The fundamental operation of Elizabeth Metzger’s new short poetry collection Bed is a careful reduction: the mortar of her true life experience shines as a thing somewhat negated or at any rate sublimated and newly preserved as a partial element in this ripe synthesis, which seems to also subversively toy with the idea of poetic kitsch. This redirected living essence survives … and perhaps prospers even, as verse (as opposed to speech, prose, et cetera) more than it might in other contexts … say, in an essay, theatrical narrative play or a film … but in an abridged edition torn out of its original life-world context, stripped down to its prime features, materializing all the movement and wealth of this author’s life as it is reduced to fixed marks: the sequence of the poems. But it is not only that … because usually the kind of cheap abstraction of poetic kitsch does its mortifying job with its fixed categories or notional determinations, always grasping for the straws of speculative sentimental universality and somehow preventing us from truly experiencing the actual fresh greenness of our own lives, never mind poetic innovation. Bed however has more teeth, performing a kind of bait and switch as it dispenses with such broad categories of affect in favor of this astonishing power of tearing apart and then putting back together again, like rearranging your bedsheets into proper order each day, if you like.
It is as if after the alternating chaos and serenity of a vast sleep or dream, floating to the surface we see myriad insights throughout these pages regarding subjects like sex, pregnancy/motherhood, and birth:
[…] One of us
loved the other like
an instrument that
would not ever again
though it was perfectly
strung and oiled.
Mother love came up
and of course children
but what about their
scrotums and egg sacs.
Could we already adore
those in extremis?
There is ultimately a certain radical honesty Metzger shares about “the shock of her children’s existence” as she dubs it in the books’ afterward. The figure of the parent as a god-by-default in the child’s eyes would seem pale by comparison with the vast restlessness of a child’s curiosity, how unlike adults they are, able always to “freely [ask] for more world” as Metzger puts it. A profound question this book asks then is … who, if anyone, can really be mother enough to such a natural phenomenon? “The baby I was / would come back,” Metzger elaborates in the poem ‘First Wound Kept Open’: “That’s what it means to be loveable, / to give oneself whole / again whole birth”. By starting with these real-life subjects merely as a point of departure, Bed is able to cast off the sexist, academic yoke of the label of “confessionalism” (kitsch) as Metzger’s formalism is very precise, unhistrionic … escaping this paradigm of others constantly outlining the horizon of what is expected of poets, women, mothers. By way of sheer craft this is accomplished, while written allegories for the creative act of writing poetry itself also appear, and Metzger isn’t afraid to brag about her feelings of mastery: “One singular horn / will turn your face purple. // A leaf blower may take your breath away. // But the boat here is always / and human. It floats on nothing.”
Critic and poet Daniel Tiffany writing for the Poetry Foundation entertained a certain definition of poetic kitsch borrowing terms from the philosopher Walter Benjamin: that it is in fact a “degraded Romanticism” in response to the our modernity’s seemingly endless minting of soulless mass-produced objects. “The verbal integrity and mass appeal of popular poetry is grounded in the function of representation,” Tiffany writes. A kind of language of pure artifice spitballing over time, dubiously aesthete, traveling further and faster away from real lived experience in favor of a kind of phony paradise notion similar to Christian notions of heaven, or a literary agnostic Parnassus, an artificial world of refinement and empty sophistication. Other critics have applied the label “School of Quietude” to identify the same thing. There is little overtly “poetic” diction in Bed that would seem alien to everyday speech, which is another hallmark (no pun intended) of poetic kitsch. Metzger’s vocabulary is one of simple elements in complex relationships … these are the refrains of everyday, sometimes domestic wondering, how can a women ever be mother enough, how can anyone ever be born again into an improved understanding, a higher caliber of compassion, maybe, as the exigencies of life might require it.
The “I” of the parent is also that of the author. The “I” is in two, or three rooms at the same time, as the author goes to bed after putting their kids to bed. A part of them, the author/speaker is always in the other room, in the other person. It is present at all times yet paradoxically invisible to itself, it is the possibility of so many futures and an irrefutable memory of a sordid past. “I have no twins left,” Metzger writes. “The reflection of my room in the window is so convincing // it goes on, / the placement of furniture identical / & appreciated & I’m not visible looking out.”
The poet’s essential argument may be that language is constantly being degraded … we do not really ever know what words like heart, blood, sex, love, death or earth mean to us (words that every student of poetry at some point has probably been told by a teacher never to use in their poems) it is only in the poem that these words actually become more than just fodder for cliché; they are meaningfully inflected if nothing else by the author’s experience, which has been honed in a way only possible in verse, attenuated and sparing in a way unlike prose. Poets do all the hard work themselves while so many others are not willing to go there. The derisive response that certain poets may have towards a style within their overall genre that is to them kitsch is similar to the reaction that the majority of people who don’t like poetry have towards poetry in general. For them it is all kitsch.
Metzger’s writing tows the line between these extremes: the almost documentary-style poem, let’s say, and a poem that is more opaque and “about nothing” so far as it resists the function of representation. The work of Bed is bracketed by some biographical details that are explained at the end; it was written during a period of extended bed rest. It also subtly memorializes real-life figures from the contemporary poetry world, tells a story of the domestic life of a particular family, of a particular person’s history, and their ongoing present of interpersonal relationships. Bed has an exquisite, almost hard-edged lyrical quality, corralled within a certain set of rich, timeless metaphors, settings, and landscapes … the home, motherhood and its extensions, the hospital, the museum, hunger/thirst, subjectivity as the trial of desire versus need, or how the latter masquerades as the former so often.
In the 1960s, many professional theorists of childhood education began conducting the same experiment: asking groups of five-year-olds to draw portraits of themselves playing at home without any more instruction or guidelines. Only two years later they asked the same group to do it again, after they had been through a year and a half of elementary school. The difference was remarkable: the self-portraits done when they were five seemed more vivacious, colorful, even almost surreal at times in a innocently playful way. The seven-year-olds’ portraits were much more rigid and subdued, with most of the children deciding suddenly to stick with only the ordinary grey of the common No. 2 pencil, while many colors still remained at their disposal. The cliché interpretation of this, of course, was that it demonstrated the oppressiveness of the school system. But perhaps on the contrary such shifts should be celebrated. Nothing is lost in this reduction, in fact, everything is gained: it is a fine definition of the poet’s craft, a fresh sense of design and economy, a progress out from the raw green immediacy (and often pain) of life, the incoherence of our “acting born” as Metzger terms it … as if to say a word, like a color or a pencil … any word, even just one, is a terrible thing to waste.
Bed, by Elizabeth Metzger. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, November 2021. 42 pages. $15.95, paper.
Ben Tripp’s writing appears in Eratio, Full Stop, Hyperallergic, BOMB, and Brooklyn Rail. He also blogs at benjamintripp.wordpress.com.