KR Reviews

On The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown

New York, NY: Persea Books. March, 2017. 80 pages. $15.95.

Increasingly, it seems to be the case that books of poetry have to present themselves as projects rather than simply collections. In some cases this causes poets to unconvincingly wrangle disparate pieces into fitting a thematic throughline. This is particularly characteristic of debuts, as young writers are likely hoping to present their greatest hits from years of learning a variety of styles. Or we see a lot of poetry books that are split into two parts, one poetic sequence grafted onto a free-for-all. In a current scene in which the line between project manuscript and poetic sequence are increasingly blurred, it’s refreshing to encounter a work like The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, a debut collection from a young poet, Molly McCully Brown, that radiates such a sense of confident and purposeful unity.

Winner of Persea’s 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry, Brown’s project explores the traumatic history of the eponymous building in whose shadow “by some accident of luck or grace” she grew up. It begins with an explanatory preface summarizing the place’s nightmarish past: opening in 1910, by 1924 “the Colony became formally enmeshed with the Eugenics movement and began sterilizing, without their consent, patients it deemed ‘defectives.’ . . . From the mid-1920s through the mid-1950s, more than 7,000 people were sterilized in Virginia, often without their knowledge.” Already in the title of the opening poem, “The Central Virginia Training Center—formerly The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded,” we can see an attempt to rewrite history through rebranding. This erasure could be likened to the sterilizations that took place at the facility in that both were intended to contain the spread of a perceived threat. The title grounds this poem closer to the present day and seems to establish the consciousness of the poet herself and the encounter that will catalyze the book. Brief references to the poet’s own disability subtly awaken corollaries that will haunt the unfolding text, preventing the narrated events from seeming lodged strictly in the past:

I am my own kind of damaged there
looking out the right-hand window.
Spastic, palsied and off-balance,
I’m taking crooked notes about this place.

The speaker summons a spectral progression, an imagined group of patients winding around the apocalyptic buildings, beckoning us into the past, this “great / tract of land slowly ceding / itself back to dust.”

After that first poem, the collection is divided into seven sections that progress through the seasons from fall 1935 to fall 1936 and explore the layout of the Colony: the dormitory, the “blind room” (the colony’s version of solitary confinement), the field, the chapel, an “interlude,” the infirmary, and back to the dormitory. Beginning and ending with the dormitory allows Brown to show us how the semblance of intimacy and privacy allowed by this space—“we go to the window & make / a game of racing dogwood blossoms / knocked down by the wind”—is transformed via sterilizations disguised as appendectomies into a grim camaraderie based on phantom pain and confusion, a rumor of collective theft. “It is not an appendectomy,” an unnamed victim we’ve followed through her surgery realizes. “It does not cure the pain or shaking. / Others say there is some soreness between the legs, / and then a sense, which will not leave you, that something’s been undone.”

Though the poems in this collection appear formally simple—gravitating towards tercets and free verse—Brown is often using subtle techniques to add contrapuntal qualities to her stanzas, the most basic being a call-and-response effect created by the simple use of pushed margins and italics. At times this formatting move signals a discernible shift in point of view, psychic distance, or temporality—but even more unsettling is when it doesn’t, and we are left grasping at the eerie intelligence at work in depicting the rivenness of these lives. Caesuras pock the long lines of several poems, grouping words vertically in such a way that permits multicursoral reading paths. A number of other poems end by plucking three words from the text and offering abstract associative connotations. This effect instantly gives the poems a three-dimensionality, new signification spoking out from the highlighted words. In “Psalm,” for example, this technique enlivens and upsets our typical associations with the Christian trinity, stacking them like the pitches of a musical triad:

Father: Whatever force or fate has made me like this.
Son: What will protect your daughters from a future like mine.
Holy Ghost: You cannot hear what I am saying
                       in the cathedral of my head.

While the characters it presents are imagined, the book shares the mission and spirit of great documentary poetry sequences like Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead or even Gottfried Benn’s Morgue. It’s a book that makes us feel the nearness of events we might like to chalk up as ancient history, today’s readers separated from the colony’s sterilizations by “some window less than half a century wide.” One way Brown contracts the decades between then and now is by inserting invented sterilization forms for three patients into the “Infirmary” section. There on each of the pages is the title of Brown’s book taking on a different and withering significance, the patient’s name and “Register Number,” a tidy X designating the purported disability—insane, idiotic, imbecile, feebleminded, epileptic—and another X for the treatment, vasectomy or salpingectomy. Not only do these pages recall the contemporaneous wizards of paperwork wreaking havoc across the Atlantic, but they also bear eerie resemblance to standards of bureaucratic efficiency in 2018.  By refusing to allow America to forget we did these things, it draws our attention to the ways in which we still do them through our othering and reification of inconvenient bodies and minds. Our simple daily impatience and gawking.

While an evocative setting isn’t enough by itself to distinguish a collection, there’s something about Brown’s situating of the reader in a specific geography local to her upbringing that renders the book a virtual model of the Colony, a pushpin pulsing forever on a map in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The text transfers to us her truly uncanny relationship to the grounds, a place that is familiar and proximal but impossible to call home. We’re led by so talented a guide that she tricks us into feeling as though we’re guideless, in danger of becoming lost in the place and the past. Looking more closely still, readers might be startled to encounter ruins that before had gone unnoticed, might understand that the Colony is merely synecdoche for millennia of fear-induced medical abuse. In The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, Molly McCully Brown shows us how a powerful poet can turn hauntedness into a haunting. Her book becomes a séance—and what replies.

Joe Sacksteder
Joe Sacksteder’s story collection, Make/Shift (Sarabande Books), and debut novel, Driftless Quintet (Schaffner Press), are forthcoming in 2019. His album of Werner Herzog audio collages is available from Punctum Books. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, where he's managing editor of Quarterly West. Recent publications include Salt Hill, Ninth Letter, Denver Quarterly, and The Rumpus.