Molly McCully Brown’s first book of poems, “The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded,” is part history lesson, part séance, part ode to dread. It arrives as if clutching a spray of dead flowers. It is beautiful and devastating.
The title refers to an actual place. The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded was a government-run residential hospital in Amherst County, Va. It opened in 1910.
Its doctors were eugenicists. From the mid-1920s through the mid-1950s, thousands of patients, seen as defectives and moral nonentities, were sterilized without their consent. For many if not most of its residents, it was a house of horrors.
Brown grew up 15 miles from this looming brick institution, which since 1983 has been known as the Central Virginia Training Center. Recalling how she would drive past it with her mother, she writes, in this volume’s only autobiographical poem:
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.
Anyone who has followed her poems and essays in small magazines will know, though it’s stated nowhere in this book, that the author has cerebral palsy, a congenital disorder she has described in an essay as “a little like a stroke that happens when you are born.”
The “crooked notes” she began taking while young blossomed into a historical obsession. This book of poems is a feat of research worn lightly. Most of it is set in the mid-1930s, during the Depression, and the point of view moves among patients, caregivers, priests and harried others.
“Haven’t you heard the news?/There is no longer enough in the world,” one caregiver declares about this era of want. She continues, while dreaming hungrily about the carrots and sardines she imagines floating down the river to her:
Sometimes, when we’re bringing
in a girl, I catch her face before we shut
the door and she looks almost lovely:
a useless barge lit up,
bearing away on the water.
In its formal design this book resembles a slender ghost version of James Agee’s text for “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1940), his tangled epic about Alabama sharecroppers. Agee and the photographer Walker Evans made their trip to Alabama about the same time Brown’s book is set.
Brown’s table of contents has echoes of Agee’s. Where his book repeats sections titled “On the Porch,” she gathers her poems under headings like “In the Field (Winter 1935-1936)” and “In the Infirmary (Summer 1936).” Where Agee’s text included a section titled “Intermission: Conversation in the Lobby,” Brown’s book includes a cluster of poems presented as an “Interlude.”
Brown’s impulses, like Agee’s, are both documentary and poetic. Her book works because her blank verse, with its seemingly unstudied enjambments, is supple yet pared down. This is restrained writing that nonetheless contains all its essential oils.
Brown’s diction, her bearing on the page, is precise but unfussy. She marshals exacting details (those sardines and carrots). Her psychological pantry is well stocked. If a handful of these poems drift sideways rather than push down the page, they don’t lessen this book’s achievement.
Poets have long been attracted to, and afflicted by, mental illness. The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded was not exactly McLean, the psychiatric hospital associated with Harvard University, where Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and, later, David Foster Wallace spent time.
The Virginia institution’s patients were often abandoned there, sometimes in the middle of the night. Early in this collection, in the poem “Grand Mal Seizure,” a woman describes the calico and lace dresses she sews before they are taken away from her. Then she writes about a different sort of fabric:
Most nights, they knot
the bed sheet in my mouth
so I will not bite my tongue.
An awareness of faith sifts through Brown’s poems. In one, a family baptizes a daughter (“even half-wits might well have a soul to save”) before leaving her at the institution.
One of this collection’s most singular poems, “Prayer for the Wretched Among Us,” is related by a priest and catches his overwork and despair. It begins:
Always, they tell you to go
where God calls you.
What they don’t say is that, sometimes,
God will call you to the wilderness,
gesture toward the trees, and then
hang back and wave you on alone.
This is how I wound up granting absolution
to low-grade idiots and the worn-out women
who turn them over in bed at night and,
at dawn, go home to their own families,
try not to think of ghosts
wasting away in this world.
Here as elsewhere, Brown does not water down the terminology of mental illness in use at the time.
“This is the house of Bedlam,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote in her poem “Visits to St. Elizabeths,” about the mental hospital in Washington that held Ezra Pound after he was accused of treason and then judged insane after his anti-Semitic radio broadcasts during World War II.
The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded was its own house of bedlam. There was only one unintentional good thing about the surgeries the hospital performed on its unwilling patients: human contact. A woman tells us about her surgery:
More people touch you
in a single day than have touched you
in all the hours of the last, dry year.
Book: THE VIRGINIA STATE COLONY FOR EPILEPTICS AND FEEBLEMINDED
Author: Molly McCully Brown
Publisher: Persea Books.