Sheila Margaret Motton Book Award, selected by Jennifer Militello
Honorable mention: Jenny Molberg, Marvels of the Invisible
Marvels of the Invisible
With your new Microset Model I, you will discover marvels of the invisible.
—Instruction manual, 1950s
The night I find my father’s toy microscope
in the hospital-cold of the empty house,
I dream of him, a boy in 1964. He crosses the yard,
kneels beneath the sprawling live oak,
and fills his specimen jar with fire ants.
His father, in the garage, sings softly in German,
mounting the head of a deer shot
that winter; its antlers blossom like capillaries.
My father is six years old. The light
spills in as he bends over the microscope
and folds a single ant onto a plastic slide. The body,
almost sickening in its translucence,
curls into itself; the bright red thorax, close up,
is butterscotch. Pressed beneath the plastic,
the antennae shiver and are still.
Half a century later, my mother’s breasts
are removed. In the waiting room, my father
takes a pen from his white coat pocket,
and clicks open, and clicks closed.
When someone in the family asks
a question, he takes a walk. I go with him,
and we wind through orange-tiled hallways.
He shows me the room full of microscopes.
I imagine his eye, how it descends
like a dark blue planet,
and his breath as it clouds the lens.
He shows me the refrigerator
where they keep the malignant tissue.
He shows me the microtomes,
the biopsy needles, the organ baths.
In the recovery room, we listen
as my mother’s new systems of blood vessels
shush through a speaker in the room.
My father comes in quietly,
places a white orchid beside her bed.
The large white blossoms are hands
cupping the empty air. Suspended there
is everything that came before this:
the day my parents met,
the wedding, each of the three children
so different from the last. His hands,
that know, like breathing, every inch of her.
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.
I want to see, somewhere,
the hot, cocooned unfolding
of metamorphosis. The caterpillars
are flown in from El Salvador,
or New Guinea, and inside
the dewed glass, shadows
of men in white coats cloak
the tic of emergent wings—
What of the future do you hold
inside yourself? See: if you take a scalpel
and puncture the chrysalis,
it will explode—yellow goo
of cells, burst cells, amino acids,
proteins, here a bit of gut,
here a bit of brain.
A thing builds a shell around itself,
dissolves, becomes another thing.
The way, when you are wrecked
with love, you take only what you need,
you, liquid version of yourself,
all heart cells and skin cells—
here a trough of heart,
here, gutter of liver, channel
of hearing or touch. What remains,
as with the caterpillar, is memory.
See, we melt entirely.
I have been a child, a lake, a glacier,
glacial pool, woman, river of woman,
another woman, an older one.
The oldest scientist asks, If we are all
creatures of transformation,
if we are never quite the same,
what are we
when we arrive at the moment of death?
It is easier to think in death
that I am me, but dying. See: 1668.
The Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam
dissects a caterpillar for Cosimo de Medici.
And though we now think
turns to soup, to river, to ash
and what’s passed is past, he unfolds
the white sides of the insect and reveals
two wing-buds, tucked
tight inside the skin.
Now, as I watch the knife
pierce the chrysalis,
a river of cells swelling through
and out, I remember
what my father once said,
that what you see is only a fraction
of what you can believe,
and against the edge of the chrysalis,
embryonic half-wings twitch
without a body, waiting
for their slow decay, and then
for the next body
that opens itself
to the risk of flight.
When you take away the children
the mother is empty. Her round head
shrouded in red, her lips thick
and pursed, her cheeks rouged
with big circles of flush. And her eyes—
she is keeping her inside secret.
The matryoshka’s arms, creased
with plump, 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.
I have discovered the mother
inside the mother. Her eyes
are dark like mine. She doesn’t want
what is inside her. Her arms:
thin. Her collar: drab.
Her lashes: straight.
Her flower is not a rose. This mother
fits better in my hand. When I pull
her open, she creaks.
The last mother has no arms,
no dress, no collar.
But she is smiling.
She breaks willingly.
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.
Jenny Molberg’s debut collection of poetry, Marvels of the Invisible, won the 2014 Berkshire Prize (Tupelo Press, 2017). Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, Poetry International, Best New Poets, and other publications. She teaches at the University of Central Missouri and co-edits Pleiades.