Truth Without Faith Is Death

A Conversation with Sarah Matthes


Photo by Sarah Matthes
Sarah Matthes is a poet from central New Jersey. Her debut collection of poetry Town Crier (Persea, 2021) won the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. Selected poems have appeared or are forthcoming with BOAAT, Pleiades, The Iowa Review, jubilat, Black Warrior Review, Yalobusha Review, Midst, and elsewhere. She has received support for her work from the Yiddish Book Center and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, as well as the the 2019 Tor House Prize from the Robinson Jeffers Foundation. A graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, she still lives in Austin, TX, where she serves as the managing editor of Bat City Review. Find her online at
Town Crier is forthcoming with Persea Books in Spring of 2021.
Andy Sia and Mason Wray are respectively the senior poetry editor and the poetry editor of Yalobusha Review.
AS: Congratulations on your first book! Town Crier is, in part, a moving tribute to the late poet and your friend Max Ritvo. The book seems invested in rituals, one of which is the ritual of naming. You write: “It’s about learning the true name of the sea.” In another poem: “Of all the things our human tongues have done, / ‘fishing’ is perhaps the greatest violence: // Making a name into a word / that means to kill the name.” Can you speak about the relationship between grief and naming?
SM: One of the first things Max ever taught me was a single word, “lacuna:” an unfilled space; a missing word or section in a text; what is left behind when the fragment is snatched away. I’m interested in the language of absences, and the paradox of writing into vacancies. Language is entirely physical to me: when it uses ink or paper, you hold it in your hands, and when it uses breath or time, you hold it in your body. How can the action of adding to the world, of building a poem in bricks of words and breaks, communicate the airless implosion of grieving what is gone? I guess that’s how grief feels to me in its most desperate, personal times: like the gone-ness of the person has ripped the atmosphere out of my center, and there’s this gaping column of nothing. Sometimes with Max I feel like his mind is the shining fragment, and my life is the contextualizing text left behind, the magazine page from which the more interesting moments have been clipped. I’m a glossy, incomprehensible paper full of weirdly-shaped holes. But if I can call those holes lacunae, then their spaces become activated, definitionally, by what is not there. It’s a way for language to make space for the absence of language! A linguistic evolution, if you ask me, which it seems you are!
Names also occupy certain exciting planes of liminality. They’re publicly-utilized private decisions. They’re sometimes early drafts of language systems: if I invent a new and groundbreaking dance, as I often do, I might consider what to “call” that dance, let’s say “Blank,” and by the next day I am “Blanking” all over the house, and by next week it’s a worldwide phenomenon and everyone is saying “where did you learn to blank like that?” It has been stripped of its coronation, expelled from the town of Proper Nouns and into the vast realm of Scrabble-acceptability. Our language is filled with words that once were names, that carry within them a history of specificity and privateness that has been spun into sturdy parts of speech. How like grief that feels to me: I look at Town Crier sometimes and think, “Wow, look at all this language! It means something! …But wasn’t there a person once inside all that?” Maybe naming in this book is a kind of re-animation, an attempt to return different grammatical categorizations to an earlier, soupier version. This might be the opposite of what I said earlier about evolution — it’s a kind of devolution, like a much less academic etymological investigation of what we call things. A way to personalize what has been de-personalized, which is something I struggle with in grief. Time spins my memories thinner: when I go back to images of people I’ve lost now it feels like revisiting a photograph, and the memory is corrupted by other memories of times I’ve visited with that picture. It all gets stacked and compounded until I feel very far away from the thing itself, the feeling, the person. Naming feels like a way of getting back to the center, of peeling away the prepositions and clauses that distance me from the thing I am really missing.

MW: I love this notion of the lacuna and activating absence so that it completes a new sort of whole. It makes me think about the role of religion and Judaism in Town Crier. There is the literal absence of the letter in naming “G-d”, but more broadly, it seems like the mystery and absence of knowability inherent to religion offers a necessary space in these poems to imagine into, to dream into, to hope. What kind of space (or absence) do you feel religion holds in the book? What role does it play for you as a poet?
SM: Writing the word “G-d” with a missing “o” is a practice some Jews engage in as an interpretation of a mitzvah (a commandment) in the Torah that prohibits us from destroying, erasing, or disposing of the name of G-d: this means that if you wrote G-d’s name out fully, you wouldn’t be allowed to rip or throw away the document on which the name was written. As a safeguard against this, some Jewish people use a dash so that if the document is ever tampered with or destroyed, they haven’t actually desecrated the name of G-d. But I find the tension in this practice totally compelling: erasing a letter to protect against erasing the thing itself. It leaves its own lacuna, like you said — a protective or protected space of necessary absence into which I can imagine. There’s a destabilization within that space, a lack of certainty that feels representative of my own inquisitive usage of the word: most often in the book “G-d” is paired with “what if” or “maybe” or “had we” — suppositions and subjunctives.
The other loudest Jewish reference in this book (though there are many other little murmurs) is the presence of the Golem, a folkloric automaton made of clay who is animated by the creative power of language. To bring a Golem to life, you write the Hebrew word emet, meaning “truth,” on its forehead. To kill it, you remove the letter aleph from that word, which leaves the word met, or death. On its own, this is remarkable: language holds the power, literally, to create and destroy. But even more exciting to me is that the aleph is the letter of faith: it is built visually to represent the connection between people and G-d. Truth without faith is death. I don’t mean this in a “you just have to believe in something” kind of familiar way. To me it means that truth requires active human participation. Poetry doesn’t require my knowing of truths, but it requires my believing in them, and my searching for them. Energetic participation, alive with trajectory. The vector I leave in my wake is the trail of proof that I am trying to honor what language knows that I do not: it is all the little documents of my education in being a person. Judaism is one face of that, but the pursuit is ultimately prismatic. I believe in G-d, in my own way, but I also just believe in trees. I think over time I’m trying more and more to pour the first belief into the second, to prioritize the “thingness” of faith, and less the “thinkiness” — I’m not sure I’ve done that in this book, and certainly not in this interview, but I’ve got a whole life left to figure that out (G-d willing hehe)!

AS: One place I see the thingness of faith at play is in the attention to the material realities and sustenance of the body. Food counteracts, yet is dependent on, death. Encountering “one chipmunk / facedeep / in second, dead chipmunk,” the speaker asks in the opening poem: “What kind of mind / is unable to recognize the difference // between a chipmunk in mourning / and a chipmunk at lunch.” But food is not merely pragmatic or sustaining. It promises a kind of transgressive pleasure, for example, when the speaker eats blackberries and notices the “juice bursting out of black balloons” or when she entertains the thought of consuming the “living” bodies of cicadas. Can you expand on the significance of food and eating?
SM: Food is perhaps the most dominant thing-centric ritual of Judaism in which I engage: holiday meals are like tables full of metaphor. We make the bread round because so is time. We dip the parsley in the salt because the salt is tears. We eat things to remember, and we remember in order to survive. I think food lends itself so well to rituals of faith for the same reasons it flourishes in poetry: it’s utterly sensory; it shocks the mind out of its coronated center and into all the body’s extremities. I think it’s important to shock my mind out of place. When it burrows too deep into its traditional control center, it starts to self-destruct, like a clenched fist drawing blood. When I send my mind into my body, when I let it sit inside my senses, that hand unclenches. Sometimes poems need to eat a thing to experience that kind of release.
I used to be an actor, and the favorite roles I had were always the ones in which I could eat on stage. I loved being able to taste orange juice on my breath, or feel the way a raw egg turned inside my stomach. Even better is if the audience can smell it a little. You’re not faking it: under all those stage lights, your body starts digesting the food your character has consumed. There’s a way in which eating on stage pierces through the fiction, unifying the experience of character, performer, and observer: I imagine my draw to food in writing has something to do with this sensory synthesis across participating minds.
But the way consumption happens in this book is, as you mentioned, often transgressive or uncomfortable. Looking back through it now, it was a surprise how often the poems want not only to eat things, but to savor, to consume, sometimes even to harm or disappear them. It’s not just sensory; it’s also deeply sensual – I sometimes like to call kissing “slow, ineffective eating.” But inside of that sensuality is an abiding destruction, an almost gluttonous pull toward consumption as a way of understanding/possessing that I find dark and true. There’s so much power at play in a child being dared to eat a cicada; there’s so much shame latent in the humor of a penis, likened to piece of gefilte fish.

MW: You close the collection with the poem, “A Preposition to Follow ‘Live,’” which first appeared in YR:27. The poem so beautifully walks the tension between elegiac mourning and hope that propels much of the book with lines like “If I don’t survive it, please / remember the / right things about me: // The time I was caught singing / among the violins.” I wonder if you might just talk about this poem a bit: how it came to be and why you chose it as the final piece in this collection?
SM: The dream that opens “A Preposition to Follow ‘Live’,” in which ever-growing metal spheres roll through a grassy field, is my brother’s from his childhood: when Yalobusha published this poem, he wrote something sweet to me, like “Hey, that’s mine!” so I thought I should cite him here. Hi, Erich, and thank you for your nightmares.
I wrote the first draft of this poem in 2017, and those earlier versions are denser, heavier: they never wake up from this borrowed bad dream. They didn’t meet the title’s vision: they only “lived through,” but didn’t manage to prepositionally position themselves in any fresher vantage. I wanted to free this speaker a little bit. Could she live within? at? among? beyond? I knew the ending would be crucial to disrupt the poem’s tight whirlpool of tension. What are now the last few lines of the poem had been a short piece all their own, but were spoken by a personified “universe,” and addressed back to the reader. I thought they were encouraging, freeing. There’s hope in the idea that if you don’t have the tools to play your instrument, you can choose to sing. There’s a release in the possibility that “no one would notice the difference.” I thought it was interesting that I was so uncomfortable letting my speaker use the language of hope for herself, toward herself. I wanted to let her own that memory. So the two poems joined, and they fused together through this little interlude of shifting perceptions of memory, and the way that language creates our recollections.
Sometimes, my life is corrupted by the shape of the griefs it holds, like a heavy ceramic object held in a thin cloth bag. I can’t see it anymore: I can’t remember the little parts of the lives I miss in their glossy, thingy glory. It feels like the role my life plays is to conceal that object, to hold it close so nobody can take it from me, but never to really look at it. I’m afraid to look: if I don’t, then the bag remains full of potential energy, an ostensibly endless vault of memories. But my life is not a bag, or a magic trick. Objects have limits, have ends: so do lives. And then I wonder: what shape will I take when I am held in the memory of the living? Will my life be remembered as it was for most of its journey: a vase, a container for other lives, other beauties? Or will it be reduced to the thing it was at the end: an urn, holding only the strict ashes of itself?
I wanted to let my speaker own the image of the bow-less violinist. I wanted to let myself own it, too: I wanted to take on the things I imagine for myself as deeply into my memory as I have taken on the dreams of others, the dark ones and the bright. Who I hoped to be when I was young is still a part of who was then. I wanted to remind myself that I have already done the work I want to be remembered for. I do it every day that I choose to do the work of the living.