Marvels of the Invisible Universe
by Jenny Molberg
Tupelo Press. 2017.
“I walked the tide’s edge / to hear the waves’ hushed dirge,” Jenny Molberg writes in her debut collection Marvels of the Invisible, and the reader walks beside her, line by line, listening to the way a voice can enter the earth and her oceans, and deepen. In the opening long poem “Echolocation,” Molberg writes from the center of the heart, exposing with tender vulnerability the after effects of loss. The whale’s way of communicating becomes a way for Molberg to speak to her lost child who died while still in the womb, “And deeper, the call of one animal to another. / Now and again, you breach the heart’s surface: / this is your sounding; this is your wake.” The poems in Marvels of the Invisible “breach the heart’s surface,” their reverberations are felt long after the book is set down. These are the kinds of poems that call back to you, like the ocean waves that we return to because they remind us of what it felt like to be inside the womb.
Contemporary women poets are often beloved for their masculine traits, for the brutality of their lines, and yet Jenny Molberg’s award-winning collection reveals how a woman poet can be sensitive and delicate in a way that reveals strength. Through keen observation reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop, and adroit metaphors, Molberg builds a world thrumming with an invisible one: with gravity, magnetic fields, cells, elements, and most importantly sounds that when collected become songs. “The physicist has killed a yeast cell, amplified its sounds. Listen. / Many hands clapping. Cicadas. The sound of wings,” the sound of death has been recorded, Molberg tells us, and throughout Marvels of the Invisible she reminds us to listen.
Molberg’s poems have an impressionistic quality, they move fluidly capturing the light in a particular moment, but she always adds another layer of complexity; most often a comparison to the natural world, sometimes scientific. From the migration patterns of cranes and the study of pheasants, to deformities of the human form, Molberg finds ways to pin down her feelings, like she might the wings of a pheasant. In “After Twenty Junes” she writes, “serpentine, bloodstone, moonstone, agate. // I identify, catalogue. I do not know / that later I will do this with my heart.” In Marvels of the Invisible, Molberg does the difficult work of identifying and cataloguing the complexities of the heart. In the poem “Superficial Heart” she considers a child born with their heart outside of their body, the monstrousness of the heart, and how there outside of the body—exposed and vulnerable—it cannot survive.
Using an exploratory syntax, Molberg moves seamlessly from past to present, acknowledging the fluidity of time and the nature of memory. Her subject is most often family: father with his eye ringed by a microscope, mother caught in a Rousseau forest, her cancer cast as the lion sleeping next to her, sister awash in light and possibility, grandfather’s mind “drowned in clouds;” these characters appear in order to divulge their stories. The narrative impulse always present in these poems, though the narratives themselves unfolded in a way that is only possible within the genre of poetry. Fragmentary, dipping in and out of the past, reflecting, referencing, alluding, Molberg’s poems both meditate on, and investigate with rigor, emotional life. In “The Dream, The Sleeping Gypsy,” Molberg in describing the lute, also describes how her poems often work: “it moves the eye from depth / to surface as if they were / the same.”
In the heart-wrenching poem “Oyster” Molberg writes, “It’s the place closest to the pain that shines,” and when Marvels of the Invisible hovers over those wounds, the collection nearly blinds. Particularly when she writes of her lost child, and her fears of never having a child, in the marvelous poem, “Matryoshka” Molberg describes these Russian dolls:
The matryoshka’s arms, creased
with plumpness, hug
a glossed rose. Sprigs
of cornflower and baby’s breath.
If you look closer, a thin line
cuts the rose. This is where
the mother is broken.
The poem, divided into sections as are of matryoshka dolls, concludes with the speaker putting “the wooden child back inside me,” and then rebuilding the doll, woman by woman, around her.
This kind of thought-provoking rebuilding and restructuring of experience occurs throughout this collection. In “House of Making” Jenny Molberg writes “The human body in grief is a shrine,” and I would argue Marvels of the Invisible is a kind of shrine to the human body. Each memory, each image, each metaphor is charged with spiritual significance and emotional resonance and placed on the altar with a careful hand. Molberg sings her intimate dirges, this “strange, unutterable music,” with her heart always in focus.
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