Metaphor as Shelter in The Court of No Record

By Jenny Molberg

Poet Jenny Molberg explores how individuals and institutions employ language, legal linguistics, and figures of speech to distort truth and punish those who seek it. She also discusses how metaphor and poetry can provide safe shelter for survivors, offering them space to process, heal, and reclaim themselves.

Thread, Greek or Roman, 1st century CE, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, 1895

Blue-sky laws. Thin-skull doctrine. Eggshell plaintiff. The golden thread. The long arm of the law. Metaphor has long permeated legal language. Despite the fact that the justice system aims to get closer to factual truth, much of this metaphorical language obfuscates, elides, and euphemizes. Because most of us are unschooled in legal linguistics until (god forbid) we are forced into learning it, metaphors in law can confuse, alienate, even subjugate, pushing the truth further from our grasp. As a poet, I find phrases like “the golden thread” fascinating. It signifies the presumption of innocence, and the image of that metaphor illuminates its fragile significance. But as a person who has dealt with legal proceedings that destabilized and silenced me, I find that these kinds of metaphors suggest that “truth” in the law is an inevitable failure of language.

While writing The Court of No Record, which contains a court hearing in verse set in the metaphorical “Broken Mirror County,” I found myself asking: When legal rhetoric is manipulated to exhaust, damage, and financially and emotionally drain people, especially disenfranchised people, how can one reempower themselves with language? How can one write about unfair legal proceedings without setting themselves up for more? It is easy to forget, in dialogues about injustice, that perpetrators often claim themselves as “victim,” and that a “defendant” is a human being, a racing pulse, aching joints, constricted breath—the long arm of the law reaching to further restrain them. Even though poetry, as Auden attested, “makes nothing happen,” can it give evidence that will never be heard in a court of law? Can metaphor, though it distorts, also serve and protect in a way the law fails to do? Dickinson, as always, calls to answer: Tell all the truth but tell it slant

I set out to correct the record. I set out to document my own trauma. I set out to elegize. I looked at my own court transcripts as documentary material. I listened to true crime podcasts. I watched documentaries. I read about victimology and crime scene investigation and the science of sociopathy. As Rick Barot tells us in The Galleons, “research is mourning.” I was studying, trying to make sense of sexual assault, abuse, and violence I’d sustained in my life. I wanted to understand how, why, what next. “There’s truth not in but under the details,” writes Vievee Francis in “The Accountant” from Forest Primeval, “like dirt beneath a rouged thumbnail, or / flesh under fingertips blued by ink and sugar. / There are secrets that won’t free you.” There are secrets beneath my poems: if I told them, I could bring legal and lasting harm to myself and others. But under the constraints of abuse, which has its own language, the truth is imperative, and one must keep saying it again and again, in whatever possible way, because someone in power means to break that reality. When shame and fear get too big to hold, the mirror shatters. It starts with a small crack until one cannot trust one’s own eyes, or gut, or fingernails.

Photo by Mick Haupt

To see myself in pieces—some recognizable, some morphed—is one kind of metaphor for the experience of trauma, it is Broken Mirror Country of The Court of No Record. This court of no record is twofold. It’s a literal place that is not safe to name, where the truth is silenced. And it’s a metaphorical place, where the silenced record lives, where the under-the-details truth can be uttered without fear, where the body can shout its own song—shame, fear, doubt—and be heard and judged, not for its ugly truth-telling but for its courage to do so. The Court of No Record is a place for everyone who speaks the slant language and feels the bodily necessity of metaphor: “the law is bone lonely,” as I say in “My Scorpion.” Metaphor can invoke pathos; it can bring a reader closer to understanding the dissociative nature of trauma; it can capture a speaker’s intentions or obfuscate a violence too difficult to confront on the page. I’d also like to put forth two more of its powers:

  1. Metaphor can protect the poet (and the speaker, if they are not one and the same), literally, from their perpetrators.
  2. Metaphor can extend outward from the personal, to capture the larger Truth of a societal problem that needs to be corrected: in the case of this book, a legal system that upholds patriarchal structure and cyclical abuse narratives that force a victim’s language underground.

When meditating on the role of the reader, or the audience, of a poem, Muriel Rukeyser writes in The Life of Poetry: “I suggest the old word ‘witness,’ which includes the act of seeing or knowing by personal experience as well as the act of giving evidence. The overtone of responsibility in this word is not present in the others; and the tension of the law makes a climate here which is that climate of excitement and revelation giving air to the work of art, announcing with the poem that we are about to change, that work is being done on the self.”

Through poetry that witnesses my own shame, fear, trauma, and, later, my own subsequent empowerment, it is my hope that I am driving some small wedge in an often-silenced dialogue, wherein many who are victims of intimate partner abuse and assault are unable to speak because of fear, legal oppression, personal damage, or even death. I had to find a way to keep that witnessing, and the process of survival, safe. Thus, the court hearing in the book occurs not in a real place but in a metaphor, Broken Mirror County. The judge is referred to as “The Honorable Answer.” The “Alpha’s Attorney” speaks only in misogynistic verse from the Old Testament, as that language is more emotionally true than what was literally said. Then, in the third section of the book, a Bitch persona appears, all swagger and self-assuredness, to capture the kind of tough healing I wished for myself and so many others who have experienced similar silencing. The Bitch of this book stands for hope, a proclamation of the self’s sacredness, a reclamation.

If you, dear reader, speak the slant language, I see you. I wrote this book for you.

Jenny Molberg is the author of the poetry collections Marvels of the Invisible and Refusal. As a National Endowment for the Arts fellow, she has published in Ploughshares, the Rumpus, AGNI, Adroit Journal, Oprah Quarterly, and other literary outlets. She is associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri, where she edits Pleiades.

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Jenny Molberg’s third collection of poetry, The Court of No Record, serves as both evidence and testimony against a legal system that often fails victims of physical trauma and domestic abuse. Drawing inspiration from true crime investigations and artifacts, including Frances Glessner Lee’s crime scene dioramas and the tragic aftermaths of two serial killers who preyed upon women in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Molberg probes a cultural obsession with violence that performs active erasure of victims’ lives. By engaging with historical texts through a personal lens, she sheds light on survivors who do not find justice and looks toward a future of positive systemic reformation.

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