"Pink Bathroom," from Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Credit: Lorie Shaull


Death is the grand finale—and if it is also a beginning we don’t know it. It is the end not only of living but of dying, too. If there is another world, death is the entrance, the bridge between the soul within and the soul without. Body and not body. Kafka wrote an entry in the Blue Octavo Notebooks: Dread of night. Dread of not-night. Death is night and not night. Death is a worry even before life begins. We dread our own death and we dread losing those we love. We create art, fantasies, babies in order to ward death off. We even dread mass or singular losses of the human race. Of strangers. Death as a result of illness. Of violence. Death as Tragedy. Death as the start of rot. Death as emptiness and lack of reciprocal feelings. Till death do us part. Death as what separates us in life. “Tis like the distance on the look of death.” Death as the fear of surviving. Death as container. Death as shroud. Death as nakedness.

I used to have nightmares of my body exposed for my whole family to examine and identify on the autopsy table. To think it would not be me receiving the results. Morgue from the French verb “to stare.” Death as costume. Death as reason to live. Death as memory. Death as sex. Death as genderless. Death comes differently to children. To those of us who have children, who were and are ever children. Death is always wed to chance, and by wed I do mean they love and tire of each other, eternally. The chance of outlasting, of beating the odds, of healing, of faking out, of coming back. It is, until the very last rattle and breath, the possibility of haunting.


“Promise not to haunt me,” I tell my mother in a dream, when I am sixteen and she has broken her hip, refusing joint replacement then blood transfusion. Before we go to sleep I am spoon-feeding her lentils then peeling my father fruit in silence as if it is now my duty. To love him. To thank him for loving her enough to make me. “Promise not to haunt me,” I say in the dream. The only dream where I can hear my own voice as in an echo-y elevator. “I promise,” she says. I already regret it, this promise of the unconscious, and she is not dead yet. The same night: dream of my mother’s hair falling out. My father is bald. Now my mother is balding. This was before I knew toxic treatments could kill hair follicles and be a sign of sickness and of hope. My mother’s dream-balding is merely an embarrassment. It forces me to confront her head, the fact that her mind is her own. She will not ever let me know it. “What do you think,” she asks, and whether or not she listens or understands me, she does defer. She assumes I know better. The beginning of the wish to escape my own brain. The beginning of death as possibility. Of pressure.


One could argue death is the most finite and most infinite experience. It is finite for the body, infinite for the soul/mind/consciousness, if you believe in such a thing. Religions generally imagine some kind of judgment around the end—heaven and hell, peace from pain. Medicine generally imagines death as happening once although death is still a concept—moreover a word—that is culturally defined. And so it is possible for the vital organs to stop long enough for someone to be pronounced dead and then revived. Babies have almost been buried, then finally cried. Babies can be born dead-apparent, blue or colorless, not yet breathing. There are monitors to show me the contractions I am no longer feeling, but I feel them first and push. When he came out, the nurses said sorry to me before I understood they meant they were about to rough him up. I remember fearing their apology about my purple thingy son I thought would die the whole time he was inside me, but was he technically then alive? Fifty percent chance of losing when bleeding in the first trimester, fifty percent separation of placenta.


When I hemorrhaged clots and they swore me to stillness in the second trimester, when his heart decelerated during labor and they moved me vigorously: “What are the chances?” I asked. The doctor had long white hair and a bad case of laryngitis, but she managed at the moment to speak. “If you do jumping jacks you can bet you’ll lose it.” I thought it would be impossible to get up off the table. What is the difference between a jumping jack and stepping down. A jumping jack and getting up. I was just starting to show when the blood turned bright. Eight weeks later, without a shower, I gave a kind visitor twenty minutes to shave the matting off my head. Do not jolt me, do not attempt to comb. “Next time tell me and I’ll braid it!” She seemed insulted I had let myself go. “Of course I will.” On behalf of Beauty. Next time I know I am capable of killing a life I created I will stay motionless on one side but first I will ask a deft stranger to Purell her hands and braid my hair. Maybe I will ask her to braid my whole body so in its twist I can go nowhere.

Imagine sleeping without fear. Fear of the bloody dream. Fear of breathing heavy. Of hiccups. Of coughing. Of rolling. Of pressing. Of hips. Fear of the true dream. Fear of germ and gentle touch. Fear of emotion. Of constipation. Of loud noises. Of pets jumping. Of allergic reactions. Of orgasm. Of bad news. Of good news. Of conflict with mothers. Of names of doctors. Of ultrasounds. Of contractions. Of lack of heartbeats. Of salt and sugars. Of nurses with periods. Of teachers. Of dead friends. And phone calls.


If death is vague and endless, what can we do about it? Here is where the elegy is overrated. Likewise the funeral and memorial. Here is where we need the miniature. It is the mechanism of morbidity. It contains the unbearable. Imagines the unimaginable. It allows us to hold and be held. A dollhouse. A diorama. We like lockets with tiny emblems of the dead and gone. Think hair for a Victorian. Think a tiny mirror or vial of perfume. It is the powder compact that lets us focus on a close-up feature of our face. Think a cell phone, tiny buttons, hand-sized screen. The word cell—it goes beyond mobility and the transportation of sound. It is about size, the towers dividing a city into cells, our smallest unit. The nucleus, the center of each of our smallest units as in the nuclear family, is also what we try to recreate and what we live in fear of losing unless we live in fear also of being lost to it. Babies are miniature humans but also not, they are not proportional to adults. Likewise the fetus.


The first miniature that appears when there is a death almost universally is the tear. Crying is not something I do at funerals. If there’s a witness I leave my tears at home. When it comes, the tear is not just a stream of bodily salt water. They are precise drops that one can feel press out of the tear duct and down onto the cheek, along the course of gravity. This small glistening globe of water is a miniature of loss. First it manifests: a product of the body, a representative of one’s emotion for what’s lost. Then it moves, it threatens to blur vision, erase make-up, delineate a new pain on the face. Dry, chap, and disappear, losing its globular and miniature integrity. The tear like all forms of water, like its magnificent counterpart the sea, comes and goes. And the act of crying too is Loss in waves. It starts and stops. It can’t go on forever. The eyes dry out. The mind swerves. The body collapses, sleeps, must eat, take phone calls, put the flowers in a vase. I have read that underneath a microscope, the tear reveals its source: tear of joy, of sorrow, of physical pain. I would like a microscope, (preferably also invisible) so I could learn, without sharing the news with any of my living loves, what my eye water just became.


I cry most days. And like Dickinson’s supposed person, I find the tear a supposed, a member of my complex feeling, not unlike a model train set or a diorama. I have written about Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, dioramas of murder, and what fascinates me most may be that her meticulous attention to a jar of tomatoes in a kitchen suicide (and the pie just out of the oven) are the only source of sadness in the scene. The bodies are grotesque but perfect. It is the detail in the background, a wallpaper fleur-de-lis, that is most forensic and makes me shiver. Without science we would have nothing to disbelieve. Without the tools to measure there would be no way to lose. Without the tools to measure, by which I mean their failure to measure, there would be no way to grieve.


What is suicide but a rejection of the pact of death, and therefore a rejection of life? What is suicide but the art of saying Mine? What is suicide but the decision to be early and be late? What is suicide but an aesthetic preference? There used to be an art of dying, a nineteenth-century deathbed scene, a priest who gave last rites, a way to close the eyes and fold the hands, a way to point the feet, a privacy with audience. A miniature, too, invites the voyeur to move its parts, arrange an object like a life.


We must make death new, make little morbid spaces for us to live our own last rituals pre-emptively. The premature is not unlike the posthumous. Both are a surprise—according to Merriam-Webster, “the unexpected seizure of a place.” A funeral procession is like a televised news banner, a ticker tape, a tiny field of lowly ants being burned by some big boy’s magnifying glass held up to the glamorous sun. While the child apprehends the power of the distant cosmic, it is also true that he never loved or worshipped the roots, the ants, the tendril grass—whatever was living underneath his feet—until destroying it. We must play god and ghost. Holy vessel and empty self. Push: hold your breath. We must procreate sometimes to remember that life comes out of death, that sacrifice is physical, that growth is not just temporal.


Have you ever changed the memory card from one phone to another or pulled apart a babushka doll with pride, then felt the tiny thing between your fingers slip into its place? Discovering the smallest part. It is disappointing and aggrandizing. To hold a bit of sea lace, delicate, to lose oneself in Agnes Martin’s grid or recognize the statuary beside the mummy houses not just the organs but the Ka, the spirit of the dead. Why would the spirit want to go on in something smaller than its source? How is it so many cultures saw talismans as surrogates, not metaphors? Or maybe a metaphor is a miniature, truer than its abstract mother. Or else it is morbidity, maybe death itself, that can lead us back to that reverence for the small. Not just the small but the miniaturized, which indelibly recalls the larger, the original. The miniature is the meeting ground of belittling and awe. We enter a house but lose track of it. We exit a mother’s body but lose track of it. We enter a world and destroy it. We can’t even see it spin and couldn’t discern whether it was round or flat for ages. We exit our own body. We can’t even call it death without our mouths.


In Old English, death meant the cause and process of dying. In the singular, it had the same sense of closure as it does today, but in the Old English plural, death meant ghosts, the essence that goes on. Even the word miniature has a meaning we have lost track of, narrowed down. Etymologically the word comes from minium, a reddish coloring (not unlike the cheeks of the asphyxiated housewife doll in a Nutshell) used to decorate first and title pages of manuscripts. The word was closely related to illuminated manuscripts. Because these decorations were smaller than other paintings, the word came to refer more generally to size. The miniature is not just something smaller, it is something more intricate, more colorful, something that illuminates.

Death was not just the end but the ongoing; Miniature was not just the shrunken but the elaborated. Sometimes the word helps us expand its meaning. A paradox: sometimes the sign is more important that what it says, what we think it says. We live among oracles. We misinterpret. The material helps us comprehend the metaphysical. Another paradox. Sometimes a metaphor makes the thing more real. Dickinson has a simile “the nerves sit ceremonious like tombs.” The microscopic interior becomes the grand container, the cold holder of the dead. This is the particular numbness of grief. The metaphor gives numbness a sensation of cold stone, of heavy substance.


And yet we use the miniature to instruct children: a wooden dollhouse, a baby doll, as if the miniature can guide our growing up. As if we are training children for a larger scale they can apply this learning to, this aesthetic attention, this routine empathy. No, holding babies is not like holding dolls. No, living in houses is not like opening and shutting the windows of a toy house. The scale is altogether off if you literalize the analogy. A child does not fit inside a shoebox diorama. The miniature is always art because the miniature trains us for what we cannot live, which is to have perspective beyond our own, the chance to hold a whole world at once. To feel the omniscience of a god, and simultaneously, his safe distance from mortality. To death, we let others go. We have to see the world without our selves. Dollhouses do not teach us how to live. They let us pretend there is a world without us. They end up on a shelf or in the attic with spiders that fit right in, those meticulous webs. And then one day we lose ourselves as well.


Gnomes and fairies are imaginary miniatures, supernatural beings based on the natural world, critters and insects. They know better and know us better than we can. We use them to teach children right from wrong, how to cope with loss (of teeth). Their power contradicts their size. Let’s call it wisdom. Wisdom is the byproduct of imagination and impossibility. They can contain us all, the experience of being human, because we can contain them, their figures, in our minds. I want to learn from someone small enough to not exist. I want to learn from someone who has been around long enough to not exist, and if they don’t exist they can know us more totally, no? I think the desire to know and be known by the dead (and the genie) comes from exactly that same plea in my dream of my mother. The plea to know the other’s mind—or to not know it as closely as possible. “Promise not to haunt me.” We all dread losing the ones we love. We beg them not to go even if we never possessed them in the way we wanted to. Even if we let them down or let them die alone, or lonelier. We beg them never to come back in anything but body even if exactly what we long for is spirit-wise, their genius, and what we fear losing most is what we never had.


A toy gun is a miniature of a violent weapon. A clean weapon. A symbol of a symbol that should never be more than that. Unlike knives and such, guns keep their distance, they rarely get wounded back, covered in blood. They don’t require strength, but sometimes require exquisite precision—or the opposite, a kind of elated carelessness. Think of a child. Bullets seem miniature to me: heavy compounded metal, but they are small versions of nothing. They make holes. A gun is a miniature of Power, because power by definition means “the capacity to produce an effect or undergo an effect.” In the March for our Lives we are fighting for that power back. Guns, as we know from Dickinson, have “the power to kill without the power to die.” We must take control. We must take responsibility. Guns kill people and we are the killers.

After giving birth, my swollen nipples felt similarly metonymic, out of my agency. They were dark miniature mothers, foreign nurturers that drew out my childishness, my own helplessness, and transformed it into something literal and nutrient-rich. They gave my son milk. But I was his mother. A newborn can see only as clearly as the nipple, only as far as the face from the breast. This is a miniature vision, a segregate world in which what moves between the bodies is emotion. In which love is whatever subtle, ever-changing response.


Because my mother had twelve miscarriages before she had me, I was prescribed tiny pearl-like suppositories of progesterone before conception. Pills are medicine in miniature, poisons to save rather than kill us. A bottle of pills is toxic. We baby-proof our cabinets. But each pill, a daily tablet, swallowed with a sip of water can restore our bodies to their proper function. What else in miniature form is life-saving? Candles as opposed to fires. Small print. A hummingbird. Eyelashes. A pocketknife. For good or ill, it is Queen Mab who midwifes dreams with her cricket-bone whip. Is incorporating death in small doses also healthier, death in miniature? When I gave birth I chose to be numbed below the waist. A needle was placed in my epidural space. Needles even at their most intimidating can draw things into and out of us because they are miniature. I felt mine painfully, between contractions, in order that I might feel nothing. They help us not die and help us die.


We keep coins in our pockets even though they are heavier than our phones. We like pockets because they fit our hands and not much else. A miniature unlike the afterlife has limits, but like the afterlife it is so safe there is no such thing as safety. Dolls and angels don’t get raped or buy insurance. We tuck our baby teeth under pillows for fairies when we lose them. So that someone who cares might keep them. Someone who can exist unnoticed, someone who flies and is small. Someone who is willing to barter in the miniature: a toy, a silver dollar. The miniature is always useless and currency. In the case of baby teeth, they’re not much smaller than the teeth we hope to keep. Maybe we treasure them for this reason: they stay baby. We keep ashtrays and little dishes to make small things like keys and change and tickets feel more at home.


Jasper Johns has a painting titled Painting Bitten by a Man. It is to my mind a miniature though some might disagree. Maybe the Ur-miniature because it is exactly the size of the artist’s bite but feels like something both magnified and shrunken, without the other features of the face. In this somber encaustic with a central bite-mark, we have the miniature doing all of its work at once: it keeps the painting in process, the wax wet. It forces the painting to be done and undone, entered and ruined.  It is a form of expression and consumption, hunger and aggression, desire and hollowness. It makes art get beyond itself, the beautiful. It makes the human art. It is an entrance and exit into our bodies, a communion of artist and viewer, an offering and a threat. A disruption of perfection. A primitive communication. It is a way to keep the frame awake, alive, unfinished like the Greek statues, whose eyes were originally colored in. The painting reminds me of a gravestone, a death stele. The epitaph, a bite. What is a bite? A small part taken away and the act of taking it. A scream silenced by the waxy medium, a deadness subverted by a living appetite. The miniature allows the artifact to better encase its meaning—and alter it. It manifests emotion better than the life-sized. Scale has to be distorted, function disabled in order to expand Meaning. A communion wafer, an eyelash blown with wishes, a nano-chip.


I don’t want my child to be my miniature—I like discovering each day how much of a stranger he is. As I get to know him, I am also re-inventing both of us. The always-wanted child is no longer a possibility or metaphor but another life that will end in death even if it all goes perfectly. Sometimes I need to breathe though. Sometimes I need to walk outside to get away from his miniature chair with miniature fork and spoon and pile of toys, mini upon mini. The occasional gigantic stuffed animal for him to climb. Right now it’s all about things that go, wheeled modes of transportation, vroom, and balls. They come in different scales, the mini car he can be pushed around in, the mini cars he can mouth and roll down the hall with his own hands. Maybe the idea is that he can understand different functions at different levels. How to steer something. How to let go. Transportation that gets us nowhere.

One of the sweet and frustrating things that happened the other day was watching him try to climb a couch with one ball in each hand. He wouldn’t let go. He deliberately picks up balls as if to prepare for climbing—why would he want his hands occupied, an obvious obstruction to a task he’s perfectly big and strong enough to carry out? Well, there I go again thinking of the ball, the primal form of our planet. And while the world, as Atlas knew, was heavy to uphold, only in miniature can multiple worlds—whatever fits in our hands—be held at once and even help us overcome this world.

Elizabeth Metzger

Elizabeth Metzger is the author of The Spirit Papers, winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and the chapbook Bed, winner of the Sunken Garden Chapbook Poetry Prize. Her second full-length collection, Lying In, will be published by Milkweed Editions in the spring of 2023. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is a poetry editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Find her on Instagram @nobodytoo2.

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