by Sama Bellomo
For me, good poetry hurts. A successful poem reignites my anger because candlelight vigils don’t.
For her poetry collection Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, Molly McCully Brown read, with tremendous empathy, through piles of misguided clinical notes and was compelled to relay to the current generation what horrific prescriptions and outcomes were thought of as successful containments or even rehabilitations. She turned those dehumanized clinical notes back into people, people who were forced, aggrieved, and lost to history.
Usually, when being made aware of dark histories, it may seem that the right thing to do is to condemn past tortures that took place as a reality of our past and say a kind word about hard-won basic human rights that are fought for by unknown collectives of grassroots activists inspired by the late Dorothea Dix. But in the perfect medium of poetry, Brown says this is not a museum: her poetry says, this is present. Her poems have us looking back as if looking down the barrel of a gun, looking until we too empathize, until we understand that this could have been any of us, and that there is much left to be done.
With Susannah Nevison, Brown wrote In The Field Between Us, poems that read like a series of letters between two people living with disability in the contemporary world. They illuminate and explore dissociative trauma; difficulties in relating to the world, in connecting with others beyond the safe exchange they’ve created for one another. They include ruminations on being anywhere else than here; attitudes of self, and so many more deep, powerful feelings that enrich and sustain the human psyche, especially anyone enduring life with a disability.
The book begins with aftermath and carries through to pre-op, beginning sort of in medias res, where details become apparent only in hindsight. The abstractions rise as the dialogue carries on, exchanging communications of experiences in an increasingly romantic tone as everything seems to fall apart.
People with disabilities, the providers who treat them, and the general public are the same in how upset we become when faced with human fragility. We see fragility first, then we become frantic and look for stability. People with disabilities are often accustomed to advocating in the opposite direction, beginning with the strengths that will keep a listener grounded. Brown and Nevinson commit to that order by running the chronology in reverse.
The poems employ plenty of concrete and metaphorical imagery to bring the reader closer, whether they can picture the situation or not. In the aftermath of a catastrophic medical event, numbness is described as “a quiet fire.” In an early poem, we hear of a “pain, as familiar as a fist I know,” reminding me of the certain interruptions to order when pain arises and must be reckoned while the rest of life waits, in purgatory. The next letter replies: “when we sleep, of course / we become unraveled: it’s only fair”. Of course we do. Parts of ourselves get lost, suspended, denied.
Brown’s work gives resounding voice to people whose voices and stories were otherwise lost, often in the guise of merciful and humane treatment. I hope you’re as uncomfortable as I am because it’s appropriate to be uncomfortable, to be moved towards just action and a better world for every body.
Sama Bellomo has worked with agencies and individuals with disabilities as a patient navigator and advocate with Patient Providers (www.ptprov.com).
Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown
In The Field Between Us by Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevison