Transitory Mitzvah

Sarah Matthes

In the subway car, a mystery of proximity: a yawnpassing from mouth to mouth,across a line of seated strangers,in perfect order. I watched it movinglike a secret through a row of children,washing toward me as each person openedtheir lips to swallow it upand then, in unbroken revolution,give it away.I thought this must be G-d: airmoving through human bodieslike a soft needle picking up stitches along pale cloth.And I felt my neighbor expandin her crest of breath, handfloating to her mouthlike wood rising in water,and I prepared myself for the gift—But the yawn turned across the aisle.I saw it grow inside a child and then driftinto his mother, as it passed againand again away from me.What would you unseeso you could be inside of it?Could it ever be enough just to say:it happened, nothing openedor closed around me, air movedand was wind, air moved and wasbreath, air moved and was death,my life, it did not change—

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Sarah Matthes is a poet from central New Jersey. Her debut collection Town Crier (Persea, 2021) won the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. Selected poems have appeared 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 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

New York, New York

Kabbalistic poems that recognize wit as a ritual of mourning, winner of the 2020 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize

The poems in Town Crier wryly express the pervasive nature of loss, how it suffuses all aspects of a life: memories, hopes, love, sex, lunch. The death of the author’s dear friend, the late poet Max Ritvo, becomes the cornerstone of the book, a foundational pain along which the poems are aligned. The poems grieve. They try to cope. They come up short. They try again, insisting as they do that language holds consequential, redemptive powers. Sarah Matthes is equal parts jester and conjurer, sensing the precious alchemy of laughter and lament, crying out to those who have left her and those who remain.

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