Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Lying In

by Elizabeth Metzger
(Milkweed Editions, 2023) 

Reviewed by Katherine Indermaur

Elizabeth Metzger’s second poetry collection shows us what it looks like when new life starts with the threat of death. Lying In sparks with vulnerability. It pierces through the rose-colored glasses our culture so often slips over our faces when we talk about motherhood. Lying In is an especially important book in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s ruling last year that abortion is no longer a right guaranteed for all Americans.

The titular phrase “lying in” refers to several periods of time around childbirth, from physician-ordered bed rest before the birth to the forty-day period after giving birth where, in many indigenous cultures around the world, new mothers are encouraged to recover by staying mostly in bed. As Lying In opens, Metzger begins with the former experience. While on bed rest, she writes about her son in utero: “In bed what time has done to me is / what it cannot do / to him.” She stays immobile for as much time as her son needs to develop and become ready for the world. The cruel math of parental sacrifice begins. The opening poem moves quickly through labor and birth to milk coming in. In the aftermath, “in some ways I am gone,” Metzger writes. The new life—both the baby’s and the mother’s—subsumes the old.

Perhaps surprising to readers who haven’t experienced postpartum mental health challenges, having a baby doesn’t guarantee the new parent a reason to stay alive. Those hazy and all-consuming first few months often raise more difficult questions than they answer. In “First Wound Kept Open,” Metzger asks:

Of everyone I’ve met 
on earth I always find
they got here first
and will they teach
me their good
reason for staying?

Yet in “Patient Mentality,” the speaker’s medicalized body seems built for persistence: “the voluntary nature of staying alive seemed / obvious / against the red ladder of my body.”

The pregnant, postpartum, or nursing body are a miraculous site not just of creation, but of constant threat and mystery. There is a black box quality to being pregnant. The womb isn’t even that safe or welcoming of a place for new life. In a 2021 episode of the public radio podcast Radiolab, reporter Heather Radke described pregnancy as “a cage match” wherein “on one side is the pregnant person, and on the other side is the fetus. And… in the corner, rubbing the shoulders of the fetus, is the placenta.” For Metzger’s speaker, the memory of that cage match lives on into the new child’s healthy life outside the womb. In “Not My Child,” she writes, “I wish / I could tell why my body appalls me // even though you have thrived. / Nobody died / but that’s just the luck of it.” Luck, black box—the illusion of control over one’s body is stripped away by pregnancy, and it is never fully restored.

Similarly, parenthood is no great force of certainty—no final, true answer. In Metzger’s and my experience, it opens you up to more ambiguity than you knew was possible. “The edges of your death are smudged and round / like ash or a watch / whose accuracy is the least of its worth,” she writes in “The Impossibility of Crows.” New life colored by death. And whether anyone actually died—death’s “accuracy”—is relatively unimportant to these poems’ speaker. Instead, this book upholds a different yet deeply honest kind of worth.

While reading Lying In, I kept thinking about Annie Lowrey’s 2022 Atlantic essay, “American Motherhood,” where she reflects on her two life-threatening pregnancies. In America, “one in five pregnant people experiences a significant complication. And one in 4,000 dies during pregnancy, in childbirth, or shortly after delivering, including one in 1,800 Black mothers,” she writes. Lowrey’s pregnancies left her “disabled, a word I am still struggling to come to terms with. They put my life at significant risk.” In other words, life-threatening and -altering experiences with pregnancy like Lowrey’s and Metzger’s are not uncommon in America. 

In perhaps my favorite poem of the book, “Mother Nothing,” mother speaks to child:

You made the water you broke.
You made me sicker than I could stand
to live a little longer.
For every night there is another night I’ve missed. 
Maybe it is my ambivalence
about being outlasted.
Whenever you are in your crib
my life feels final, or like it has never been.

But this isn’t the last word on the subtractive math new motherhood performs on our lives. There is, somehow, abundance. In one of my favorite images of the book, the speaker of the poem “Desire” says to her partner, after putting their children to bed, “What could you possibly do for my body / when I am in two // separate rooms, / breathing?”

Katherine Indermaur is the author of I|I (Seneca Review Books, 2022) and two chapbooks. She is an editor for Sugar House Review and the recipient of prizes from Black Warrior Review, the Academy of American Poets, and Colorado Humanities. Her writing has appeared in Ecotone, Electric Literature, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, and elsewhere. She lives in Fort Collins, CO.

No comments:

Post a Comment