Marvels of the Invisible
Reviewer: Lee Rossi
Finding an expanse of previously unexplored wilderness, the naturalist is keen to discover an unknown species. Likewise a critic, opening a first book, looks for signs of new life. Jenny Molberg’s Marvels of the Invisible provides many such clues, all hinting at some chameleon-like, shapeshifting denizen. As she tells us in “Chrysalis”:
I have been a child, a lake, a glacier,
glacial pool, woman, river of woman,
another woman, an older one.
Like Tracy K. Smith, whose work at times seems a model, Molberg has internalized the language and attitudes of science. Smith’s father is an engineer; Molberg’s is a pathologist, who throughout the book serves as an emblem of dispassionate reason, observing and manipulating the world without obvious emotional involvement.
Like the microscope in “Necrosis,” a poem dedicated to her father, poetry is Molberg’s tool for exploring the Marvels of the Invisible—the unseen, the neglected, the malign and potentially dangerous. Ambivalence abounds:
You, microscope, are a hungry priest …
You can never know repentance.
Look, she seems to say, here is where the sadness lay, here is where the loss was most deeply felt. And yet, the microscope (as well as the poet-observer) doesn’t feel sadness or loss.
This tension, between the desire to rescue the hidden aspects of experience and the need to keep them at bay, runs throughout the book. Often Molberg’s themes are the stuff of feminist biography—her mother’s illness and death, her father’s dominance within the family, her own barrenness. Yet there is little obvious emotion. Choices of genre and tone keep the reader at an ironic distance from events. There are relatively few confessional narratives in the book. This poet deals in ekphrasis, fairy tale, historical anecdote, and lyrics in which narrative and emotion are revealed only obliquely.
Consider the poem that opens the book, “Echolocation,” which wanders feverishly through seven difficult stanzas. Reminiscent in its metaphors and heightened syntax of Lowell’s marine tragedies; e.g., “A Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” Molberg charts her voyage through the troubled waters of a miscarriage. Here are the opening lines:
I think of you, my lost girl, when the wing
of a tailfin rises beside the boat, dripping
in salted robes. This movement, like song,
pulls me under, where murk reveals
the obscurities of loss. The language
is epic, invisible, submarine.
Of course, it isn’t until the second stanza that we realize that the “lost girl” of the first was a fetus. For six more stanzas, the language surges and crashes. Passionate, inventive, allusive, and often strained, the poem betrays an excess of poiesis. As she declares, “The language is epic, invisible, submarine.” There are felicitous moments throughout the sequence, as for example when she tells the lost child that “this is your sounding: this is your wake”—wake as in trail, wake as in death knell—but they are almost drowned in the surrounding hubbub.
While not totally straightforward, the title poem hews more closely to a traditional narrative structure and in many ways is more successful. The first (of three) stanzas tells an anecdote from her father’s childhood: the boy gazing into a small microscope, staring intently at a dying fire ant, the boy’s father in the garage mounting the head of a dear. Their dispassionate fascination with death haunts the rest of the poem. The second stanza begins “Half a century later, my mother’s breasts / are removed,” an intentionally shocking transition, the passive voice suffocating the emotional charge of the event. Here we see father and daughter taking a tour of the hospital. “He shows me the refrigerator / where they keep the malignant tissue,” the language as cold as that refrigerator. Only in the last stanza, when father and daughter visit the mother’s hospital room, does the poem and its protagonists begin to warm. We hear the “shush” of the mother’s blood and see the father lay a white orchid on the bedside table. “The large white blossoms are hands / cupping the empty air. Suspended there / is everything that came before this”: courtship, marriage, children, and their long intimacy. The poem leaves us with a moment of intense sympathy:
He matches his breath with hers,
as they do each night
in the slow river of a breathing house,
and beneath her skin, her blood blossoms.
One wonders if that “slow river of a breathing house” isn’t somewhat over-written; on the other hand, the metaphor of the hands and the empty air, which is then filled with a long and complex relationship, seems strikingly apt and more truly poetic.
Molberg’s book, however, is most successful when it strays from biography and like a beachcomber picking up stones, focuses its attention on the eerie or unusual. In “Nocturne for the Elephant,” for instance, her gift for historical recreation and her impressive descriptive powers exhibit free rein. The scene is an early nineteenth-century English menagerie. A pianist is playing for the captives, one of whom is particularly attentive:
the Indian elephant tilts the broad leaves
of its ears forward; tusks blunder against bars
as ivory keys prod wooden hammers,
felt-covered, like the animal’s ancient tread
on desert soil. The song is a downpour
and the elephant begins to pace. The pianist drops
to the low B-flat and, in the base of its throat,
the elephant echoes the tone—dirge for a time
when, head bowed, he plodded
into a pond, tube of his trunk sloped
to lift milky water to his mouth,
roping the trunk to drench
the ashen body …
Couched in terms of a “dirge” and an “ashen body,” this anecdote of lost freedom provides a subjective correlative for some unannounced but powerful longing.
It’s impossible to guess where a poet with such gifts and ambition will head next. In the direction of tact and forbearance, into thickets of sympathy? The critic, like the naturalist, looks forward to once more picking up the trail.