Remarkable poetry debut depicts with insight and compassion the world of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded

  

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.

***

“Labor”

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

the church

for us.

 

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.

 

After all,

we are a whole host of reasons

to stop believing in anything.

 

I am the worst thing

the reasoned world

has wrought,

 

an otherwise lovely girl

daily visited by radical disorder

they say spawns somewhere

quiet & foaming

in the wounded matter

of my body & my brain.

….

***

“The Cleaving”

At first,

all hands become

suddenly gentle.

 

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

being born.

 

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.

 ….

THE GEOMETRY OF LOVE attempts to solve the problem of a tangled love triangle

The Geometry of Love Jessica Levine

The Geometry of Love

By Jessica Levine

SheWrites Press: April 8, 2014

286 pages, $16.95

Jessica Levine’s debut novel, The Geometry of Love, asks whether a woman with a fiercely creative spirit can ever be content without being married to her muse. It is an astute psychological study of a young woman named Julia Field, an aspiring poet 10 years out of college and 10 years into a relationship with her brilliant British boyfriend, Ben. Julia has put her creative impulses and career on the back burner to follow Ben, who is now on the tenure track at Princeton. Although she is very much a Manhattan girl who thrives on the city’s energy as a source of stimulation and happiness, she has moved to a house in the New Jersey countryside not far from the university, where she is employed as the math department secretary. A chance meeting with Ben’s college roommate, classical pianist and composer Michael, stirs up long-dormant desires, and conflicts and quandaries ensue.

Levine has written an intensely focused novel about one woman in her early 30s who is trying to sort out her life. She is preoccupied with several questions. How did she end up in this place? (Shades of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”) Did she make the right decisions along the way? Has she compromised too much? Is she truly satisfied with her long-running relationship with Ben, who is by all accounts (including hers) a devoted, charming, attractive, and economically stable guy with a bright future? What happened to her creative impulse and her desire to be a poet? Is anyone to blame, or is that just how life works? Will cautious Ben propose to her now that he is on the verge of obtaining tenure? Does Michael have a place in her (or their) life anymore? Is it time for Julia to think of herself for once? She has the opportunity to take over her father’s successful financial advising business but that would necessitate living in Manhattan; can she and Ben live apart during the week and alternate weekends between her apartment and their house near Princeton? Would Ben be willing to live in the city and take the train to work? How can they make it all fit together?

From the description above, one could well view the plot as nothing more than a soap opera for smart people, a look into the lives of privileged people struggling to cope with “first world problems.” The Geometry of Love is generally successful in achieving its goals of closely examining the nature of relationships, love, desire, and creativity, but it’s also not surprising that readers seem to have fallen into two camps, love it or hate it.

To some, Julia is immature, unrealistic, impractical, self-indulgent, and neurotic. She is, perish the thought, less than likable. To others, she is just a perfectly normal person, full of complexities, contradictions, and confusion, and thus eminently sympathetic.

I lean strongly toward the latter position, due largely to the strength of Levine’s writing and her deep understanding of what makes these characters tick. I found Julia, Ben, and Michael, and a cast of intriguing supporting characters, to be alternately sympathetic and annoying, and on some occasions even infuriating – just like most of the people in the real world. I found myself immersed in Julia’s world, wondering what would happen next, what the main characters would do, and how what eventually becomes a very messy situation would sort itself out.

Julia and Ben have what appears to be a strong and loving relationship that has stood the test of time. Everyone believes they belong together. On paper, Julia should be fulfilled and content. But recently she has grown increasingly restless, and the meeting with bearded, bohemian Michael has led her to question her life with renewed intensity. She feels she has reached the fork in the road where she must make a commitment to her future; the rest of her life lies ahead, but what kind of future does she want? Her relationship with Ben is comfortable, but it often lacks the spark of truly happy couples who like as well as love each other. It’s clear that Eros plays a key role in creative inspiration for Julia, and that is missing in her otherwise “ideal” life.

“[Ben] saw a relationship as a kind of cathedral under endless construction,” notes Julia. “But I saw it – now – as a living organism with its own peculiar cycles of growth and aging. Woody Allen’s words in Annie Hall came back to me: A relationship is like a shark; it needs to keep moving or it dies.”

Julia soon becomes torn between her intense feelings for Michael – who seems to be her muse – and her devotion to Ben. She is caught in the age-old conundrum. Should she choose passion and poetry or “the good life” of an Ivy League professor’s wife, which would still allow her considerable freedom? Should she follow her heart or her mind? Can either one be trusted? The plot is rich and complicated and develops in a realistic manner until the home stretch, which feels rushed and slightly contrived.

But even when the characters make questionable decisions, acting (or failing to act) implausibly, they don’t necessarily seem unrealistic because people in this type of situation often behave erratically. They can be desperate, deluded, destructive – and full of rationalizations that are convincing only to themselves. The destruction left in their wake by lovers inhabiting their own insular world is very real, and some of it is given short shrift here. There is a lot of thinking and talking about the consequences of various courses of action, but the realistic ramifications are not explored as fully as I would have liked (and as Levine did so well in the first three-quarters of the book). If The Geometry of Love were an actual geometry problem, Levine’s solution would be correct, but in showing her work, one can see that she has omitted a step or two.

Despite these relatively minor drawbacks, The Geometry of Love is an involving read that poses many questions sure to generate lots of discussion; it would make an excellent choice for a book club. Levine deserves particular credit for writing realistic sex scenes between mature, passionate people, and her exploration of female desire is especially impressive. These scenes are central to understanding the characters involved in this love triangle, and we learn a great deal about them through Levine’s skilled handling of this sensitive material.

CITIZEN examines current Black American experience with powerful prose-poetry

Citizen   Claudia Rankine 2014

Citizen: An American Lyric

By Claudia Rankine

Graywolf Press (Oct.  7, 2014)

169 pages, $20.00

If ever there was a book for and of its time, it is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Rankine, a poet and essayist, considers what it means to be a black American in 2014, six years after the election of the first black president. While there was much talk in 2008 and 2009 about America entering a post-racial era, it was mostly a naïve wish. Of course, what we learned was that we were entering an era in which racists were the ones who felt rejuvenated, crawling out from under their rocks to spew hate in every direction, but particularly toward the (half-) black man who dared to occupy the White House.

Those who pay attention to issues of race, culture, and economics may know quite a bit about these subjects. But do they understand what it means to be black, here and now? Do they understand what it feels like to go through life with your skin color defining you before you have a chance to say or do anything on which you might more fairly be judged? Only the smug and arrogant – and most oblivious — would make such a claim (as we have seen frequently in the media, particularly in the last few weeks).

One can argue that substantial gains have been made and that life has never been better for black Americans. But rather than nearing the end of this journey toward true equality and acceptance, we are discovering that the oasis ahead was a mirage and that we have miles to go before we reach our destination.

Rankine makes this clear by taking us on a personal and conceptual journey through the contemporary black experience in Citizen. Through a hybrid of prose-poetry essays and more traditional poetic approaches, Rankine forces readers to face the daily reality of being black. It is, in many ways, a case of death by a thousand cuts.

Citizen is divided into seven parts, each of which addresses a different aspect of, or takes a different approach to, the subject. The philosophical, almost stream of consciousness introduction moves into a series of incidents in which black Americans encounter the manifest forms of racism, from benign ignorance to virulent hatred. Rankine has explained in recent interviews that these experiences came mostly from friends and colleagues, as well as her own life.

And it stings to read about these accumulated insults, indignities, slights, misplaced resentment, and the like. In one scene, a well-traveled black woman settles into her window seat on the plane. A woman and her young daughter stop in the aisle. The girl tells her mother, “These are our seats, but this is not what I expected.” The mother replies, “I’ll sit in the middle.”

In another, a black woman visiting her alma mater is joined at lunch by a white alumnus, who proceeds to explain that her son was not accepted at their prestigious college because of affirmative action or some such program, as if the black alumna were somehow responsible for either the policy or the school’s legacy decision.

A black woman schedules an appointment with a therapist over the phone. When she arrives at the therapist’s home office and rings the doorbell, a woman throws open the door and screams, “Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?” Rankine writes, “It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or German shepherd has gained the power of speech.” Stunned, she manages to tell the woman she has an appointment. “Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so so sorry.”

Even a skeptic will be forced to acknowledge that a constant onslaught of interactions – most of them negative — based on one’s race would be exhausting, disheartening, and eventually infuriating.

In another section, Rankine explores the incident at the 2009 U.S. Open tennis tournament in which Serena Williams became infuriated with a line judge’s call and verbally accosted her. “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” Rankine asks. “Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.’”

Rankine reviews an earlier incident, at the 2004 U.S. Open, in which the chair umpire was excused from officiating finals matches after making five egregiously bad calls against Serena in her semifinal match against Jennifer Capriati. “Though no one was saying anything explicitly about Serena’s black body, you are not the only viewer who thought it was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line.” That match led to the introduction a year later of the Hawk-Eye line-calling technology. The 2009 incident is thus given context that didn’t exist for most viewers at the time, who wondered, as did Rankine, if Williams had (finally) lost her mind.

By piling up these painful anecdotes, Rankine simulates the experience of being black. But Citizen is not a laundry list of complaints or an exercise in self-pity. After sensitizing the reader by guiding us for a mile in black shoes, Rankine shifts to a deeply felt analysis of the consequences of implicit and explicit racism, concluding that one can’t simply shake off a lifetime – not to mention a racial and cultural history — of such experiences and pretend it doesn’t exist.

“The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”

Rankine also analyzes the uses and abuses of language in expressing race-based ideas and emotions and reaches a counterintuitive conclusion. “For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering [philosopher Judith] Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.”

Much of the second half of Citizen comprises prose narrative “scripts for situation videos” that Rankine made with her husband, John Lucas. These scripts take us through a series of deaths of black men and boys at the hands of whites, often police officers, including early 20th century lynchings, the Jena Six, James Craig Anderson, and Trayvon Martin. Rankine also considers such related matters as New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” policy, which unfairly singled out black men (“And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description”), the contrast between U.K. and U.S. media reporting on race-related incidents, and the 2006 World Cup head-butting incident involving France’s legendary soccer player, Zinedine Zidane, who is of Algerian Berber descent.

A section on Hurricane Katrina is particularly wrenching, as she interpolates multiple voices.

“Then someone else said it was the classic binary between the rich and the poor, between the haves and have-nots, between the whites and the blacks, in the difficulty of all that…. The missing limbs, he said, the bodies lodged in piles of rubble, dangling from rafters, lying facedown, arms outstretched on parlor floors…. What I’m hearing, she said, which is sort of scary, is they want to stay in Texas…. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, she said, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them…. Then this aestheticized distancing from Oh my God, from unbelievable, from dehydration, from overheating, from no electricity, no power, no way to communicate.”

Rankine has crafted a multi-faceted exploration of the contemporary black American experience that succeeds both as a work of literature and a public service at a time when such an exploration is desperately needed. Now, if only we could put a copy of Citizen in the hands of every American adult.

Poet-Provocateur Jessica Helen Lopez drops C**t.Bomb.

Cunt.Bomb.  jessica helen lopez

Cunt.Bomb.

A Chapbook by Jessica Helen Lopez

Create Space Indep. Publishing

38 pages, $10.95

You were stunned — perhaps even shocked and appalled — by the title, weren’t you? That is the intention of poet provocateur Jessica Helen Lopez. She seeks to reclaim the word “cunt” from its current position as a palabra non grata, the equivalent of Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series (“he-who-must-not-be-named”). Instead, feminist-activist-slam poet Lopez wants to use the word to wield female power in all its guises.

In the ten poems contained in this chapbook, Lopez explores the many roles that make up a woman, as well as the thoughts and feelings that correspond with each. She explores the dualities in a woman’s life; her persona alternates between tender and tough, sentimental and sassy, spiritual and sexual. She is a woman, a wife, a mother, a sister, a lover, a poet, a provocateur. She is fully human.

Lopez knows the title of her chapbook is shocking to many. In the Foreword, she notes, “For those who recoil at the thought of the title of this humble chapbook, I invite you to sit and listen/read for a bit….I uncover for myself women…who fight against the oppression and pillage against women and of course who dive whole-heartedly into the vastness and mysterious complexity of unbridled sexuality. Yes, I love the cunt. Yes, I have one. And yes, I will continue to use the word because it is not disparaging but rather has been wrangled into submission for hundreds of years; only to be used against women and girls as a tool for abuse and means of brutal capitulation..”

In the title poem, Lopez stakes out her territory, literally and figuratively.

“the cunt is absolutely

not a bomb

it will not hand-grenade explode

your skull open like a cantaloupe

brain matter writhing against

the wall behind your head

it will not shred your hands

to lace if you happen to finger

the trigger every now and then.”

In a handful of lines, she faces head-on the almost superstitious wariness some have of what she describes as “the velvety walls of the cunt…the blue-black ocean of true origin.”

In the following lines you can hear the rhythms and verbal acrobatics of the slam poet onstage under a hot spotlight.

“the cunt is not a rude house guest

soiling the kitchen towels, sneaking

bacon scraps to your arthritic dog

the cunt is not a rapist,

nor a necromancer

because Webster says it is so

cunt is the most disparaging word

in the English language”

In short, she concludes,

“recall that the cunt

yields great power

which is to say

it will scare a great many

people”

In “A Poem for My Breasts,” Lopez addresses her tempestuous and ever-evolving relationship with the other part of her body that allows a woman to be both mother and lover, nurturer and seductress.

“Understand that I hoped for you before I knew what you were…I courted the both of you. With the wistful mirror gazes of adolescence…The bemoaning vigilance that my body should open into symphony at last.”

Even now she acknowledges that her breasts still retain control over her. “I write this braless, without blouse and warmed by the dapple of white sun bleaching the skin. No, I lie to you, breasts. I sit twisted as always into this vise grip of black satin, underwire sneering. The padding, the lift, the lace and trellis of the pinched breasts. This embarrassingly expensive bra.”

“Thought Woman” finds Lopez mining a spiritual vein deep in Meso-American history and culture, exploring her personal creation story.

“[Thought Woman] stitched a burlap body, brown of course

and blew sand into it.

This to be the me of me.

My insides tierra and just a drop of moisture.

She took four long ropes of her hair.

Onyx like Moctezuma’s eyes and threaded the burlap

girl/boy body….

Thought Woman sang me into this world —

to let me cry, to bleed,

give babies to this land,

invoke dream stories,

to inscribe the world with

my something.”

“Kissy Kissy — for the Young Feminist at the Playground” captures a moment in her childhood when, in the reflected light of a boy’s crush on her, young Jessica discovered a key part of her true self. It also features perhaps the best imagery and most mellifluous language in this collection.

“A skinny boy like a live wire and

skin the color of ten melted

caramels atop a warm television set…

He liked me sure enough — called me

his woman, my sixth-grade hips

but only a slight jump rope

tremor beneath my yellow picture day dress….

Bubba asked me to meet him

during second recess behind

the kissing tree

and I would have if only

just to see the amber flame of his eyes

lashes long and spider soft

curled upward like a girl.

He waited with his entourage of

kickballers and sixth-grade romantics.

It was the historic kiss that never was.

The cottonwood was afloat that day

seed like muted firefly or snow

or furry white boats that coasted and

caught the breeze to tickle my nose

I was perfecting the cherry bomb

from the top rung of the jungle gym…

I was not the kisser of boys.

Nobody’s hipless woman.

No make-believe wife

playing house behind the maple tree.”

Despite the many lines I have quoted here, there is much more to the beginning, middle and, especially, the end of “Kissy Kissy” for the reader to discover.

Lopez recalls one of her childhood birthday parties in “The Mother.” In reviewing old photographs, she ultimately realizes what is missing from the photographs — and from her childhood.

“You hosted one birthday party in honor

of me my whole life. I was four years young

and it was a California Easter Sunday.

The kind of Sunday people move

to the West Coast for…

I am ten years older than you then.

A whole decade and more of misdirected men

have come and gone for me, a daughter

of my own. Many birthdays since

that I care less to remember.

And it took me this long to notice

the one thing missing from those

Easter photos that long ago day.”

A two-word line ends the poem with a gut punch the reader is not expecting.

The concluding poem, “Diana the Huntress,” depicts a vigilante woman avenging the rapes and deaths of working women outside of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso.

“The newspapers jabbered like angry bees

and the AP wire was alive with the

electricity of my name

Diana the Huntress

and I fear no moon, Lady of the Wild Creatures

La Cazadora worshipped by the womanly

workforce

of Juarez…

I only ever wanted soft righteousness not a countryside

riddled with the husks of dead raped women

They were like wild mustangs, the dark-eyed girls, cuckolded

shepherded to the slaughter; knees like young colts,

necks bared and naked breasts an offering to the swine…

reaping

sowing

beseeching

vengeance”

The ten ticking bombs in this chapbook demonstrate why Jessica Helen Lopez was recently named one of the “30 Poets in Their 30s to Watch” by Muzzle magazine and why she holds the title of 2012 and 2014 Women of the World (WOW) City of ABQ Champion.

Lopez is a member of the Macondo Foundation, an association of socially engaged writers founded by Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street, Caramelo) to advance creativity, foster generosity, and honor community. She is the founder of La Palabra – The Word is a Woman collective and is a TED Talk speaker.

Her first collection of poetry, Always Messing With Them Boys, was published by West End Press in 2011.

The 2013 VIDA Count is in: “Two steps forward, one step back”

VIDA logo

VIDA — Women in Literary Arts has completed its annual gender parity count of publications that cover literature, which it characterized as “two steps forward, one step back.” VIDA tracks key publications (newspaper literary supplements, magazines, and journals) to see how many books by women are reviewed and how many of the reviewers are women.

The 2013 “VIDA Count” shows improvement by a few key publications in reaching gender parity, particularly The Paris Review. Poetry maintains its balance. Tin House, Callaloo, Conjunctions, The Gettysburg Review, n+1, The Missouri Review, Ninth Letter, New American Writing, and Prairie Schooner published a slight majority of reviews by women or reviews of books by women. Several other publications approached gender parity in 2013.

Some of the “dinosaurs” are continuing to emphasize books by men, as well as the use of male book reviewers. The prime offenders are the Times (of London) Literary Supplement (TLS), The Atlantic, London Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker.

http://www.vidaweb.org/the-count-2013/