Review of The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown
March 26, 2017
by katherine frain, guest book reviewer
I had never before heard of a blind room, and after reading Molly McCully Brown’s debut poetry collection The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, I almost want to embrace the privilege of hopeful amnesia – to pretend I still didn’t know that America blueprinted the Nazi eugenics movement, and that the blind room was the place in the Virginia asylum where patients went to be erased from history.
Molly McCully Brown is herself a potential ‘patient’ of the place. A writer with cerebral palsy who is currently a John and Renee Grisham Fellow at the University of Mississippi, her book negotiates a gently haunting place between the hard history of self and the empathetic sisterhood of those like her whose experiences she has nonetheless never known. With a skillfully navigated voice, Brown makes it clear that although disability may present itself as magical, it is the girls themselves who are transcendent – as when one falling backwards into hallucinations notes:
in church I used to laugh at the folks who waltzed up the aisle
to the preacher’s hand to have a demon cast out or swallow the Lord
It is the remembrance of normalcy and the understanding that there is a life that has been taken from them which often renders the girls heartbreaking and real. And it is a lifeline for readers who otherwise may not have the opportunity to understand any experiences the girls have.
butter & a drawn bath.
It is important to remember that once
you had a good life.
The solemn loveliness of some lines in Brown’s work, however, is betrayed occasionally by the flat statement of others. At times, it seems that the work could benefit from some succinctness, that a shorter line and poem might work. “Prayer for the Wretched Among Us” is one of the most beautiful poems in this collection, and also exemplifies the issue: it takes four stanzas, each the size of a good poem, to explain a worker’s religion and fear. Ultimately, the issues of overwriting are conquered easily by Brown’s poised, echoing use of silence, but I am looking for small flaws because this is a work in which only small flaws exist.
Perhaps I expect people to be simpler than they are, especially when they are in the process of becoming monsters. Brown makes a tricky leap by attempting to write from the perspectives of the asylum workers themselves, men and women who sedated, loved, fed, clothed, raped, abused, and sold the girls in their care, and under her pen they become more human and understandable than I would care to admit. “What There is To Give” speaks to this – it reaches into the financial difficulties of families who had to give their daughters away, and calmly but devastatingly asks:
would you load what little you have
on a boat: stack it with carrots,
and sardines and silver,
then push it, unmanned,
onto the river at night?
It is uncomfortably difficult for me to make Brown’s point of humanity against the speaker’s point of hunger. In a turn that I’ve rarely seen poetry books today make, Brown flips the question to ask us how today we might still be primed to be complicit in horrors. The answer is not reassuring, nor is it intended to be. Poetry is a straight shot to a sense of humanity; it cuts through the need to justify a life, the way fiction stories constantly struggle to create characters who are ‘compelling,’ ‘interesting,’ ‘worth reading.’ The poem blows those assumptions out of the water, and by granting this form to those historically engaged in practices we’d today consider crimes, Brown makes the point that in the case of disabled people, we are often just as likely to grant human consideration to the abuser as the abused. She makes no comment on whether this is a morally defensible position – a debate for another day, one that requires an obliteration of the character-specific stories she focuses on – but it is a question necessarily entailed by reading The Virginia State Colony. And it’s a deeply necessary question.
As far as the dry question of art goes, there is no debate. The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded is art, and purposeful and fantastic art at that – ask the committee for the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, or Gabriel Fried, the poetry editor at Persea, who sent me the book with the enclosed note: “it is one of the most singular first books of poems I have published in almost twenty years”. Brown deserves every praise that comes her way – the poetry is incredible, and the history that it reveals as painful as it is necessary to understand.