Poems of witness

Molly McCully Brown recovers the lives of women at an institution notorious for its eugenics program.

When poetry gives voice to those who have no voice—those who are dead, marginalized, or ignored—it helps resurrect lives from oblivion. Such poems are called “poems of witness.” Molly McCully Brown’s superb new collection, which won Persea Books’ 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, exemplifies this form.

Historically, institutions for the mentally ill have a reputation for cruelty and abuse. Treatments, which varied widely from the 18th through 20th centuries, included shackling, placement in solitary confinement, forced feeding, shock treatments, and lobotomies. These treatments were meted out to people suffering from what we would today classify in any number of ways: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, or even simple rebelliousness.

The Virginia State Colony for Epi­leptics and Feeble­minded, which is the focus of Brown’s book, opened in 1910. The hospital became notorious for its eugenics program, in which undesirable “imbeciles” and “degenerates” were sterilized, often without their knowledge or understanding. In 1927, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Buck v. Bell gave states wide latitude to sterilize men and women. It is estimated that the state of Virginia sterilized somewhere between 7,000 and 8,300 inmates through the 1970s. Brown’s attempt to recover the lives of some of these people is both a historic project and a poetic one. In both respects, her book succeeds marvelously.