Reviewed by Susanne Paola Antonetta
When I was in Prague in spring of 2022, I visited the Alchemical Museum. There I saw a painting of one of the profession’s culture heroes: the famous golem of Prague. The creature was bowed, hulking, shaggy–part rabbi, part Yeti. In the 1500s Rabbi Löw created Golem from the mud of the Vltava River, putting the name of God in its mouth. The golem protected Prague’s Jews, though once, when not properly attended, attacked the ghetto itself. Lore has it that the golem is still there, hidden in a synagogue and waiting to act again.
Diane Wiener’s earlier book, The Golem Verses (Nine Mile, 2018), introduced this creature, at once “terrifying and unfamiliar…and as familiar as vegetables.” In The Golem Returns, Wiener and the Golem set off again. Wiener uses Marvin Bell’s “Dead Man” poems as a structural muse for The Golem Returns—Golem moves, searches, tries, as Bell’s dead men do. Bell’s poems also inhabit Wiener’s pattern of stopping and continuing—each Returns poem has a first section, then one subtitled “What Happened Next.”
Always, like a great alchemist, Wiener transmutes her materials. Wiener’s Golem is her own being: subverter, wisecracking force of nature, immortal whose every “next” implies another. The structure gives the poems the sense of an ouroboros, with each ending holding a beginning in its mouth.
One of the messages of the Golem is that the stuff of the world adheres to no binaries. Mud and God’s name fuse. Golem is a thin place, a place where two worlds come (perilously? joyously? both?) together. So Golem gets to sample human existence without choosing: she has a Pokemon double, kayaks to the Galapagos, mingles with the gods, samples gluten-free cookies.
“Chaos is a lesson in perspective, after all,” Golem says in a poem titled “The Golem Sits.” Later she says, “stones are water, after all.” The “after all” is a typical Wiener rhetorical touch, subtle but crucial: part of the Golem’s role is to tell us to quit insisting on our defining and separating. Ultimately, it will fail. Golem’s stirring her alchemist’s pot here is a pleasure: the slippages from one thing to another, the poems’ stops at one substance, followed by leaps to another, are one of the many joys of the book:
The Golem is talking about the electron shells, a favorite topic of ours.
She says that they don’t go well with cheese, but maybe she hasn’t tried the right kind yet.
If there is a touch of Borscht Belt humor in the poems’ observations, they are never simply jokes. Wiener plays a much longer game. Humor makes true spirituality dogma-proof; so the Dalai Lama loves fart jokes, and Golem can’t resist adding to the idea of matter’s basic building blocks some boxed cheese.
Once created, Golem becomes self-perpetuating: “I can write the words on my own forehead, you know, the Golem says./Yes, of course, and you can erase them too, you say.” She can sample the existences not only of the human world, but the world of gods and goddesses—so many divine voices in her mouth!
The Golem writes a sermon with Pluto’s heart.
Ceres, Makemake, and Eris help with the syntax.
The syntax is maroon with a disappearing outline as icy as Charon’s.
Towards the end of the book, Golem points out to the speaker “you stopped using question marks in our poems.” (Is that “you” also the reader? We have by now started letting Golem speak without too much question.) Note the book’s poems are now “ours”—the speaker/author and the Golem’s. They have become co-creators.
“Where is the online vessel for radical hope,” the Golem wonders aloud. Wiener is too skilled a poet to try to tell us. The final “What Happened Next” in the book reads simply: “We keep writing.” As someone who finished this book immediately impatient for more, I can only hope—and you, reader, will hope with me—that this is true.
About the Reviewer
Susanne Paola Antonetta’s latest book is The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here. Forthcoming is The Devil’s Castle. She is also the author of Make Me a Mother, Curious Atoms, Body Toxic, A Mind Apart, and four books of poetry. Awards include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, a Pushcart, and others. Her essays and poems have appeared in The New York Times, Ms., The Huffington Post, The UK Independent, The Hill, Orion, and The New Republic and been featured on CNN as well as the CBC Ideas documentary series. She lives in Bellingham, Washington.