stopped dying my center cooled,
and down it rained.
Matthes intimates that these poems which she “never wrote / because I didn’t want you to be dying” were somehow impossible to write. The anticipation of death, the inevitability of its occurrence, fogged her mind, occluding any thought that might lead to the creative act; her mind was filled “with a navy gas.” The phrase “stopped dying” heartbreakingly points to the long illness Ritvo endured. He was, as Matthes explains in another poem, on the knife’s edge, precarious: “Your body balanced atop a slippery fulcrum.” The “it” in “Not Dying” might refer to a previous, unfinished group of poems Matthes was writing or not-writing to Ritvo which she titled “Eras,” a word, she tells us, refers both to “a period of time / or a word meaning ‘you are.’” When “it” rained, I imagine the poems (finished and unfinished) fertilizing and becoming part of this collection. Matthes closes the poem “Not Dying,” a poem of “nots” (not writing, not dying), with the explanation that this fogging “navy gas” hardens into ice, transforming and condensing into another state of matter, into a shape:
And when you go
once more my center will cool and harden
into navy ice,
and your words will freeze in me,
and there will be no room left for other words,
and the navy will be dark.
Rather than ossify or calcify, the word “freeze” suggests a more fluid state of grief without foregoing the inevitable hardening that comes with loss in time. The word also suggests a kind of preservation. Freezing something keeps it fresher for longer, whereas when something ossifies or calcifies (perhaps more expected words), the thing itself is actually transformed into a hardened trace of itself. In this case, it’s not just the loss of the person that is so heartbreaking, but the loss of that person’s words.
The “navy ice” can potentially thaw or sweat, can turn back into liquid; however, it is in the poem “Then One Day A Whole Day Goes By”—presumably the first day that passes without Matthes being reminded of this loss incessantly (“You’re not in the tree. You’re not even / in the bird.”)—in which the navy ice of loss fractures. The day after that first day goes by, Matthes wakes and finds herself again in the cold, a temperature associated throughout the collection with Max and dying:
In the morning in the dark in the cold outside
I raised my finger to touch what I believed
to be the first frost of the season,
navy ice lacing across
the rear windshield of my car,
but when I stroked the glass
With the phrase “navy ice,” Matthes describes the first frost, which in itself is nothing exceptional, in almost spiritual terms. The deep color of this ice recalls visually submerged ice at the poles: ancient, otherworldly, hidden. With each line progressively shortening, the poem builds to this moment of crumbling, deepening the emotional impact of physical contact with this “navy ice” which previously had been housed internally, in Matthes’s “center.” This poem thus links her internal experience with the external world, a powerful feature of many poems in this collection.
Grief is not the only emotional state explored deeply and precisely in this debut collection. One could also reflect on how animals function in the collection; how feminism and language play a role in Matthes’s fabrication of golems, both historically invented and fashioned by this poet; how sex and intimacy pervades daily life in ways romantic and real; how friendship feels sacred; how learned Jewish faith and ritual seep into daily practices. All of which is to say: buy this book. Read this book. Appreciate this voice:
If I don’t survive it, please
right things about me:
The time I was caught singing
among the violins.
Perhaps I lost my bow,
thought no one would notice the difference.
my voice come back
and so I used my voice.