Intentions, Inquiries, and Impossible Tasks: Jenny Molberg’s Marvels of the Invisible

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My father owned an old telescope, white with deep-grooved scratches from years of use, which sat in our family dining room for much of my remembered childhood. It had been a gift, I think, when he was a precocious teenager, eager to learn everything he could about the visible universe. He showed me how to use it once, and I dutifully marked the size and shape of the moon—every impossible lake in its contours. But this reaching far away, the tele matched to a scope, never quite engaged me. It seemed, always, that the self was far more complicated than the mare crisium, sitting dark as a misremembered scar on some far away selenic surface.

I get the sense, from reading Jenny Molberg’s Berkshire Prize-winning first collection, Marvels of the Invisible (Tupelo Press, February 2017), that she might feel much the same way. Her book announces its intentions, inquiries, and impossible tasks from the start:

the obscurities of loss. The language
is epic, invisible, submarine. A child.

It’s that “epic” that really catches this former classicist’s attention, remembering that Homer himself isn’t a “himself” at all, but a long history of shared experiences and stories, finally brought together as we know “him” through textualization. Molberg’s collection is another text that is interested in—and indeed that creates—the embodiment of the “I” through what the eye can observe. Her lines don’t distinguish between the myriad molecules that evidently separate us. There’s “the cage I’d made of my bones”; the “slow river of a breathing house”; a “sun that flirts.” Through all of it, she deftly denies the reader a consistent, singular “I,” while offering her talented eye to observations of intimacy’s open heart and always-heavy hands.

Molberg writes in “Chrysalis,”

I have been a child, a lake, a glacier,
glacial pool, woman, river of a woman,
another woman, an older one.

We come to understand, over the course of these pages, that this story isn’t unique to a single speaker, but that it,

never begins or ends, this,
what we learn from men,
what violence, what mercy.

Molberg’s poems with female-identifying voices respond to male violence using precise details to upend such supine moments. It’s her ability to bring us into the microscopic that makes us feel each cascading idea. In a year where we all have seen so much of the ubiquity of female endurance, Molberg’s shared speakers invent and present the new prosody of a #MeToo movement. As she writes in “The Muse, Posing as Maria,” there’s a world out there where “the wind is strong enough / to carve ice. Outside, the girl I once was / shoulders the cold.”

We discover that each of these moments and stories is held to the boat’s body like a clew: tight; so much so as to be nearly indistinguishable from the whole. It’s Molberg’s gift for observation that makes this collection so unique. In her poem “Necrosis” we find that observation itself (here, embodied by the microscope) becomes our addressee. And the body, in all its imperfections and hungers, connects to that observation as it “combs the pantry of diagnoses.”

She writes:

Molar pregnancy: bloody grapes, endometriotic
sac: chocolate cyst. A slice of grapefruit leiomyoma.

Here, we see that Molberg isn’t afraid of the terminology that intersects illness and science. In fact, in her lovely prosody, we see how the body in all its flaws still becomes a millefleur tapestry; the oncological painting its own sort of Primavera. She reminds us that, always, “it’s the place closest to pain that shines,” a phrasing that brings to mind the late Leonard Cohen’s assertion that “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

All of this stacking of shared biography comes together in the first poem of the third section, “Matryoshka,” which deftly employs the “little matron” nesting dolls of Russian fame to show us the nested nature of experience. Interesting, too, that the designs for many matryoshka dolls themselves were often drawn from both fairy tales and political figures, both of which have an innate connection to types of shared social justice. Here, Molberg’s figures stand in for the emptiness and injury that follows when those sorts of shared expectations break down. She writes in the final section of the poem:

I twist her open
and find myself. Each mother
becomes my daughter and I become
each mother. I hold myself
in my hand. This is my secret—
I have seen how small
I can be. I will put
the wooden child back inside me.
And the woman inside me. And the woman
inside me. And the woman inside me.

Molberg’s deft lines breaks are on display here, showing how each small each piece can seem in the hand, but just how much it can contain: seemingly both itself and all other things. And it’s that wooden hollow, an orlop deck of sorts, where so much is possible in her work. There’s an entire shared history here, stowed, safe below the water line. There’s a shared emptiness of mother to daughter; author to reader.

I don’t know if my father still has that white telescope from my childhood home. That place is long lost to me, and, if it does exist, I imagine it’s locked in some well-labeled box in “the hospital-cold of an empty house,” as Molberg’s speaker in the opening poem says about finding her father’s microscope. But I remember to this day an impulse to reach out past the world, and an equally strong impulse to reach inward. In this era dominated by poetry as biography, Molberg creates for us a new paradigm to consider, complete with “the heaviest, / the lightest things. My heart is full of them.” If, in fact, the promise of poetry is a kind of connective and encompassing empathy, this is a collection that reminds us: not only are we not alone, we’re inexorably connected to the observed. Indeed, if that old microscope could increase its magnification enough, we’d might just see that all the barriers that seem to separate us break down in every covalent bond. We might discover, as she writes in “The Outer Core,”

each molecule, passing through and out of me,
that has already known many others. Because there is no center,
the moon keeps saying, we must give ourselves away.

Matthew Minicucci is the author of two collections of poetry: Small Gods, finalist for the 2016 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press, and Translation (Kent State University Press, 2015), chosen by Jane Hirshfield for the 2014 Wick Poetry Prize. His poetry and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from numerous journals including the Alaska Quarterly Review, The Believer, the Gettysburg Review, Oregon Humanities, The Southern Review, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. He is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including the 2018 C. Hamilton Bailey Oregon Literary Fellowship and the Stanley P. Young Fellowship in Poetry from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. This summer, he will serve as Artist-in-Residence at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. More from this author →