Berthing Place: A Review of Bed by Elizabeth Metzger

The book cover is a pale gray. Three black horizontal lines stretch across the top third and fourth line just up from the bottom. Black silhouettes of birds, perhaps crows, perch upside down on the lines as if they were telephone wires. The title is printed in black, sans serif capital letters on the top horitzontal line to the right of the page. The author’s name in the same format on the bottom line.

Bed by Elizabeth Metzger

Tupelo Press, 2021

42 pages, $15.95

Review by Jamie O’Halloran

There are mornings when I open the shutters at our bedroom window and the sky revealed could be dawn or dusk. Light is present, but without a visible source. It is a milky grey that doesn’t tell me when or where I am. The poems in Elizabeth Metzger’s chapbook Bed inhabit that light. 

Metzger’s first collection, The Spirit Papers, was awarded the Juniper Prize and was published in 2017 by University of Massachusetts Press the same year as her first chapbook, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (Horsethief Books). Milkweed Editions brought out Lying In, her second collection in April 2023. Metzger lives in Los Angeles where she teaches and is poetry editor at Los Angeles Review of Books. 

The poems in Bed belong to each other. These are 21 slender poems of mostly two and three line stanzas. Mark Bibbins selected it as winner of The Tupelo Press 2021 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize. In the Acknowledgements at the back of the book, the poet explains the circumstances that brought forth these spare poems—prolonged bed rest during, between and after two pregnancies. The epigraph from Kafka, “Dread of night. Dread of not-night,” elicits the limbo of Bed.

These are naked poems. Their images rely on verbs and nouns with little ornamentation. Their existential quality and intimate angst are the speaker’s thoughts, memories and desires laid bare. In “Say Nothing”, the phrase ‘The floor is fluttering with tongues’ walks the tightrope between sexual desire and religious fervor in raising the image of pentecostal tongues of flame. Both images arise from a ‘fluttering floor’ where the alliteration stresses the strange sensation of feeling unanchored on what one expects to be stable.

These intimate poems address the speaker’s children and partner. After several readings, their private language becomes expansive. The bedcovers begin to lift. 

Metzger’s lineation functions like a lathe, a turning spindle, pulling the reader through the poems. Her enjambment startles with the unexpected , as in “The Impossibility of Crows”: “Your death has just begun but it is not/spoken of, it speaks/in odd weathers like a second first love ”. The first line is close to a contradiction; the death is not begun? As we turn the corner into the second line, the meaning is that the death that is not spoken of although the line insists otherwise, as if the death itself speaks.

Bed veers into surrealism, as in these lines from “With Wayward Motion”: 

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.

Is the wind from nowhere combing the speaker’s hair? Or in her borderless travel between wakefulness and sleep, do hands that care for her feel like the wind with their gentle brushing? Is the speaker thinking of Dickinson who could not stop for death? Is Death sleeping in the carriage? Does “snoring carriage” mean a vehicle or manner of carrying? Is the wind the breath, not of life, but death? This is just one example of how ambiguity undergirds the mystery of these poems. 

In  “Won Exit,” the punning title of the opening poem, the speaker addresses a door:

Brave mahogany door, you be my fortune.
Teach me to understand the jungle cry
in your grain, the suffering circles

by which your tree wisdom is known.

The door is not a static portal, a pathway, but a vessel of life with “jungle cry” in its grain. The speaker seeks a lesson from the door, a way out beyond physical escape from her bed. 

The speaker’s addressee shifts throughout the book from child to partner to the speaker as child. Perhaps this lack of clarity is an expression of “the language of me” introduced later in the poem:

I am going through the language of me now.

I am flipping open the dictionary myself
with my tongue, as if that were possible,
to find your first word.

Without an immediately recognizable surface narrative, the poems are difficult to understand without knowing the circumstances out of which they arose. Yet in their uncertainty, they exude exactitude. It’s not a nether world, but a weather and whether world in whose stillness the mind is ever active. Fuzziness in meaning (that milky gray light) is overshadowed by Metzger’s art. Her short lines are skillful and beautifully taut, as in “First Wound Kept Open”:

The thought
of all the grass

blown over to one side
hurts me. That wind

can do that. I must have
gotten to him first

though he pushed out against
the little pouch in me

I now call soulless.

As intimate as this collection is, larger notions of relationship, gender, and mothering enlarge its sweep. The poet reveals a self that in its particularity becomes larger than the speaker’s I. In opening up, Metzger welcomes readers to identify with deeply personal yet somehow universal states of consciousness that are expressed with striking exactitude.

The closing poem, “On a Clear Night”, opens with 

I have broken our heart again. I have made the animal
noise the animal, you know I make up
what I don’t know. I used to think that was resilience.

Bed, buffeted by physical, mental and emotional turmoil, proves buoyant. It is a safe harbor.

Jamie O'Halloran, a grey-haired woman, looks out to sea from a lichen-covered, rocky shore. Her hair is the colour of the sea. Her scarf is the colour of the lichen.

Jamie O’Halloran’s Corona Connemara & Half a Crown, was a winner in the 2021 Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. Her poems appear recently in Poetry Ireland Review, 14 Magazine, The Night Heron Barks, Crannóg, Southword, One Hand Clapping, and in the Dedalus Press anthologies Romance Options and Local Wonders. Her poetry reviews can be found in The Laurel Review, LitPub, and The Tupelo Quarterly. She lives above a river in the West of Ireland.