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Poem: "Clay Feet" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith
ysabetwordsmith
Poem: "Clay Feet"
This poem came out of the August 6, 2013 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from LiveJournal user Baaing_tree. It also fills the Wild Card ("Loss of limb / limb function") square in my card for the [community profile] hc_bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by [personal profile] timescaper.


"Clay Feet"


The Golem of Prague
was made to be a protector
and said to turn into a monster,
but neither of these things
is strictly true.

Indeed Yossele the golem
was protective of the ghetto;
it was the only home he knew.

When the Rabbi Judah
refused to remove the enchanted shem
so that Yossele could rest on the Shabbat
as was right and proper,
the golem became angry and attacked.

Then Judah could not reach
the golem's mouth to pluck out the shem,
for Yossele was very tall;
instead Judah took an axe
and tried to hack the golem to pieces.

The clay feet broke away,
leaving Yossele free to crawl
into the night and hide himself,
for it was the feet and not the whole of him
that had been bound to the ghetto.

Yossele crawled along the road
until he met a woodsman
trapped beneath a fallen tree.
The golem's great strength lifted the trunk
and allowed the man to wriggle free.
In thanks, the woodsman made two crutches
so that Yossele no longer needed to crawl
with his ragged aching stumps trailing behind.

Then the golem hobbled onward,
able to make better time now.
The next day, Yossele met a potter
whose cart had tipped over,
spilling all the pots onto the road.
The golem helped pick up the pots.

The potter tried to make new feet
for Yossele, but it was no use;
she lacked the magic to make them
join with the living clay of his flesh.
The best she could do was to smooth the stumps
so that they no longer hurt all the time.
Yossele was grateful for that much.

By Friday, Yossele was far from Prague
but so exhausted that he could hardly keep going.
He had now been awake for almost two weeks,
and he could not rest, for if he took the shem
from his own mouth then he had no way to return it,
which was tantamount to suicide, which was a sin.

Yossele came over a hill
to see several bandits attacking a blacksmith,
his horse screaming as it tried to kick free of the wagon.
The golem roared and hurried down the slope
as fast as his crutches could carry him.
He smacked the bandits away with his huge hands,
and bones cracked as they crashed into the trees.
Soon they limped away into the forest.

The blacksmith soothed his terrified horse
and got the wagon back in order,
only to discover that his rescuer
had sat down on the side of the road
weeping muddy tears.

The blacksmith crouched beside Yossele.
"My name is Menachem," he said.
"What is the matter, my friend?
Have the bandits hurt you?"

Yossele could not speak
with the shem in his mouth,
and without it he would fall asleep.
He waved his hands and made signs
and scribbled the few words he knew
in the soft dust beside the road,
until at last Menachem understood
what had happened to him.

"Come," said the blacksmith,
tugging on Yossele's hand.
"You may ride in my wagon."
Yossele was so tired
that he could barely move,
but the blacksmith was strong enough
to help him get up.

Menachem cleared a space
for the golem to lie down.
His fingers were gentle
as they slipped between the clay lips
and removed the shem so that
Yossele could finally get some rest.

"Sleep," Menachem said,
smoothing a hand along the clay cheek.
"I will wake you after the Shabbat."
And Yossele slept, safe in the wagon.

The golem woke with Menachem's hands
at his mouth again, tenderly closing it
around the rolled scroll of the shem.
Yossele had not known, when he lay down,
if he would ever get up again,
if the blacksmith could truly be trusted;
yet here was Menachem patting his shoulder
as if to wake a regular man.

"I have work to do,
if you would like to help me,"
the blacksmith invited.

Yossele had never done work, not really;
he had only guarded the ghetto in Prague
and helped a few people along the road.
Menachem was patient and careful
in showing the golem how to tend
the little portable forge.
Together the work went faster
as they did what blacksmithing
the current town needed.

When they finished with that town,
they packed up their wagon,
harnessed their horse, and moved on.

Each Friday evening,
Yossele would lie down in the wagon
and open his mouth for Menachem,
trusting his friend to remove the shem
and replace it again when the Shabbat had passed.

Unlike the rabbi of Prague,
Menachem always remembered
to put Yossele to bed when the time came.
He was never rough or cruel or callous,
and never demanded more than
a fair week's work at the forge
just because Yossele was a golem.

"Nu," said Menachem
when Yossele waved his hands
to ask about such kind treatment,
"was not Adam himself
also made out of clay?
I am no better than you, my friend."
Then he clapped the golem on the back
and sent him to fetch the anvil from the wagon.

The smithcraft went better and faster
as Yossele learned the work.
"I am glad that we met," Menachem told him.
"You make an excellent apprentice."

They did so well that Menachem
soon had time and goods enough to spare
so that he made Yossele a pair of iron feet
with clever hinges at the ankles,
and extended the crutches with iron points,
allowing the golem to walk better.

It was not as good as having his own feet,
but Yossele would rather have freedom
and a good friend and a new job
than take back the clay feet
that had bound him to Prague.


* * *

Notes:

Prague is the capital city of the Czech Republic.

"The Golem of Prague" is a traditional Jewish tale. The original prompt for this poem requested a different turning in which the golem escaped his miserable fate, so it goes off-canon immediately. I have, however, attempted to retain some of the flavor and structure of European and Jewish storytelling.

A golem is a mannequin made from clay and animated by magic, specifically an inscription upon the shem. The term shem (which sounds like "shame") can also refer to reputation or essence.

The Jewish Shabbat, or Sabbath, runs from Friday evening to Saturday evening. It is a tremendous sin to forget the Shabbat or any part of its preparations, and for a Rabbi to do so is even worse; and yes, that's part of the original story that I didn't change.

Judaism counts suicide as a sin, although in modern terms there are often mitigating circumstances.

Nu is a Yiddish word that can mean "well," "so," or a dozen other things.

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Comments
lb_lee From: lb_lee Date: August 9th, 2013 10:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yaaaaay it got sponsored! :D Permission to post on tumblr, with credit and link back? And to link on LJ?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: August 9th, 2013 10:24 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yes, please!

>> Yaaaaay it got sponsored! :D <<

I'm really pleased about that. This poem has a nice stack of diversity, what with the Jewish roots, nonhuman and disabled character, and nonsexual intimacy.

>> Permission to post on tumblr, with credit and link back? And to link on LJ? <<

Permission granted. Thanks for boosting the signal!
lb_lee From: lb_lee Date: August 9th, 2013 10:57 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes, please!

Tumbled and linked!

Yeah, I always felt sorry for that poor old golem. It never seemed to get any luck at all, and it always seemed to me a very telling story about toxic relationships--a person might be a paragon in their community, but still do terrible things to other people. (This is distinguishing the MYTHICAL rabbi from the actual historical Rabbi Loew.)

I'm glad this one gets away!

--Sneak/Rogan
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: August 9th, 2013 11:03 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes, please!

>> Yeah, I always felt sorry for that poor old golem. It never seemed to get any luck at all, <<

Too true.

>> and it always seemed to me a very telling story about toxic relationships--a person might be a paragon in their community, but still do terrible things to other people. (This is distinguishing the MYTHICAL rabbi from the actual historical Rabbi Loew.) <<

Yes, I wanted to highlight that a little, even though he only appears briefly. He must be a terrible rabbi to forget anything having to do with the Shabbat. To me, that's the shocking part of the story. And then he goes and takes it out on poor Yossele. What a putz.

>> I'm glad this one gets away! <<

Me too. I like rewriting stories so that the abused character(s) can escape to find a better situation.
thesilentpoet From: thesilentpoet Date: August 10th, 2013 01:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
LOVE THIS!

I grew up on tales like this - Jewish and European folklores. Seeing this particular tale with a new spin was quite the tale, I loved the use of Jewish culture in this, especially the word, 'Nu'. (Oh, nu, you can roll your tongue something different, and you take on a whole new meaning. Yiddish, the language of connotations and contextualisms.)

I've written a poem myself about how Adam, in some ways, was the first Golem. Nice to see that reference in here too.

Edited at 2013-08-10 01:08 pm (UTC)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: August 10th, 2013 02:32 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>> LOVE THIS! <<

Yay! That's always good to hear.

>> I grew up on tales like this - Jewish and European folklores. Seeing this particular tale with a new spin was quite the tale, I loved the use of Jewish culture in this, <<

I'm glad this worked for you. I love ethnic folklore and how it illustrates a particular perspective on the world.

>> especially the word, 'Nu'. (Oh, nu, you can roll your tongue something different, and you take on a whole new meaning. Yiddish, the language of connotations and contextualisms.) <<

*chuckle* It's one of my favorites, too. The Joy of Yiddish gives something like 17 definitions for nu. The tonal variations, although not marked, are lovely.

>> I've written a poem myself about how Adam, in some ways, was the first Golem. Nice to see that reference in here too. <<

How cool! Mainly I wanted to capture the flavor of self-deprecation that tolerant Jews are wont to use, that "What? I should act like I'm better than someone else?" angle. And they're so good at coming up with examples.
From: (Anonymous) Date: November 21st, 2014 12:39 pm (UTC) (Link)

So much more satisfying

than the dark and dreary original.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 21st, 2014 05:16 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: So much more satisfying

Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. There are few sequels in the Clay of Life series so far, listed on the Serial Poetry page.
From: rhodielady_47 Date: April 13th, 2017 02:52 am (UTC) (Link)
This is good--I've read the original folktale but this is a really good take-off on it.
It's rather a shame that no one ever seems to do anything with Jewish folklore--much of it is quite interesting.
:^}

ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 13th, 2017 03:00 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>> This is good--I've read the original folktale but this is a really good take-off on it.<<

I'm glad you enjoyed this.

>> It's rather a shame that no one ever seems to do anything with Jewish folklore--much of it is quite interesting. <<

Agreed. I've found a few literary examples but not many. More would be good. I hope you'll drop by to prompt some!
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