The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded: Poems
By Molly McCully Brown
Persea Books: March 7, 2017
$15.95, 77 pages
In this time of national upheaval, people have searched for sources of solace and encouragement, whether it be friends, social media communities, foreign substances, or outright denial of reality. I have found it difficult to concentrate long enough to read many novels and, instead, have turned to poetry for the first time since I was an English major in college.
Novelist/writing teacher Beth Ann Fennelly mentioned on her Facebook page an upcoming poetry debut by Molly McCully Brown, one of her students in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi (where she is the John and Renee Grisham Fellow). Fennelly’s description piqued my interest, so I pre-ordered it on the spot (probably the first time I’ve done that with a book of poetry).
Brown, who is in her mid-20s, has written a haunting and beautiful collection of poems that combine to create a narrative of life in the institution of the title in 1935-36. Brown grew up near the colony and was familiar with its history, particularly in light of her own struggles with cerebral palsy. When she went away to college at Stanford, she began to research the VSCEF and to write poems that gave the patients a voice.
In her poems, Brown inhabits a range of patients, who suffer from various physical and developmental conditions. The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, divided into seven sections corresponding to locations on the colony grounds, depicts a world that was hidden during its more than half-century of existence and for years after. It is a place from which most patients never departed, their worlds narrowly circumscribed by their physical or mental limitations. But, as Brown demonstrates through her remarkable act of literary compassion, their emotional lives were not nearly as stunted.
The most disturbing aspect of the colony’s work – and some of the poems here – is the belief in eugenics that led to the sterilization of many patients, either against their will or without their comprehension.
The effect of reading these 37 poems is to feel as if you have read a densely rendered novel, which is a testament both to Brown’s insight and the masterful compression of ideas and images contained in her poems. The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded is such a mature, confident debut that it feels as if it has always been here, a classic widely shared and taught in every literature class. I am certain I will never forget this book and the people who live and die in its pages.
“Where You Are (I)”
Here, every season is too much of itself.
The winter comes through the break
in the windowpane and grows colder.
The snow bears on the dogwood branches
until they clatter to the ground
like felled bodies.
The summer is all sweat
and evening thunderstorms
that bring no water.
The heat warps everything wooden:
makes small mountains in the floorboards,
keeps the drawers from closing.
The doors are locked.
This is where the longest hours pass,
all these rows of narrow bunks, low lights.
One girl after another laughs,
lifts her hair from her neck,
moans in her sleep,
reaches out and brushes
someone else’s shoulder.
If you have the body for it, you’re bound for the fields
to pick strawberries and coax the milk from the cows,
or hired out to make baking powder biscuits and gravey,
to sweep floors and wash and fold a stranger’s clothes.
You come back on a truck after sunset, raw and ragged, covered
in flour, tobacco, or clay. You come back bone-tired and bruised,
burned dead out and ready to be shut away. You sleep.
I know all this from stories; I do not have the body for it.
I do not go to the fields, or the barns, or the parlors of other folks’ houses.
I wake at sunrise when they wake the rest, lie in bed
til somebody hauls me out and puts me by the window. Lord, I know
to want to work’s a foolish thing to those who’ve got a body built for working.
I was as close to born here as you can get, brought twisted and mewling
to the gates and left. Since then, I am one long echo of somebody else’s life.
Every understanding that I have is scrap, is shard, is secondhand.
Distance: the space between the porch railing
and the rise of the blue ridge.
Water: what comes from a bucket to my body on Sundays;
what I open my mouth for, morning and night.
Sex: The days the girls come back smelling of whiskey,
snuff, and sweat, and something sharp.
“The Convulsions Choir”
They did not build
I overheard one night nurse
talking to another.
They meant it for the staff
as a refuge
from the stench,
the idiot, & the insane.
They meant: you will need God
more than ever
in this place.
we are a whole host of reasons
to stop believing in anything.
I am the worst thing
the reasoned world
an otherwise lovely girl
daily visited by radical disorder
they say spawns somewhere
quiet & foaming
in the wounded matter
of my body & my brain.
all hands become
More people touch you
in a single day than have touched you
in all the hours of the last, dry year.
The doctors tell you all the things
you know about yourself
as if it’s news.
“You are unwell.
You are in pain.
Something is wrong.”
You think that whatever is happening
after all this time is a solution
I will remember this day as the day
I came back to my body.
This time, I will anchor myself
to my bones more firmly.
You pull a boat far off the water
when you know it will storm.