Elizabeth Metzger writes a taut, searing line. Compression isn’t the right word, because these are capacious poems, phrases that hold and open up worlds—of feeling, of experience, of memory mixed with a living moment. Efficient might be a more accurate description—or impeccable. Part of the intensity of the poetry is the stripping away of anything that might moderate or mediate the punch. The result is a kind of a sharp but philosophical rhetoric, lyrical as a knife, breaking from image to statement with breathtaking—and devastating—deftness. Metzger also has a gift for the oddity of simile: “Be honest,” she writes, “as water.” Water is a fitting figure for this poet’s work, both for its persistence and liquid beauty, but also its unremitting force. Water, also, because Metzger is a poet of grieving: Her first book, The Spirit Papers, became, at least in part, a powerful elegy for her friend the late poet Max Ritvo—“life-yoked,” is her description for their shared bond. They were “joined at the Daemon.” I say became because some of the poems predate her encounter with Ritvo, and all of them were written before he died, many as he was slipping away. His arrival in her life—and, eventually, in the manuscript—had a catalytic effect. Their friendship skipped straight to the long goodbye, which was, always, too short. Mortality confers urgency, and authority. And the intensity in Metzger’s work is also a function of the abiding influence of Emily Dickinson, the tautness of song, the alertness to an imagined eternity. But Metzger, who grew up in New York City and did graduate work in creative writing at Columbia with Lucie Brock-Broido, Timothy Donnelly, Dorothea Lasky, and Richard Howard, among others—lives now in Los Angeles, and her second full-length book, Lying In, is about the alienation of being stuck in bed, immobile, an exile in your own life, the place of rest or eros changed by a kind of stalling into hell. Not only by illness, but by what’s also ostensibly a blessing: Metzger writes out of, in the light of, two difficult pregnancies.
The wind parted me.
Wind from nowhere.
It did not get up
from its snoring carriage
or offer me a bottled
sense of the near future.
It did not cry
so much as moan
into the mouth of a
There goes my self
with invisible scissors …
There is blood in these pages, as if they were written to stop not only the hemorrhaging of the reeling body, but also the hemorrhaging of time and loss. And, you’ve probably noticed, these aren’t poems that track the poet’s autobiography in any exact way. They are almost surreal in their abstraction, and in the sheer gorgeous oddity of the metaphors drawn. You can hear some of Metzger’s stunning talents in, for instance, the opening lines of “The Witching Hour,” a poem that puts me in mind of an insomniac night, of being caught again in a bedridden bed. It’s also an ars poetica, an account of the poet’s poetry:
if I could say for sure
what I have loved
there would be
no tunnel needed
for any inner
or earthly transport.
there would appear
only the blinding clubs
of the sun
and when I thought
I would thank
a dead man
for my thoughts
through his navel
all my sweet unknowable
JESSE NATHAN: A number of your poems in Lying In use the couplet form. At the same time your line breaks are often jagged and leaping, a little like William Carlos Williams or Lucie Brock-Broido. Could you say a bit about how your poems find their way to their final forms? Partly I’m curious about how you would describe your relationship to the line, to where it breaks, and to how it breaks. These things seem connected to me—your use of the couplet, and the charged way you enjamb your lines—though maybe I’m wrong.
ELIZABETH METZGER: This is such a fascinating sequence of questions, because while form is essential to me, it is definitely the least conscious aspect of my writing process—or maybe it’s conscious, but the least rational. It never precedes the poem. Arising somewhere between beginning to write a poem and finishing it, form is a “middle” force for me, a medium or vehicle between an impulse and an effect. Form doesn’t usually come in one fell swoop either. It is more of a trial-and-error experience like shopping or finding religion. Transformative.
Though I hesitate to bring in the word intuition—it can shut down other forms of curiosity—form feels intuitive too. Intuition takes its root in perception, etymologically, an immediate spiritual consideration. So it sort of bypasses the brain, the way “taste” does. I am following a feeling when I break my lines. Not just how does this line look but how does it make me feel? As soon as I follow a feeling, I become interested in the little haloes and sparks around it, the dark tunnel alternative of traveling the same language another way (sometimes a contradictory way to amplify or escape the feeling). In mindful meditation, this might be referred to as the second arrow—you end up amplifying rather than accepting the pain. But for me lineation is another way of receiving these arrows. Sometimes it’s not extra suffering that the mind adds. Sometimes letting the mind change the initial experience leads to revelation.
Many of my best or most transformative life moments come from a disappointment being met with a surprise. A lack I did not know I had before it was filled. Rather than accepting the prose margin, my fear of mortality makes me a control freak. The ending will be up to me. Well, then, it will not be an ending at all. Imagine if death were an enjambment?
I think of lines mostly in relation to each other, rather than to the arbitrary page. The first line I write gives me a sense of my present, a confidence with which to face the uncertain future. I suppose it’s like a birth. After that, it’s all shock, living. To reach past the first line will be daring. To fall short may be defiance or deference. Maybe it will even be a movement into the past. More than punctuation, which can feel final, the internal space of a caesura has an emotional effect for me, an uncertainty that often feels more accurate to me than, say, a question mark. There is risk, vulnerability in leaving a gap. I think of Dickinson’s “To fill a Gap/ Insert the Thing that caused it—” Space is an invitation, sometimes a desperate beckoning, for another to understand. Isn’t that why we leave space between words in the first place, expecting another mind to connect our discrete elements?
The line is a little ledge of beats that the body takes on like an organ, whereas a line break on its own can be clever but useless, like an elbow without an arm. Maybe the line break is the place where the movement toward meaning breaks down (temporally, spatially, emotionally), but rather than leading to chaos or nonsense, the entropy of the voice converts meaning into meaningfulness. Lucie’s lines feel artifactual to me, full of time. She introduced me to Franz Wright’s lines, and I recognized my being. What looks messy at first glance is actually the urgent merging with the ephemeral. Liquid given edge. When silence feels incorporated in a poem I become a worshipper. What is silence in a poem but the force of listening—the poet’s but also the hoped-for eavesdropper? I recently came across this from Kierkegaard: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” The unsayable pushes back on sense via white space—do we ever really know what we mean?
The line is made for memory. When we first encounter poems as a child, it is often with the aim of memorizing, so I think of the line as the gift of music broken into the memorable chunk. Its meaning depends on its context, like a Greek oracle, which leads to tragedy when misinterpreted and leads to self-recognition with the unfolding of time. In the case of the poem, a line is this premonition and danger. I do not deliberately derange couplets, for instance, but revise what I think I mean in hopes that form will somehow hold that process of discovery. More than the made object, form is a sheet music for thinking, a time signature for breathing. To sync up a stranger’s thought and breath even for a second is form’s great love affair.
Frank Bidart speaks of fastening the voice to the page, which seems just right, though I can’t say I ever feel faith in my fastening. Have you ever followed footsteps in sand? Someone was here. The tracks of thoughts and feelings that were, just a moment ago, yours, are now, my self. Those tacky chalky valentine hearts, Be Mine, don’t cut it. Be my self with me. Take me with you. Form is not permanent. It is just what lasts long enough to be entered. Once the form is activated by a voice, the ember of imagination takes over. Each mind will move intuitively through the lines, make the poem its own.
My experience of being human is that there is very little difference between feeling whole, alive, integrated and feeling broken, empty, displaced. Similarly, the break of a line is also where the poem is stitched together. Just as I believe every relationship contains every other (that others are inevitably metaphors, meaning selves are), I think form is multifarious and moving. It is never one thing. It is not the container. It cannot reflect the content. It is the process, the processing of experience, which is the only thing experience ever is. Form is the way the page enacts that life.
In Lying In, experiences I thought would be singular (becoming a mother) became doubled. My pregnancies bled into each other. Relationships that involved twinning were lost, and those griefs became twinned. In the last poem of Lying In, “Desire,” I see how couplets take precedence, as it is a poem about reconnecting romantically after the children are asleep. Moving away from the margin, I think, performs the impossible chase of desire. It makes sense to me, from this side of the writing process, that the poem ends with a complete couplet, and also that this couplet is a broken sentence floating mid-page.
I think your questions have brought me to realize that the charge of an enjambment is often in response to the structure of the couplet. There is an urge to complete a thought, to create a connection, a union or harmony, but there is also the effort to rebuke that, to expose inadequacy or overwhelm. We think of repetition as confirming something, but it is also an undoing. This speaks to the push-pull of my mind, which may be why I write poetry in the first place. I want order, I want intimacy, and I want to be left alone, to be free from expectations. There is a fear that nothing will last (of course) but for me it’s as strongly the knowledge that my own feeling toward something won’t last that is both comfort and dread.
It is terrifying—as one who feels love strongly and wants more—to change your mind. Doubt may be the number one reason a line ends for me. In poetry, instead of being fickle, breaking a line allows my mind to swerve or reconsider. I often need to consider every possibility of something, a feeling and its opposite, a circumstance and the fantasy of undoing it. It is through these negations and the dance of moving my mind around every possible access point of a problem that I feel I can accept the moment of the problem, even if I cannot solve it. The line break is not just a vertical drop or a horizontal gap—it adds dimension. I think of Dickinson’s plunging down into other worlds. When you define and shift your own margins, changing your mind is no longer a disruption but a deepening.
When what looks imperfect also looks balanced to me, I trust it. The unevenness of form speaks to the humility of being human. What is vulnerability, what is an injury or wound, but something either missing or extra: a scab, a bump, a lump, a bruise, a cut, a fracture? The poem is as awkward as a body in this way, but the ghost of what it should be is often suggested. In the midst of longing (grief and desire) there is the shadow of the culprit. Formally, for me, this is the couplet. It cannot be lived up to, but I cannot live without it. Healing may just mean tolerating that contradiction. The lyric is so often thought of as inward, of the self, but I think it is always of two minds, or more. Maybe my jagged wannabe couplet poems are literally a form of survival.