Angels Are Knocking at the Tavern Door: How the Poet Became a Golem

“broken cup” by Joanna Bourne via Flickr

“broken cup” by Joanna Bourne via Flickr

By Tony Barnstone

In my dream I am in a bar where people are drinking micro brews beneath the great horns of a mounted moose head.  Now everyone turns to look at the door.  There are angels out there, knocking.

One of them comes in and places a strange cup on the mahogany bar.  It looks like he’s sculpted it out of mud. He asks the bartender to fill it full of wine, and the bartender doesn’t argue.  You don’t argue with angels.

I catch a whiff as it is poured and my brain is irradiated with the memory of a woman with a black mole and a rouged cheek.  I remember the men doing their dance of attraction around her like circles of shadow around a flaming torch.

Even the angel is drawn in and he reaches out with one perfect dark hand.  But he jerks back as if scorched, and slinks off drooping wings.

The next morning I wake up, my body heavy as clay.  The sheets are caked and muddy.  The alarm is a mosquito in my ear.

But when a voice tells me to raise my dust up out of the bed, I do.  Stand up and walk like a man!

Shampoo, piss, and look into the mirror.  I can’t read the word written by my forehead lines.  Sometimes I think it says “Evil,” sometimes, “Live.”

Throughout my day I perform strange tasks.  I don’t know why or for whom.

I find myself talking before a classroom of youths.  Their skin is translucent and smooth as sea glass.  They are texting on their iPhones.  They have the plastic bodies of toy dolls.  They glisten.

The world has yet to enter them and breathe away their souls.

I want to be like the young, but I am mud and straw poured into black jeans.  My body’s covered with hair, just like a human being, but my hands are sticks, my brain’s in rags.

Some days I feel the hand of death on my forehead and it feels like a relief.

I walk this clay around, a thing empty of belief.

I know that under my feet this clod of dirt was once the eyeball of Abe Lincoln, the toenail of Pocahontas, and when my lungs fill with blood and my spirit is spilled, this clay will lie down and be earth again.

But I keep a piece of paper under my tongue and on it one word: be.

And I write my way into my life, trying to name it as it leaves.

And what kind of blog post was that, you ask?  That was me riffing off of the title poem of my book, The Golem of Los Angeles, as a way of thinking of what I’m going to say in a few weeks at the AWP Conference in my panel discussion, “A Monster for Your Bridegroom: Jewish Mysticism in Contemporary Poetry.”

Yes, my view of the world has been formed by the great traditions of mysticism and myth, Jewish, Christian, Sufi, Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu, but, in truth, I don’t know what I’ll say yet.

My thinking is in fragments, like a broken cup.

Here’s one piece: I wrote the poem when thinking of the Jewish golem, that monster made of clay by the Great Rabbi of Prague, a thing animated with a word placed in the mouth, activated by having the word truth (emet) written on his forehead, and immobilized by having the first letter erased, leaving death (met).

Sometimes I feel like this Jewish Frankenstein monster.  Who writes me into life?  Into death?  Who places orders under my tongue and walks me through my days?

Today, I smashed my poem and reformed it, adding other lines drawn from Genesis.  What is the golem but a man made of clay, like Adam?  After all, the word “Adam” (אָדָֿם) derives from “adamah” (earth) and “adom” (red) and “dam” (blood).  Adam, the first man, was a golem made of red earth, or clay. He was a clay vessel filled with blood of the spirit.

Here’s another fragment: in the great Sufi poetic tradition, Hafez writes of his dream of angels who knock at the tavern door and shape a cup out of the clay of Adam.

In fact, we are all golems, and we all are cups of spirit.

The Persian poet Omar Khayyam goes further in his Rubaiyat.  In Fitzgerald’s translation one rubai reads:

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
“Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.”

And he continues, observing that the cup of the body goes back to being earth again, so that when we walk the earth each clod beneath our feet can be the face of a king, the body of a princess.   Walk softly upon the bodies of the dead!

And finally, I come to the Buddhist tradition in a poem my old teacher, Robert Pinsky, “The Hearts,” which draws upon such images in its long meditation on time, love, and transience:

To Buddha every distinct thing is illusion
And becoming is destruction, but still we sing
In the shower. I do. In the beginning God drenched

The Emptiness with images: the potter
Crosslegged at his wheel in Benares market
Making mud cups, another cup each second

Tapering up between his fingers, one more
To sell the tea-seller at a penny a dozen,
And tea a penny a cup. The customers smash

The empties, and waves of traffic grind the shards
To mud for new cups, in turn; and I keep one here
Next to me: holding it awhile from out of the cloud

Of dust that rises from the shattered pieces,
The risen dust alive with fire, then settled
And soaked and whirling again on the wheel that turns

And looks on the world as on another cloud

So it is with poetry, and so I discover what message was hiding underneath my tongue all along—that my poem is also a clay cup momentarily filled with spirit.  That it is formed from the earth where the Buddha and Jesus are the clay we walk upon.  That Khayyam and Hafez and the Great Rabbi of Prague sing from its open mouth.

If I am a good teacher, I will invite my students to the bar to raise a glass with the angels and we will all go home drunk with inspiration.

And as long as those spirits are in my body, then—whatever the hangover—I feel each morning I can continue to stand up this thing of clay and walk, almost like a man.


Tony Barnstone is the Albert Upton Professor of English at Whittier College, author of thirteen books and winner of the John Ciardi Prize, Benjamin Saltman Award, Pushcart Prize California Arts Council, NEA Fellowship, Poets Prize, and many others.  In addition, he has co-written “Tokyo’s Burning: WWII Songs,” a CD of original music, available at iTunes, Amazon and CDBaby.  Books forthcoming in 2014 include his selected poems Bestia en el Apartamento: Antología poética (1999-2012), translated by Mariano Zaro (Ediciones El Tucán de Virginia);  his anthology Monstrous Verse, edited with Michelle Mitchell-Foust (Everyman Press); and his new book of poems, Buddha in Flames (Sheep Meadow Press).


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