The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded
Molly McCully Brown
Publisher: Persea Books
2017, 77, paperback, $16
MOLLY MCCULLY BROWN’S The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded is a necessary act in empathy for any reader. The collection recounts life inside of the real institution of that name during the 1930s, its peak of activity. True to its name, the institution diagnosed and operated on its patients—including the forced sterilization of those patients it deemed unworthy of passing on their genes. Inside of this starkness, McCully Brown asks us in, to think about the body when it becomes the focus of a person’s life.
McCully Brown gives us an intimate tour of the Colony. Each section of her book is devoted to a new room or space in the Colony, and each begins with its own “Where You Are” poem. These poems show you exactly what the Blind Room, the Dormitory, the Field, and the Chapel are like, and each space has new rules that govern how the body moves inside them. Each room is larger in spirit than it is in size—of the Field, she writes:
“The thing about Shenandoah
is everything is always bending
its knees toward ruin or preparing
to rise from the ash” (29).
Despite the confinement and desperation, the patients find spare moments of solace and togetherness with one another. These moments are precious, and their happening through McCully Brown is magic at its finest. In “Every Other Thing I See Is a Ghost,” McCully Brown gives us a patient evaluating what beauty is left:
“that’s it for beauty or also there’s the way at night
the girls in nearby beds teach one another to cuss whisper
goddam it you bastard sigh goddamn it all to hell” (12).
What McCully Brown’s work in empathy amounts to is nothing short of wild and exquisite, and each reader should leave her poems evaluating their own body and the space it takes up. Despite The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded’s journey from room to room of the Colony, its real attention is on the worth and potential of the body as she examines the abuse and mistreatment of patients. Each speaker is keenly aware of themselves in a way that is unlike our own world. In fact, “To That Girl, As An Infant” shows us a body that is unlike any other, and better for its difference:
“What becomes beautiful is the wildest thing.
You are made from all that and a thicket
of thistle, a boat full of cardamom pods,
a room in a house in Virginia.
Beloved, you are held in every
improbable thing I’ve ever done.” (50)
Ultimately, McCully Brown’s poems are odes to various bodies and the people that are judged for them: the faithful, the undressed, the operated-on, the made-sterile, the wild but fearful, and those that are named the “feebleminded.” McCully Brown has crafted mirrors out of her poems: what then are our bodies?
— Katherine Stingley
Molly McCully Brown is the author of The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books, 2017), which won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. Raised in rural Virginia, she is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Stanford University, and the University of Mississippi, where she received her MFA in poetry.
Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Kenyon Review, Image, Colorado Review, TriQuarterly Online, The Rumpus, Meridian, and elsewhere. She’s been the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from the Civitella Ranieri foundation, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the University of Mississippi, where she was a John and Renée Grisham fellow.
She is the 2017-2018 Jeff Baskin Writers Fellow at The Oxford American magazine, where she is at work on a collection of essays about disability, poetry, religion, and the American South that explores the relationship between the body and that intangible other we sometimes call the soul.
Olivia Clare was born in New York in 1982 and raised in Louisiana. She holds master’s degrees from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Southern California, as well as a PhD from the University of Nevada. She is an Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Sam Houston State University. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, n+1, Boston Review, and Southern Review, among other publications, and she’s the author of a book of poems, The 26-Hour Day.