I have known the poet Elizabeth Metzger since kindergarten—and ever since I have known her, she has been a poet. When we played the The Game of Life, a board game, she wrote small lyrics about the futures we ended the game with; when I had a crush, she wrote light verse about the boys I swooned over; when I was reading Redwall and Lord of the Rings, she was reading Emily Dickinson.
In third grade, our favorite game was the Twin Game: I was Rose, she was Lily, and the entire game consisted of us pretending to be identical twins—and not just any identical twins, but the inseparable, same-thought-at-the-same-time, mind-melded, scientific-study kind of identical twins. At the heart of this game was a shared longing for an impossibly close connection, one that could somehow transcend the physical boundaries that ground us all, one that meant we were not alone.
This longing to bridge the gap between self and other—whether that other is friend, lover, imagined child, or mother—is at the core of Elizabeth’s debut collection The Spirit Papers. “I want to be massive enough / to withstand all the birds, and lazy / enough to move part of me repeatedly / and still be seen as a whole / that restores you. Both of us,” she writes, expressing a desire to be both part and whole, I and you, me and us. This is a magical, playful collection, obsessed with love and with what happens to that love when its object changes, or is changed.
Metzger is the Poetry Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal. Her poetry has recently appeared in The New Yorker, BOMB, Yale Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Best New Poets 2015. Her chapbook, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, was published by Horsethief Books in April 2017.
Elizabeth and I spoke over email, rushing to finish the interview before the birth of her son.
The Rumpus: Much of this book was written in the shadow of the imminent death of your friend, the poet Max Ritvo, of cancer at age twenty-five. I’m curious about your relationship during this period—did he read many of those poems? Was he aware of his role as your muse (or “daemon”) and subject? When did the book begin to take shape as an extended elegy of sorts?
Elizabeth Metzger: I met Max during Dorothea Lasky’s colorful and ecstatic workshop at Columbia. Max wasted no time opening up to me about his work, his life, his illness, all while probing my fears and conjuring my laughter. Very early on, he brought the word “daemon” into our friendship. However, while I do think of many poems in the book as for and of and with Max, I do not really think of Max as my muse. I think the daemon is more within.
I also don’t see the book as elegiac (though now it of course can be read that way because Max has in fact died). I think the poems are more about empathy for someone radically present than elegy for someone already lost. Ultimately, I see the poems as intimations of an impossible togetherness.
As for composition—Max not only read all my poems in The Spirit Papers as they were composed—he also critiqued and edited most (as I did his Four Reincarnations). We were both governed by poetry, subject to it, and while the process was liberating for us in different ways, I don’t think it was one of control or authority or even comfort. Whether for Max, my mother, or my unborn child, the poems in The Spirit Papers are rituals to ward off the inevitable—death—no matter the I, no matter the you. Occasionally, Max would say this poem’s not about me, it’s about your baby. This poem isn’t about you, it’s about me. The grief of the poems, maybe the fantasy of it, is that it feels to me mutual—we could long for our most mortal selves in each other.
Rumpus: It is a book of other losses as well—miscarriages, anticipated and (perhaps) actual, the loss of the speaker’s brother who “drove away to join the normal,” the anticipated death of the mother. Did the loss of Ritvo radiate outward to “infect” the rest of your work?
Metzger: Oh, the idea of infection is interesting—I don’t think it so much has to do with my relationship with Max, but rather with the fact that my fear of death, loss, loneliness is obsessive and contagious and completely tied up with the ways I love—inclusively and associatively. At the end of my poem “For the Ninth Miscarried Sibling,” the single miscarried fetus between my brother and my birth curses me: everything you love you will infect.
For instance, as conceiving a baby became more and more real for my husband and me, and as Max simultaneously became more and more ill, the odd timing probably opened the channels between the unborn and the dying for me, the force of what may never become (my future child) and what will inevitably be taken away (Max). There is also a kind of contagion between my unborn child and my poems about my childhood and family—will I be the mother of someone I can’t understand, a mystery I can’t harness, a dangerous force that, by not being (miscarriage) or being (birth), will abandon me and become a stranger?
I guess all the poems struggle as much with loss as with the terror that even the most intimate other remains at a distance. Through empathy, through imagining the other’s experience, one gains intimacy, yes, but also a kind of vantage point onto the self that is disconcerting, dark, and often utterly freeing. The more one knows another, the more curiosity is piqued, the more unknown is born—and this mirage is the engine, the abyss (and bridge) of every kind of relationship. It’s a perfect uncertainty, an emotional petri dish and a linguistic one. What can we do but babble and hope for echoes and sense, communication and communion? I’d call that poetry.
Rumpus: In keeping with the elegiac mood, many of these poems are written out of a negation that is evident in titles like “Not Spring,” “Via Negativa,” and “Delete the Bird,” as much as in individual lines and moments of language—there’s the un-begun, the not born, the zero. And yet there’s a paradox here—for out of negation a poem is born, like the “[b]ody that appears only by [the] / body’s disappearance.” Can you speak to this? What does it mean if death and “not spring” are also generative forces?
Metzger: I love this question. It’s a really good point and something I discovered as I was writing. I’ve talked about fear and love, elegy vs. anticipatory grief, intimacy and distance, but perhaps the biggest paradox of the work is the one between creation and destruction. I always think of Iago’s famous “I am not what I am,” and though in his mouth it’s ominous, it’s also vulnerable and true. We can only define ourselves by what we are not. Language invites its opposite. It is approximate. It is not quite what we mean. This is the blessing of the figurative, of metaphor, and I think it’s also the curse of the anxious mind: What if this happens? What if this does not happen? Kafka has a great entry in his Blue Octavo Notebooks: Dread of Night. Dread of Not-Night. After every possibility is exhausted, after every poem, there is the reality, the fact that the infinitude of what might happen is not what has happened and maybe something that can never in reality happen.
Poetry, like life, is all about finding and illuminating the gaps. In a way there is great potential energy in that which is not. The unborn are astonishing—who are they, where do they come from, what are they yet to be? The idea behind the book’s final poem “Not Spring” is to allow a kind of omniscient time, a time that is both of death and eternally outside of the constraints and measurements of seasons. Maybe what is not, what does not exist (yet or ever) is the truest kind of metaphor—the spirit—of what is.
Rumpus: In your conversation with Ritvo in the Boston Review, you talk about “an intuitive empathy between people, a beyond-language brain-bond.” It reminded me of a moment in your poem “Postmortem Fairytale” when you write, “To think in language without / the chance to speak is / the closest I’ve come to understanding.” Where can you situate the poem in relation to the place “beyond-language”?
Metzger: “Postmortem Fairytale” is very much an exploration of a life beyond death, or maybe by beyond I mean without, a realm of passivity and pure sensory perception. The idea that consciousness moves through language or that its medium is language, but there is no physical mouth (no physical sense organs just pure sense) is what I fantasize about. Language becomes the sound of sense itself, both consciousness and the thing it makes: meaning.
In my talk with Max, the beyond-language brain bond is a space of understanding each other intuitively, whether language is there or not. It’s a kind of a together/collective consciousness, communion rather than communication. 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. Using language to get beyond language is my favorite use of language. By expressing a thought or feeling as it emerges, the act of expression itself becomes inextricable from thinking. The more intimately linked thought-feelings are with language, the more paradoxically incapable language seems.
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 it.
Rumpus: You write with a light, playful surrealism (for instance “I opened the door and found a miniature zebra / on my doorstep.”) What is your relationship to the surrealists?
Metzger: I don’t have a special relationship with the surrealism movement, but I do like to play—and scale shifts are one of my favorite oddities because they seem so much truer to our perception, our way of seeing and finding significance in life, the way memories and details expand and contract as we live. The way the past can continue to change us once it’s over. We don’t see things proportionately—our brains fill in what’s missing, change colors of objects, imagine angles we can’t access. This is how knowledge is formed. We learn to fill things in.
The mind in terror and in love is very playful. Extreme emotion breaks down boundaries of perception—we zoom in obsessively and pan out dramatically. Our speeds change (breathing, living). I don’t think play needs to have a purpose. The point is it inherently does. We are playful beings. Max thought being dead was funny in many ways. Being alive of course is equally absurd. Like a coincidental encounter (in outer space) what is ridiculous is often what is true. Imagining what cannot happen at a moment of intensity or complexity can help us better understand the meaning of what has happened.
Rumpus: Your poems often address the much-maligned “you.” I remember a poet-who-will-not-be-named telling me to stop using the “you,” and even the “I” during my early days as an undergraduate poet. I learned later this is advice many young poets receive. I’d love to hear your thoughts on—and perhaps defense of—the poetic thou.
Metzger: While this makes sense for some forms and modes such as haiku, the generalized advice is baffling to me—to me a poem is an exchange between a reader and writer, a moment of ever-evolving intimacy and strangeness, because of the I and the thou. Anyone can fill in either. I think of Keats’ late fragment “This Living Hand” in which the hand on one side of the grave offers a blood—no, a life—transfusion to the hand on the other side. Whether the you is an elegized other, the self in another state, a god, or a random future reader is irrelevant—the poem is the hand, the written transfusion of conscience and consciousness from one subject to another.
Rumpus: Your book is divided into six sections—a lot for a volume of poems! I’m curious to hear how you saw the sections working together, and how you constructed the book.
Metzger: I hoped order would be a process of complicating the I/you relationship while clarifying it. In the end though I maintain that each poem is like a spirit paper—wishes that must be written and set aflame in order to make them true, created to be destroyed to be created and therefore independent of each other. I thought if these poems are all wishes, or fears (the dark wrapper of wishes), maybe I can make clusters of obsessions within them.
The relationships at stake seemed to be my family/childhood, Max/our friendship, and the potential miscarriage/my future child. Each “category” was haunted by my primary spirits, the essences of others that existed only as they could be imagined and embodied by me. I found the speakers likewise emerging and evolving through them. This process was almost tarot-like. I ended up moving poems around so that it wasn’t a grossly categorical structure. Eventually I didn’t have much control—an individual poem would beg to be next to another in spite of its “category.” How could I be writing about my childhood without writing about my child, Max’s spiritual brotherhood without reminding me of my brother’s departure, and so on?
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Metzger: Now, just before my son is born, I find my writing evolving, becoming a bit more expansive, meditative. Hope is now wrestling with terror and hope seems to bring a breathlessness that interests me as it mingles with the familiar concision of terror. I have also been working on my chapbook due out this April with Horsethief Books, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of poems that respond to the meticulous forensic dioramas built by Chicago heiress Frances Glessner Lee during the 30s and 40s.
Author photograph © PhotoOp.