Canaries and Coal Mines: A Review of Jenny Molberg’s ‘Refusal’

I wish that, when I was a My Little Pony girl, when I was a Clueless teenager, when I was Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a freshman at UC Sunnydale, or when I was a young Rory Gilmore trying to figure out my career, someone had shown me the Duluth Power and Control Wheel; I wish someone had explained the insidious methods of minimizing, monitoring, and denying that abusers use to isolate and control another human being. I wish I had learned decades ago that refusal is not synonymous with wicked or unladylike. That ‘unladylike’ is a bullshit descriptor anyway. That, even (especially) as a woman, I could (and should) define myself. Jenny Molberg’s second poetry collection, Refusal (LSU Press), is a documentary of survival testimonials, a remedy; her speakers embody the female quest not only for identity but, as Adrienne Rich states, a woman’s “refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.”

Molberg’s title, Refusal, is a simple but powerful feminist talisman and an effective signpost reinforced by the quote from Rich’s essay, “When We Dead Awaken,” as well an epigraph questioning female autonomy from Jane Eyre. Women are so often taught to please instinctively—yes sir, no sir—refusal is seen as simply antisocial, unladylike behavior. Think marriage: in Jane Eyre, Jane is considered to have no agency, no identity without a husband, and when she accepts a secretarial job for clergyman St. John Eyre Rivers but refuses his marriage proposal, refuses to fold herself into that patriarchal oppressive box, she is seen as “violent, unfeminine, and untrue.” But what is the truth? Jane is thought to be unladylike when she speaks an uncomfortable truth, a truth that threatens the status quo but a truth nonetheless, by stating that through marriage the husband overtakes the wife’s identity—her name and her agency—effectively killing her. This suffocation of agency is just one of many abuses outlined in the Duluth model and survived by the speakers within this collection of poems.

In the opening poem, “Note,” the speaker “fold[s] and fold[s]” and attempts to “disappear.” The poem begins with coercion and blame, with a male partner threatening suicide, even going so far as to write a note torn from the speaker’s “favorite book of poems.” Even in absence, this torn page is like a sawing scar, “like a jagged fin down the spine,” announcing his tyrannical presence again and again. Yet, in a stroke of masterful duality, it is not his suicide note he is carefully crafting, but hers; by “cut[ting] the air around” the speaker’s body, by turning her into origami, by making her feel as “small as a ring-box,” he is orchestrating her vanishing act, not his. And the truth is revealed: in between marriage and divorce papers, he is folding the speaker into her own suicide note until nothing is left after male agency and dominance has run their course. Yet, since none of us can return to who we were before trauma, this note also marks the beginning of the speaker’s survival, a rebirth, and the ending of his power.

In a series of epistle poems from patients at imaginary hospitals, Molberg ingeniously points out injuries caused by a slowly dying patriarchal society, wounds that too often plague women. These imagined treatment centers are for ills such as Gaslighting, Harassment, Evolution, Emily Post’s Wedding Gift Return Etiquette, and Female Apology among others. In “Epistle from the Hospital for Female Apology,” women “try on faces that are not sorry,” they “masquerade,” because even as we “bury” our apologies we “mother them.” In “Epistle from the Hospital for Gaslighting,” women are all “bitches” and “hysterical,” with “too much in the brain,” not worthwhile, and “hollow uteruses.” In one poem, women must practice standing up for themselves to be cured; in another, women must learn to listen to their inner strengths not external opinions to find self-worth and agency.

Finding a cure, finding the right cure, and accepting it, is never easy. “Epistle from the Hospital for Cheaters,” the poem that follows “Note,” begins with what one is to do with “this flame,” with anger, “douse it with paper cups of red and yellow pills.” No resolution, no action but repression, a resting cure for women; this anger is undeniable, however, compared to the “sun that licks its rose blaze / across the tiled corners of this ward.” When the only relief is denial of what is felt, of emotions as natural as breathing such as anger and passion, the perfect good girl stereotype is reinforced, and all women suffer for it. In Molberg’s imagined hospital, they learn to “redefine slut as a person who survived,” and they celebrate flaws and the flawed nature of the human condition. Through these epistle poems, Molberg’s speakers reach out–to each other, to other survivors, to all women—starting conversations that save lives, undermining the isolation so often core to successful psychological abuse and oppression.

Sometimes repressing this anger can be a kind of death; and, sometimes, this repression can be confused with forgiveness. In “Ending the Affair at the Garden of Earthly Delights,” the speaker writes, “I am tempted towards cruel people, drunk on my own / capacity for forgiveness.” This is the real temptation of Eve: to see the best in Adam and her heavenly father, to see a future of happiness not the future of gaslighting and slander. Cleverly, this poem is broken into three sections: left, center, and right. The second section—or center—deals with the female body that is always the victim of tug-a-war, always loved or hated, always coveted, always judged, always vulnerable to the outside world, to the “serpent in the water.” The third section—or right (right as if the right hand of a chauvinistic god)—revolves around self-centered and “mood darkened” Adam who can’t release his desire for control. But when a woman is so hungry for love and self-agency, “chances are [she’ll] pick from the wrong tree” or the wrong man or the wrong ideas of love which leads to self-erasure.

One of my favorite poems in the collection, “Loving Ophelia Is,” is a remarkable definition poem in which the explanations make startling leaps between unforgettable insights and images, seemingly all in one breath; punctuation is nonexistent, allowing one definition to quickly flow into the next constantly surprising the reader. The poem takes us on a heroine’s journey to define the blurred lines between love and hate, not only between lovers but within the self. Through this poem, we face (and hopefully learn to accept) the ghost-versions of ourselves, despite the “sorrow” that often accompanies seeing the self, flaws and all. Yet the poem doesn’t let us confuse self-love with narcissism; “lovesickness” is loving a perfect version of self that never could exist, when the drive to find this impossible perfection becomes ego and “obsession,” which is what happens to the “overbearing husband.” When you love yourself more than others, it is never truly love but

a room of mirrors and a room of mirrors is love and hate simultaneously
and love and hate simultaneously is the trick of abuse
and the trick of abuse is a vexation of the mind and
a vexation of the mind is the feeble dawn of gaslight and tea

Beyond the “overbearing husband,” beyond the abuse, survivors can swim far enough away, find “the other shore on which Ophelia” wakes. We see this “other shore” in the poem “In Which Ophelia Reopens the Box of Hamlet’s Drawings,” where Ophelia is praised for being herself, her anger “achingly sharp, chin like a periscope,” and when she speaks, it is not the mad ramblings of a broken female but the illuminating forecast of a prophet cutting through oppression “the way lights cut through fog.”

The speakers in Molberg’s poems address a loneliness that makes any human contact, even “hands around [the] neck” “welcom[ing].” And although in “Eating Alone” the speaker writes, “I am not a canary though I am / often taken into dark caves,” we realize she is our canary, that she has survived the darkness and the cave ins, the possessive passion that turns into oppression, where everything after “tastes like a bruise.” Here, within these pages, we rediscover women’s right to refuse. Refusal to be static or flat. Refusal to be objects waiting to be filled. Refusal to be the breath stolen from aching female bodies. Refusal to accept the cycle of abuse, to be nothing but bodies of forgiveness. Molberg sings us songs of hope and survival, which, oftentimes, equals a refusal.


Kara Dorris

Kara Dorris is the author of two poetry collections: 'Have Ruin, Will Travel' (Finishing Line Press, 2019) and 'When the Body is a Guardrail' (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming 2020). She has also published five chapbooks: 'Elective Affinities' (dancing girl press, 2011), 'Night Ride Home' (Finishing Line Press, 2012), 'Sonnets from Vada’s Beauty Parlor & Chainsaw Repair' (dancing girl press, 2018), 'Untitled Film Still Museum' (CW Books, 2019), and 'Carnival Bound [or, please unwrap me]' (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2020). Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, DIAGRAM, Harpur Palate, Cutbank, Hayden Ferry Review, Tinderbox, Puerto del Sol, The Tulane Review, and Crazyhorse, among others literary journals, as well as the anthology 'Beauty is a Verb' (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011). Her prose has appeared in Wordgathering, Breath and Shadow, Waxwing, and the anthology 'The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked' (Cinco Puntos Press, 2016). She earned a MFA in creative writing at New Mexico State University and a PhD in literature and poetry at the University of North Texas. Currently, she is a visiting assistant professor of English at Illinois College. For more information, please visit

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