cover image The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded: Poems

The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded: Poems

Molly McCully Brown. Persea, $15.95 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-0-89255-478-2

The spirit of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, one of many American eugenics facilities constructed in the early 20th century, looms over Brown’s harrowing debut, winner of the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry. Brown lives with cerebral palsy and grew up near the facility, biographical facts that imbue her poems with an unmatched intimacy. She epitomizes the feelings of the colony’s victims with unadorned, concise language. “Imagine you are/ an animal in your/ own throat,” Brown writes. She also considers the perspective of the institution’s employees, conveying both their ignorance and fear: “do the children of God really lose// their eyes in the backs of their heads,/ and swallow their own tongues in church?” Her use of repetition recreates the hypnotic feeling of routine, giving weight to the lines that break the repetition and simulate fleeting moments of lucidity, certainty, and memory. But it’s her rich imagery that stands out most: “That one has a cave for a face/ blank, unlit, and fallen in./ Back wherever she began/ somebody clapped his hands/ and the fire went out./ But, somehow, she continued to burn.” Brown’s humbling and heartbreaking poems restore dignity to lives sacrificed in the name of perfection. (Mar.)