The first sound I heard emerging from the pages of Elizabeth Metzger’s prize-winning collection, Bed, was a cry of existential angst. Hers is a cry that sees and understands, and yet keeps asking, ‘Why?’
Existentialist thinkers rely on each individual’s personal thoughts, feelings and actions to explore the purpose and value of human existence. Many take a feeling of dread as the starting point for their explorations. From the very beginning, Metzger makes clear that dread is her own starting point. She does this by introducing her collection with an epigraph from Kafka – a major existentialist writer of the early 20th century who elevated what he perceived as the powerlessness, absurdity and angst of the human condition to high literary art. Dread of night. Dread of not-night (The Blue Octova Notebooks, 1917-1919). This homage to Kafka’s work made me wonder whether Metzger considers herself an existentialist poet.
An obsession with dread is certainly an acknowledged presence in all of her work. In Bed, a basso continuo of dreads – of separateness, of violence, of loss, of inadequacy, of death – runs through the entire collection of twenty-one poems. She does not show us these dreads explicitly. Instead, she hints at them through evocative words and phrases that drift casually in and out of the larger narrative flow of each poem.
In the first few lines of the first poem, she opens with that most fundamental of dreads – the dread of suffering. Standing before an imaginary door, she knows she could avoid that suffering by simply grasping the handle and walking out. But she prefers life. How to cope? Brave mahogany door, she says, you be my fortune. Teach me to understand the jungle cry in your grain, the suffering circles by which your tree wisdom is known.
In subsequent poems she evokes dreads and fears of a more ordinary kind – fear of being inadequate and unlovable, dread of the impending loss of a terminally ill friend, fear of the latent violence that lurks on a crowded bus, dread of the inevitable separation from the unborn child once it exits the womb, fear that conjugal love may wither after having become a Mother.
By the end of the book, however, it has become obvious that the subject of the collection is not dread itself. It is the mystery that lies beyond dread. As Metzger takes us through the different stages of her personal experience of becoming a woman and a mother, she presents her dreads aa fearful, yes, but also as objects of curiosity, bringing them into the light so that she, and we, can examine them more closely. What is loss, really? what is disappearance? what is death? Aren’t these all just transitions? Why be afraid?
The ‘bed’ referred to in the one-word title of the book does not appear in any of the poems. Only when we reach the acknowledgements do we discover that this bed is a real physical object in a specific physical space. It is where the poet was confined during forced bed rest while pregnant, and is the locus of much of the creative output included in the book. Explains Metzger,
The poems in Bed were written before, during, between, and after two bedridden pregnancies, for my children and in memory of the poets Max Ritvo and Lucie Brock-Broido, two great spirits who continually bring me back to life even from their afterlife. My best company during bed rest.
From this passage we also learn that Elizabeth Metzger belongs to a community of poets who all studied with Lucie Brock-Broido (1956-2018) and look to her as their muse and mentor. The Poetry Foundation profile of Brock-Broido states that her collections often explore obsessions and anxieties ... and use whatever is available to create vivid, sometimes disorienting, portraits of mind. In Bed, Metzger does something very similar. Like Jung, she is fascinated by the interiority of her mind, of the world that exists there, beyond reach of the spoken word.
In the email interview she gave to her childhood friend, Emma Winsor Wood, just before the birth of her first-born, a son, in 2017, Metzger speaks at some length about this fascination.
Using language to get beyond language is my favorite use of language. ... Language, because of its inevitable shortcomings, approaches, like an asymptote, the infinite and unknowable. Poems are all about this beyond-language—I’d love the poem to be just the buzz of language that creates sense, meaning and the pulse of consciousness, open enough for another to enter it, wear it, run wildly beyond.
You want to know what I actually love? she asks in the 13th poem. It’s the mind I don’t have access to. And in the 21st poem she imagines a conversation with her husband in which she says: No matter how much I tell you, there is as much I cannot tell you. This inability is not due to reticence, it is because that which cannot be told is beyond language.
Some ‘beyond-language’ poets refer to themselves explicitly as existentialists. Metzger does not appear to do so, and I suspect this is intentional. Kafka’s influence, as transmitted through Brock-Broido, has certainly left its mark. However, her core interest is not the nature and meaning of human existence in its materiality. It is the way in which language can be used to commune with beings and access truths in the realm we inhabit after death and before birth.
What compels her to write, and draws her to poetry, is the possibility that, in that realm, consciousness continues to move through language, but without reliance on the spoken word because there is no physical mouth. Instead, the meaning of what is being communicated must be intuited or sensed. She believes that, through ‘beyond-language’ poetry, we gain access to a kind of collective consciousness in which communion rather than communication is the goal. It’s not just satisfying because the deepest form of understanding is beyond verbal, but also because it’s the deepest way of being understood, she tells her friend, Winsor Wood.
The poems in Bed are relatively long. Most take up at least two pages. This gives them a feeling of weight, of seriousness, of something important waiting to be discovered. Yet the words themselves, the lines, the stanzas, are all short, creating a dreamlike effect which is maintained throughout the collection. Metzger’s superb wordcraft is not at all lugubrious. Instead, it is spirited, playful, and gentle of heart. And it is musical, above all, musical. There is intention behind the lyricism of her work, as it is through its sonority that she achieves the ‘beyond-language’ effect. But, perhaps even more importantly, her lyricism is also inspired. She can do no other. In the 8th poem – The God Incentive – she tells us why. Something other than science, she says, is pressing down on my night watch saying sing here instead of signing off this hour.
Not only does the ‘Bed’ referred to in the collection’s title not appear in the poems, it also does not appear on the book’s cover. Instead, what we see are strings of telephone wires with a bevy of black birds clinging fragilely to the underside of the wires, backs to the earth, looking up to the sky. One or two float freely, in the same position, with a miniature female figure surfing the air on one of the upside-down wings. This is an inspired illustration, capturing both the floating, feathery quality of the writing and the poet’s unusual perspective as she views her surroundings looking up while lying flat on her back in the bed.
The cover also references the 11th poem – The Impossibility of Crows – whose title is a phrase borrowed from Kafka’s The Zurau Aphorisims. In the concluding lines of this poem the poet, speaking of her wish not be separated from her dear friend Max Ritvo after his death, says:
Today I will stay for
just the last adoring avalanche of you
as if my life had wound itself up
and let go with yours
a made metal crow
choosing its cracktime
tiptoeing off your branch of the world.
Bed is a beautiful memoir of self-discovery. In Metzger’s skillful hands, it becomes a magical ‘how-to’ book, an enchanting do-it-yourself manual. Its many unexpected turns and twists and mesmerizing language draw you in. Once there, the poet invites you to hang upside down from a nearby branch, look up to the sky, and enter the world beyond language that lies within.
- Emma Winsor Wood, The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #85: Elizabeth Metzger (an email interview conducted by Metzger’s childhood friend just before the birth of Metzger’s son, when risk of miscarriage had probably passed). May 25th, 2017. https://therumpus.net/2017/05/the-rumpus-mini-interview-project-85-elizabeth-metzger/
- Stephanie Burt. To the Future Readers of Lucie Brock-Broido. The Paris Review, March 18, 2018. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/03/08/future-readers-lucie-brock-broido/
- Morbidity & the Miniature, an Essay by Elizabeth Metzger. Guernica. May 11, 2018. https://www.guernicamag.com/morbidity-the-miniature/
- On Max Ritvo’s Final Voicemails: An Interview with Elizabeth Metzger by Frontier Poetry. September 18, 2018. https://www.frontierpoetry.com/2018/09/18/elizabeth-metzger-interview/
- Existentialism. 2021, October 22. In Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism