The Struggle of Spirit: A Review of Refusal: Poems

Like the title of Jenny Molberg’s Refusal, the reader’s initial reaction is to refuse this agonizing, electric work because of the pain the “I” lays open.  But it’s impossible to stop reading because of the raw exposure and bravery that leap off the page. 

The first poem, “Note,” begins the journey by laying out difficult themes: suicide, abuse, self-loathing. The poem juxtaposes lines like “marrying for safety (two kids, three dogs, dying cat),” “Papers signed and unsigned,” with 


The woman who pasted her face

over mine in our photos

and mailed them as proof of their affair


The “he” makes the “I” “smaller” by “cutting the air” around her, putting her in a box, origami-ing her, until she is as “small as a ring box,” where


...I nestle there.

I fold and fold.I try to disappear.


The “I” participates in her own diminution, and oppression, in many forms, which is key to the work and collection title. The “I” doesn’t want to participate, but is compelled to do so. 

The large issues of trauma, addiction, and oppression are revealed by the specifics and intimacy of individual experiences, making the reader feel the harsh emotion in this work. The passion is coupled with craft. These poems are carefully laid out—in their order and relationship, in the varied physical forms, and in the heightened language that’s both exact and spare. Images are threaded throughout the poems, further integrating the collection into a whole.

Thirteen epistles form the spine of the collection. The epistle carries a religious overtone, and as a literary work in letter form, is usually aimed at a broad audience. Yet, there is one actual “letter” in this collection, specifically “Letter to My New Sister.” The epistle titles are also “from” rather than “to,” beginning with the “Epistle from the Hospital for Cheaters.” Many epistles are from hospitals: “the hospital for evolution,” “the funambulist hospital for invisibility,” “the hospital for female apology.”  But several are not. The author breaks her own pattern—as she does in all elements of this book, sparking the reader’s interest.  

Eleven epistles are addressed “to [initials]”, but we don’t find out who these people are (her friends, her “chosen family”) until we read the Acknowledgments at the end of the work. But the second “Epistle from the Henares River” is not addressed to anyone, while the last “Epistle from West Texas” is addressed to Joni Mitchell.  

The Epistles encompass the people the author cares about, drawing them into the collection as companions and recipients of her stories. The epistle not addressed to a specific person, “Epistle from the Henares River,” emphasizes isolation in violence. The only person named is the speaker’s mother, “an Atlantic away,” while “a man hating me so loud” inflicts enough violence that the “I,” with “headphone cord, / roped around my neck” informs the reader how to call the police in Spain. The poem does not say whether the “I” calls the police or merely knows how to do so.

“Letter to My New Sister,” addressed to P.D., is deeply intimate in its treatment of partner abuse.  Even though the poem is one long stanza in form, there are three sections within that stanza.  The first nine lines begin with a question, “Abusive?” and end with


He always knew we deserved it.

I the only letter he spoke.     

In these first nine lines, the speaker is not officially identified, although it’s easy to infer that the “I” is speaking. Line eight goes back to the abused person’s self-blame and lack of self-esteem.  Line nine speaks to the ego of the abuser. The “letter” continues like a play: first J speaks (the second section), then P (the third section). The density of the single stanza with no white space, no relief, intensifies the abuse. Yet, the poem ends with possibilities of hope: the sisters’ love for each other and the determination to escape:


Wherever you are, I am with you, allied beyond our 

ex who thieved even our eyes. Let’s excise our ex-selves. 

Yes, leave them. Yes, leave him. Un-

zip the monster from his cruel suit and fly.

The epistles and letter appear in all four sections of this collection. Interwoven are poems that vary in focus and form. “The List,” for example, is a conversation between the “I” and God, conducted in a forest with a table, tea sandwiches, and a red kettle. But any sense of Alice in Wonderland is immediately broken:


I had been lost 

in the woods a long time, running 

from the man who was trying to kill me.


Into this scene, the “I” brings images of trees that are changed, feet like fish, bodies of deer strewn as apples, and yellow wolves that feed on them. All of these are accompanied by the I-voice’s belief in what the abuser said. Again, self-blame and lack of self-esteem. God, female, tells the “I” to “Make a list,” then makes the “I” cross out lines on the list, all the time asking:  “Are you going to let a man do this to you?” “Who is going to do this to you?” By the end of the poem, God is bullying, just like the abusive man. The poem ends with the line, “She was beginning to shout. Who?” 

Ophelia and Demogorgon appear several times in the collection. The “I” relates to Ophelia, particularly in relation to death, although she recasts Ophelia, as in this example:


She doesn’t want to talk about

the time she tried to die.


Ophelia eventually slays Demogorgon. With “pockets full of rue,” the “I” wades into the brook. The reader thinks of Virginia Woolf, but, beneath the water, “the world flips.” The “I” calls “Come”—to the monster, the channel, the impossible light.


With my mind I drive 

into the monster until he breaks. His body bursts, 

hundreds of black, frantic moths. Then, ash.

I am the one who lives.

Images are threaded throughout this work.  For example, the ring in the first poem, where the “I” is “as small as a ring box,” recurs in the “Epistle from the Hospital For Cheaters,” turning the promise ugly:


Once, we made a promise in that world 

of papers and rings and aisles

that meant cold prison cell, that meant 

debt and paranoia and many small failings 

that took root as we stood in front of judges 

and priests, our teeth crawling with ’til death.


In “After Pawning the Engagement Ring,” the “I” waits in line, “the ring box / white as ivory, a severed tusk singeing a hole through my hand.” The ring in the “Epistle from the Funambulist Hospital for Invisibility” is a “ring of possibility.”  In “Ending the Affair at the Garden of Earthly Delights,” the “I” turns 


the ring he gave me over and over 

in my right hand, gold already worn, the cubic zirconia

glinting dully like molars in the museum’s white light.


In “Gravitron,” the “I” watches her almost-stepson


bottleneck a metal ring to win

one of the orange fish that eyed me

through the plastic blister of its prison.


Other images recur, too, taking on different meanings each time and turning the collection into a complex braid.

“The Spirit Change” is the longest poem in the collection, appearing at the end of the second part. As explained in the Acknowledgments, each section of this longer poem begins with an epigraph “taken from Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” The poet uses varied forms in each section—traditional, a list in four columns, couplets, triplets, single stanza, prose poem in a single block—to create a specific mood for each section. “Mom” figures extensively in this longer poem and, in the last section, we learn that both “Mom” and the “I” belong to AA.     

This collection is rich and varied, even as the poet hammers her themes home over and over. It’s fitting that the last poem is called “Vise” because these themes grab the reader and hold on long after the reading is over. The poem exhorts the reader to “remember” imperfections, thoughts, people, everything. And in the end, the poet exhorts:


Now let them go.




Aline Soules writing has appeared in such publications as The Kenyon Review, Houston Literary Review, Poetry Midwest, and The Galway Review.  She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in Danville, California. Learn more about Aline at