I hadn’t heard of Deena Metzger until this interview arrived. It’s a measure of her words, her work, and her life that she’s been so talked about around here since then. One staff member said he was going to order a dozen of her books, to give as gifts. I think that’s because Deena Metzger has ventured deep into pain’s cave, and has come back out with gifts for us all.
A 45-year-old poet and teacher of writing from Topanga, California, she has developed a workshop called “Healing Stories,” in which she works with people who have life-threatening diseases by focusing on their own life stories and on myth and fairytales.
This is also how she’s tried to cure herself.
In 1981, she came out with two books — The Woman Who Slept With Men To Take The War Out Of Them, a novel about love’s redemptive power, and Tree, which documents her own struggle with breast cancer and the darkness in her own psyche.
She also put out a remarkable poster — of her nude torso with an elaborate tattoo where her right breast once was. It’s her way of saying that “our scars from the battles we fight are not shameful.”
Elizabeth Good, the California-based freelance writer who did the interview, writes that Deena Metzger is currently working “on a play about torture ‘and how one says no to it.’ In addition, she continues her work as a writing therapist — including Healing Stories, workshops on dreams and nightmares, workshops on specific myths, and journal workshops.”
Her other books include The Book Of Hags, published on cassette by Black Box, Washington, D.C.; Dark Milk, Momentum Press, Los Angeles; and The Axis Mundi Poems, Jazz Press, Los Angeles. She also co-wrote and co-produced the hour-long documentary film, “Chile: With Poems And Guns” in 1974. Her two other plays are “Not As Sleepwalkers” and “Dreams Against The State.”
Tree and The Woman Who . . . , originally published by Peace Press in Culver City, California, have been re-issued in a single volume, for $7.95, by Wingbow Press, 2929 Fifth Street, Berkeley, California 94710. The poster is available for $6 from J. and P. Distributors, 699 Oriole Avenue, West Hempstead, New York 11552.
SUN: How can the artist heal us?
METZGER: A true artist carries vision — and vision is both forward and backward. Vision tells us where we can go in order to live, and it also takes us back to those places that have sustained human beings. Vision does not mean the new technology to come but what in fact we can do to survive. The artist’s images of a possible and rich future as well as a past that is sustaining become implanted within us, and we can be whole again — because we have the past and the future in us.
The artist revitalizes our vision and reconnects us with the inner world. There are moments when art can remove the cataract from our vision, and in that instant we can see again. We are connected with the inner life from which we have become alienated. That alienation is the cause of many of our physical and emotional diseases.
SUN: It sounds like there’s a connection to the spiritual world.
METZGER: To the spiritual world — or perhaps to the world which James Hillman calls the underworld. If you think about the gods, the myths, you realize that some of the gods are sky gods, and some are from the underworld. The gods I’m interested in, to a great extent, come from the underworld. That is the place where dreams occur — the place of creativity, ferment, and fecundity. It is the darkness and the chaos out of which we come, ruled by Hades and Persephone. The artist can connect us to that place where the soul is made. According to Hillman’s philosophy, in our dream life we are soul-makers. The artist also connects us to the mystical, spiritual, or upper world. And of course to the earth.
SUN: So there’s a role the artist can play in reconnecting us to the earth, as well as the underworld. Are these the realms where you see spiritual need in this society, more than in the upper?
METZGER: There are a lot of people working with the upper world. There are the Buddhists and the Taoists; religious people work with the upper world and are interested in it. And that’s necessary! But I think we’re out of balance, so I am interested as well in the underworld, and also in the planetary plane. The problem with art is that often it connects us to none of these three worlds — upper, lower, and planetary — but to some technological fantasy, some rational paradigm, that is out of touch with any of these. The art I’m interested in connects up with as much of these three places as possible.
SUN: What about the fear people have of that dark part of themselves, the dark part of the world, of their history? Is it hard for people to admit the dark?
METZGER: Not once they get there. First of all, we have been taught to stay away from these areas very explicitly through Christianity, which renamed Hades hell, and cruelly told people that they must not go there. They turned Dionysis into Satan, and they provided an intermediary for any conversation with the gods. Therefore, the place of creativity, where people would go in the past for transformational journeys, was cut off from them. In addition, we created the divinity of science, progress, and the rational mind. Anything different from that or different from the divinity of mammon and money was considered — is considered — frivolous, foolish, absurd. People are taught in this country not to go to these places. Then, when they get a glimpse of these places, they are afraid because they know there are consequences for going there, that your life changes. Even when I do something as innocent as teaching a writing class, I say, “I want you to know that your fear is justified, that writing a poem is not like making a table. There are consequences, and if you decide to be a poet or you decide to write poetry, you will inevitably live a different life.”
SUN: How do you make that journey and come back into the world?
METZGER: It’s very difficult. The myths — say, the myth of the hero’s journey — tell us something about that. Much of the work I do in workshops is leading people deliberately and carefully through the narrative of the myths. When you begin to work with the imagination, you begin to make this journey, and you begin to take your images seriously. You believe in them as real entities. You know that the dream is as real, if not more real, than this couch we’re sitting on. One of the things I did in 1980 with theatre director Steven Kent was to reenact the Elysian mysteries. We took thirty people to Greece and created a narrative which integrated the actual steps of the mystery that people went through during Hellenic and pre-Hellenic times, with the narrative steps in the story of Demeter and Persephone. It became an amazing journey of transformation. Now the important thing about that journey is it doesn’t happen in two weeks. You have the experience, and then it lives in you. After two years perhaps you realize that you’ve made the journey.
SUN: Is this similar to what you do with the people who have cancer or heart disease?
METZGER: It’s similar. I help them find their story. Each of us is living a story. At the end of our life, if we are fortunate, we can look up in the last second and say, “Oh, I know this story I was living,” and suddenly see it. At each particular moment we’re living smaller stories; maybe our entire story is that of Psyche but intermittently we might be living some Dionysian moment and Cinderella. We remember certain myths and stories, which are told again and again and survive centuries because they are in fact reflections, images of the lives we live. I help people find the stories which connect them to their very deepest self, because it is their own story. I also help them to see what stories they are living in each moment. They can begin to see that the individual parts of their lives are not chaotic and random events, that instead they are connected and this connection is meaning — and meaning is the most essential quality of human life. And the rarest! I connect them to their dreams, their images, their obsessions, their fantasies and terrors. They are connected in a deep way, below the surface of their ordinary psychological life. It works for artists and for non-artists, for people who can write and people who don’t.
Working with people who have life threatening diseases, it’s useful to approach disease as a metaphor because then you can do something about it. Then you are not simply in the hands of the doctors. If you can look at disease as a story being told that has to get your attention, and you can discover the story that your disease is telling you, then you have a chance of finding the healing story. People begin telling remarkable stories about important things that have been distorted or have been missing in their lives, areas that must be reconciled. The body says, “This loss, this distortion, or this amnesia that you’re living is killing me. The silence is killing me. And if you don’t fix it, we’ll die.”
SUN: Is that what Tree is for you?
METZGER: Yes. Tree was the breaking of my silence. Tree is a record of my time in the hospital, a record of the healing process, a record of the kind of questions one must ask. It is in some ways a blueprint for the way I think one must look at disease if one wants to take charge of one’s healing. It’s not so much an answer as it is the map that takes you there. In the process of following this map — of asking what was lethal in my psyche? what was killing me in the world? what were the inner politics as well as the external politics acting against the body and the psyche? — I had to confront myself, and I found many of these answers.
This is the first part of the process: finding the images and the story. But there is a second part: how to live them out. A lot of disease is caused by the terrible rupture between what the inner person wants and what seems possible in the world. I’m always trying to bring the two together — the inner and outer worlds, the inner stage and the political system. Book of Hags, which I wrote before I had cancer, asks, “Why do so many women have cancer, why now, and why so young?” And I asked this not knowing that this disease was beginning in me already. In that book, I saw the danger of awakening the inner person and not being sure that person had a vehicle to speak, to express her or himself. That’s one of the things we don’t take sufficient responsibility for. If we are going to awaken people, we must make sure they have a conduit to the outside world.
SUN: Society doesn’t provide that. How do we make it safe to express ourselves?
METZGER: It often takes baby steps and holding someone’s hand and saying, “Now look at these dream images and look at what they’re saying. How can you live so that the dream becomes important and you can talk with someone about it, so you can walk around fingering it like worry beads?” It’s the same thing I was talking about earlier in terms of poetry. If you write or read poetry, then it is possible that your life will change. That may mean simple and prosaic things: changing a job and marrying or unmarrying, working or not working, changing where you live, or changing schedules. It may mean deeper and quieter things: a certain attitude toward the world or toward oneself, a way of being in nature, a way of being with the world, a certain attention to the universe that wasn’t there before. One becomes less casual about the inner, invisible things.
It’s not a safe journey. . . . The inner world, as we know from myth, is full of its own dangers and demons. . . . We don’t want to know anything about the demons, and that is naive.
SUN: How do people who want to make the journey feel safe doing it? Or maybe it’s not a safe journey.
METZGER: It’s not a safe journey. Safety cannot be provided, neither in terms of how the outer world will react nor in terms of learning how to interact with the inner world. Because the inner world, as we know from myth, is full of its own dangers and demons. It’s part of our new age culture — actually part of the old culture in the new age — to think everything’s going to be blissful and white and pure. We don’t want to know anything about the demons, and that is naive.
SUN: So why then should ordinary people take this journey?
METZGER: Because the dangers of not taking it are so much greater. The dangers of the unlived life are so apparent yet so unapparent. Very often these dangers are manifested in physical disease, emotional distress, at best in deadness. One then asks what the rewards are. Well, they’re various. The first reward is meaning. The second is zest and vitality. The third is intimacy with oneself and the opportunity to have it with others. And it’s fun. And it’s interesting.
SUN: How might one start this journey?
METZGER: Maybe the beginning is looking at a dream, not as a message to us, but as an extraordinary work of art. I’m awed by my dreams, and by the dreams other people have. When I experience a dream, I very often have the sense that I have been at the world’s most astonishing movie, that I have spent the night with a Fellini or Bergman within me. So one can begin turning from the utilitarian view of the dream, to simply paying attention to the fact that it exists, allowing oneself to look at it aesthetically, and to understand that all this is within. Then one understands the potential and character of the inner life. From there, you can look at your day as a story. How would you tell it if you were a Tolstoy? How would you see the motel across the street from us if you were Picasso? What story would you tell about what’s going on in that motel room if you were Charlie Chaplin? What story is going on in this room between us? How would someone frame it? Then you begin to see what even ordinary life is. You listen to language in a way that Freud asked us to, with great attention to what words we use, not for their utilitarian purposes but to see the depth and understand what it means.
SUN: When you work with people do you suggest particular artists to them?
METZGER: I ask them to find the voices which come from the inside and to write from that point of view. Sometimes we do very simple things. For example, you might write a journal of a place you’ve never gone to, but where, if you go to that place, you know you will have a journey. Then I might ask you to write that journey and deepen it in various ways: imagine that you’ve stayed in this place two months; imagine that you’ve spoken to no one; imagine that your life went through a transformative process. Write the journal that you would keep. I don’t want you to write it in abstract terms but in the details of what happened, the room you’re in, the furniture, the food you ate, what you saw. Then I might have you write the journal again, and I’d say now that you wrote what you looked at, I want you to write what you didn’t look at that day. Write the journal of what you didn’t see. Or write the journal of this time as a member of another sex. Or write it as a friend would write it. Or as Plato or Joan of Arc would have written it. One then gets into the voices. And it’s not a matter of finding one voice as one does in a good meditation, but in trying to find all the voices that are in us. After a while, if not immediately, you say, “Where did that come from? Who wrote that?”
SUN: I want to go back to something you mentioned that struck me — the urge, especially in the new age movement, to obtain enlightenment in two weeks or a weekend. How do you see that?
METZGER: I see it as the lack of discipline; the lack of understanding of effort, concentration, attention; the inability to know what it is to be a human being. If you think you can attain enlightenment or transformational bliss in two weeks, you don’t know what a human being is. If you think that you can learn to love, or that you can feel love, if someone hugs you, you don’t know what love is. We accept the range of behavior and complexity of the rational mind, but we don’t understand that emotions are intelligent and have a very wide spectrum and also great depth.
SUN: When I read May Sarton, I have this feeling of “Ah, suffering!” And the wisdom of age.
METZGER: Yes! And with her you go down. She’s very deep and very quiet. It takes so much time to get to where she is. She brings forth a sense of wisdom — a word we don’t use in this society. Wisdom simply doesn’t come to 20-year-olds. There’s something this society doesn’t know about ripening. Sarton quotes a painter she likes who said that at 70 he thought he might be able to approach his work on the level he’d like. He knew that before then he would be too young, and he was content, meanwhile, to work very hard, knowing he also had to wait. But we’re fascinated with prodigies because that’s instant. A prodigy has not worked for his gift. One of the things I used to feel bad about, which I now look back on with amusement, was that I couldn’t quite tell when I was 18 or 20 if I was gifted as a writer. When I got to be around 35, I saw that the gift was there, and I watched it develop — but I felt embarrassed because the gift had developed through training, effort, discipline, reading. And it seemed as if one was not really a gifted writer unless one had been born that way. I had foolishly devalued learning.
SUN: I wonder if this impatience has to do partly with people wondering if they can wait until they’re 70 because they don’t know if we’ll be around. What about this urgency?
METZGER: Times are urgent and we must make monumental changes in our character very quickly. We must drop the programming or training that we have encountered. Yet, if that is done poorly, or superficially, then we lose everything. We’re at a very precarious time and because of that we must work with the utmost deliberation and concentration. One missed step and it’s all over. There’s a poem I wrote which ends: “They are trying to set the world on fire/there is time only to work slowly/there is no time not to love.” I think this is the most urgent political task. Never before have we had to work politically with so much integration of our psyches into the political process. We don’t have the luxury of just doing politics, of just doing good works on the outside and not living them on the inside because anything superficial won’t hold. So every political and committed person must take care of those political actions on the inside as well as the outside.
I’m really interested in what I call personal disarmament — learning to disarm in the inner world so that the inner can become a model for the outer world. How can we ask Reagan to think about or enact disarmament in the world when we are unable to deal with the crazy person around the corner without calling in the police? Even on the inner plane we bring in the troops against inner characters we don’t like. And yet, we expect to be able to create this monumental peace outside. It’s very clear to me that we must work on ourselves in order to pursue disarmament in the outer world. This doesn’t mean we stop agitating for disarmament now or going on picket lines. But it does mean we cannot leave it all to that kind of activity.
SUN: What about the other side — people who do only inner work? Is it possible to be whole and just do inner work?
METZGER: No. Because if you’re only doing inner work, you’re not seeing what’s going on in El Salvador. And if you’re not seeing that, there’s an entire inner cosmos you’re not seeing. And it also means you’re not struggling in a serious way with the issue of evil or darkness. And that is an essential struggle. We have to think about it and we have to know where it comes from. The very nature of inner work has to do with compassion and being able to “feel with.” “Feeling with” for me means feeling with someone who’s being tortured in El Salvador or someone who is hungry. Then I will in turn learn something about that person within me who is hungry or being tortured. But to look only at the inner hunger is naive. To look only at the outer hunger is limited.
On the other hand, the question of El Salvador, or wherever we are struggling — Chile, Israel — presents a philosophic dilemma because if we carry those dark images and focus on them then we bring those images into the world. It is one of the most demanding of human spiritual struggles to have compassion for those situations — to struggle on those levels for social justice, enough food, equality, and the end of brutality — and at the same time, in our personal lives, to live in joy and affiliation with the life force.
I don’t quite know how to do this all the time. The bind is how to do the political work which is cognizant of the suffering in the world without willingly adding to it. One has to have compassion without wallowing in one’s own suffering. There is the image of Zorba, in Zorba The Greek — when his son dies, he goes to dance on the beach. He is terribly bereaved. He dances on the beach because it’s so hard to dance on sand. That to me is an important image. It’s a very difficult attitude which we must assume.
SUN: So we all need to integrate the political and spiritual.
METZGER: It’s essential. When I was in Chile, a year before the coup, there was an astonishing outbreak of art and culture. The posters under the Allende government were beautiful. The government supported the art because they knew that the process of revolution was not only political and economic but a revolution of the human soul. If we make a revolution, we don’t want it to be only a change in government. We must have the real revolution which starts in the spirit. That’s why I talk about personal disarmament. If you really want a change, you must have a society which can live disarmed — a society which is not based on competition, hostility, fear, xenophobia, territorial distinctions, and restrictions. It cannot be based on an egoistic involvement with property, nor on hierarchy. You must have a society where individuals are coexisting and autonomous and cooperative. It’s also a very interesting model for the psyche — coexisting with all the different parts of yourself.
I’m really interested in what I call personal disarmament — learning to disarm in the inner world so that the inner can become a model for the outer world.
SUN: Could you talk about your book, The Woman Who Slept With Men To Take The War Out Of Them?
METZGER: I think it’s an important book because it asks the question, “Is it possible to alter the way we are? Is it possible to convert ‘the general’ through love or through relationship?” It is the same question I ask in Tree. The Woman Who asks it in the outside world, while Tree does it on both the inner and outer stages. The Woman Who asks how can the feminine in oneself live with the more embattled masculine aspect? What do they bring to each other? Can they convert each other? Are they necessarily forever enemies?
SUN: I’d like you to talk about your reasons for doing and distributing the poster of yourself in which your torso is naked with the “Tree” tattoo where your right breast once was.
METZGER: I feel very strongly about this poster and I want to get it out to people. My reasons for doing it are not to say that cancer is wonderful or look how wonderfully we can survive it, but rather that our scars from the battles we fight are not shameful. And that our concept of beauty is too narrow. What happened to me in the face of this life-threatening disease was that I had to investigate my life, and so I found a zest and vitality I’d never known before then. It also felt very important for a 45-year-old woman to be willing to show her body to the public and feel good about this, though I was theoretically “mutilated” by mastectomy. Why leave those images to the 18-year-old Playboy bunnies? When I look at that poster it’s not simply like looking at myself. I’m looking at a woman who’s living her life very well. It has brought enormous courage to women who thought that if they ever lost a breast their lives would be all over. And to men who were also afraid that if they encountered a woman who had had a mastectomy that they would not be able to respond to her. Both men and women have thanked me. It’s an important image to put out in the world.
© Elizabeth Good 1984
Excerpts from the book Tree.
There is something different here: TREE. It can heal us all. It is something women used to know and are coming to know again. TREE, not limited to women but loved by them, the preferred weapon. “Listen,” I say, “this love is revolutionary.” “Oh,” Barbara says, “it is very old. The shamans knew it. The Navajo still have sings to cure the patient after the doctor has done the mechanical work.” Suddenly I remember a curing mask I found in Mexico, two grotesque faces carved on one to be worn by the friend who stood before the sick one, telling obscene jokes and gossip until the disease exploded out of the body through laughter. It has been TREE; it has also been the journal, the out-pouring of words, the meditations, the searches and explorations in the self. It was the last bad energy which Hal found with his hands and plucked out, leaving me shaking as if the earthquake had come to my own heart, and words, words, words, long buried in me, released unwound, pulled out like we are taught to wind a tapeworm about a pencil. And the sun. Always the sun. Things going in and out. Like making love. Not only the healing rays coming into me, but love and words coming out of me. A two-way stream.
lt’s what we do for each other that heals.
But I am not going to sing you a little song now. No. I am going to tell you that I am singing, listening to music, but I am writing, that the words pour forth like song and I am going to record a conversation recorded for me. A voice from Europe. A message from Ariel. When you hear it you will understand more specifically what TREE is.
TREE: Under certain conditions and in certain states not yet fully understood, love can be converted into beams of energy which when sent by one human being and received by another, sustain, nurture, protect, heal, and cure.
TREE: Transformative and revolutionary love, created in one body and exerted toward another. Despite distance, proximity, danger, obstacles, ignorance, disease, or aggression, TREE can keep that body from harm.
If Xavier were here, he would say, “Copyright it. Patent it. Someone will steal it from you.” Yes. Indeed. Please steal it. It heals. It works. And anyone who handles it is transformed.
So you see, we are on to something. You see Ariel has learned this in the revolution and Naomi has learned it in the spirit and Jane has learned it through friendship and I have learned it in my body and Sheila has learned it through feminism and Barbara has learned it from Indians, but it is the same force, the same force, and we are just stumbling upon it again and not knowing how to act or what to say or when we carry it or when it works. Some of us know something. More women struggle for it, recognize it quicker, consider it a possible alternative to a gun. And some of us totally ignorant of the force we carry. Sometimes we have it for only a moment. And then everything is ordinary again. And some of us, sadly, who want it more than others, who struggle for it, who think they have it, haven’t got it yet. Maybe it is the wanting, the ambition. Maybe it is hubris. Ego. I don’t know.
Someday someone will isolate the frequency of love and build a machine to transmit it. Calling it Smith’s Healing Rays, they will charge to beam it at our injured parts. And we may forget it was ours all the time. But for now, we call it TREE.
The fabricated TREE will not be as effective as what we can develop within ourselves. For TREE is individual, each person sending that love particular to her/his being and no computer can simulate the variety, tenderness, and efficaciousness of the heart. TREE is particular, but it is also collective, not the act of one person, but of several, not exclusively an act of intimacy, but also of community. And TREE is not what we have associated with healing, the sucking into our own healthy bodies of a disease occupying another, but rather the loving saturation of the other body with the healing light originating in the heart.
We are all novices in this endeavor, have just learned the possibilities, that illness and even tyranny can be turned away with encounters with this beam. But we must learn how to use it with integrity, for otherwise it does not work. TREE cannot be used without permission; there must be an agreement between the senders and receivers to cooperate. We cannot invade each other, can enter only with permission. Here we must be most sensitive to the civil liberties of the psyche, and even in matters of love and grave concern, even in matters of life and death, we must not impose upon another in the body, psyche, or heart without an invitation. But once accepted, we can begin.
I am no longer afraid of mirrors where I see the sign of the amazon, the one who shoots arrows. There is a fine red line across my chest where a knife entered, but now a branch winds about the scar and travels from arm to heart. Green leaves cover the branch, grapes hang there and a bird appears. What grows in me now is vital and does not cause me harm. I think the bird is singing. When he finished his work, the tattooist drank a glass of wine with me. I have relinquished some of the scars. I have designed my chest with the care given to an illuminated manuscript. I am no longer ashamed to make love. In the night, a hand caressed my chest and once again I came to life. Love is a battle I can win. I have the body of a warrior who does not kill or wound. On the book of my body, I have permanently inscribed a tree.
All the forms I know originate in the heart. The tree which grows in the heart depends on community. We cannot do anything alone. I am well because you take care of me. Ariel is also alive because we took care of him. A woman brought me a feather. When I caught her eye, she acknowledged it was a political act.
I am no longer ashamed of what I know, nor the scars I suffered to gain that knowledge. I am not afraid of the power which is in us. I am not afraid of the dawn, of being alone, of making love, of announcing myself as a part of the revolution.
© Copyright Deena Metzger
Excerpts from The Axis Mundi Poems.
And Yet You Were A Leaf
Frost on the grass miniature blades press each other against the ice, the lake closes under a white skin the fish hide but, the trees are as they have always been, bare, so naked to the snow.
Title from “A Woman Mourned by Daughters,” by Adrienne Rich.
Which Of These Forms Have You Taken
This year I have been growing down into the tree against my will making nothing happen. Across the woods through the bare branch haze of bars against the light someone is coming with an axe. I have known this all my life.
Title from “A Soul, Geologically,” by Margaret Atwood, in Selected Poems.