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Situated though it is among blooming azaleas and dogwoods, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded is emphatic: Virginians in particular and Americans in general cannot turn away from the ugliness in our identity, from an awareness of the lives upon which our lives were built. We must locate ourselves in the darkest rooms of our history, or we can never hope to see beyond them.

Poet Laura Eve Engel has written a review of Molly McCully Brown’s The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded for the Oxford American. You can read the review here.

A second voice and an inner voice are seen again and again in Molly McCully Brown’s collection of poems from The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. In the case of “The Cleaving,” both the ‘you’ (or the patient) and the ‘I’ are two sides of the same coin. The former is being observed by an outside force, by both the reader and the nurses/doctors, while the latter is the inner voice of the ‘you.’ The ‘you’ could be the patient speaking to the doctors in their mind. On the topic of voice, another example is from the poem called “A Dictionary of Hereditary Defects.” In the beginning, the voice is a mysterious entity crafted by the poet – it could even be the poet herself. Then, the voice is changed to first person pronouns, which suggests the speaker talking to us at the beginning about herself, instead of describing another patient.

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The section In the Infirmary (Summer, 1936) is an especially powerful section of The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in terms of structure, characterization, and plot development. The inclusion of “A Dictionary of Hereditary Defects” and the supplemental images of the orders for sexual sterilization play a crucial role in the development of each of the aforementioned elements.

In prefacing each of the three patient-spoken poems with their documentation, Brown reaffirms the idea that each of the different forms, which reoccur throughout the work, belongs to the voice of same character each time it is used. The allusions throughout the entirety of the text about each patient’s “hereditary defects” are then clarified and affirmed through these same means. Readers are also able to finally associate names with characters. Saving this information for the final couple of sections is an excellent device for defining the characters outside of their name, and forcing the reader to acknowledge each character as a complex human being. Until this section, the only option was to identify them how they identify themselves through their lens of consciousness and how others defined them, generally as sub-human.

Almost more importantly, it is notable that each of the patients who are identified specifically are women. In the larger context of the work, this relates the poet even more closely to certain possibilities of experience she could have encountered in a different time. Collectively, women, still to this day, base a part of their social value in their possibility to reproduce; for many of the featured women in the colony, that did not seem to be an option anyway. This device amplifies a reader’s curiosity to include the suggestion of multiple levels of the corruption of the practice of unwanted sterilization, and the true purposes for the practice.

The book seems to progress in a way that takes the reader deeper and deeper into the inner workings of the colony, starting with poems from the perspective of an outsider and progressing to poems from perspectives of patients and workers. Nature seems to be used as a tool to create the idea that the world is a harsher place for the people who are patients of the colony. For example, “every season is too much of itself…the snow bears on the dogwood branches until they clatter to the ground like felled bodies” and “bowing in an absent wind”. Themes of darkness and longing are present throughout the book. There was also a trend of using word associations to introduce the reader to the inner reality of the speaker which I thought was genius, and a trend of starting poems out in a “this is how it is” sort of way, which I found enjoyable.

Discussion 2/28

For discussion, I would like to draw specific attention to point of view. Throughout The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, changes in point of view drive both the content and the formulaic structure of the poems, so please be thinking of poems you feel make especially interesting use of point of view. Additionally, I would like to touch on the recurring nature and weather imagery that appears in several of the poems, and what this imagery accomplishes in terms of point of view and characterization of the work’s various speakers.

Just as a starting point, a couple of the poems I found particularly intriguing in terms of point of view would be “Without a Mind” and “Going to Water.”

sterilization_Ingrams_young_rp0516Last year, Richmond Magazine published a fascinating, well-researched article by the journalist Gary Robertson on the sterilization program at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded.

Here’s how the article, “Compensating for the Priceless,” begins:

Sadie Ingram was 5 and her younger sister, Janet, was 2 when an Army truck took them away from their home in Virginia’s Western Highlands more than 60 years ago.

Authorities had come for Sadie and Janet, for their mother, Renee, two other sisters and an aunt who occupied the house. Two older brothers somehow managed to avoid the roundup.

The officers ordered the women to get on the truck. The family would spend the night in the Amherst County Jail before being loaded into the truck again, bound for the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded near Lynchburg, about 100 miles from their Bath County home. Known as “the Colony,” it was the anchor institution for Virginia’s efforts to rid the state of those considered to be mentally defective.

You can read the entire article here.

The way Karen Russell handles the theme of internal consciousness in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” is deeply thought-provoking and multifaceted. The use of third-person limited point-of-view is an especially effective device for this story because of Nal’s constant struggle with wanting to separate himself from his own consciousness. It is almost as if he wants to exist in the position that Russell places her readers in, where he would be able to see the actions of himself as not belonging to himself; he longs for the type of lucidity that the narrative style is able to provide for the reader, and that Nal is unable to provide for himself.

Nal seems to internalize the external and externalize the internal, which is another effective way for Russell to play with the idea of the fickle nature of consciousness. In the beginning of the story, the character marks himself by his words and actions, feeling heavy blame for every small mistake and taking those mistakes and attaching them to a part of his identity. What he considers to be outside of his identity, interestingly enough, is his conscience, which he tries to project on to the frequently visiting seagull. In separating his words and actions from a sense of right and wrong in this manner, Nal is able to pursue Vanessa without much inner-conflict. By the end of the story, Nal sees himself only as the physical being that ends up with Vanessa, and can then ignore the emotional taxation that would occur as a result of stealing his brother’s girlfriend. Nal’s sense of right and wrong develops in a way that allows it to become unattached to his words and actions, which is what makes this sort of recklessness possible in a character previously ridden with so many anxieties.

Saunders injects emotion into the actions and words by using understatement. Jeff’s emotions are controlled by drugs injected by a pack surgically attached to his body called a Mobipak. “Escape from Spiderhead” presents a redemption arc at the end of the short story when Jeff commits suicide so he will not have to be responsible for another murder.  He is a criminal rehabilitated from his violemt tendencies and does not want to go back.   Saunder sparks thoughts about consent, the innate goodness of human beings (or perhaps only for some), and the limits of science vs. to what degree humans should be left as they are. The short and occasionally terse sentences and simplistic language abruptly contrast with the long and beautiful sentences. The sentence length plays a duel role of showing the emptiness of the narrator’s words when the drugs are in his system and the weight of his words when the sentence length again becomes short and returns to short and simple words.

The line that struck me the most is “…there is no data in tears.”

 

 

The setting of the story offers a feeling of isolation for the overall plot and the characters within. The lack of descriptions of the narrator’s physical surroundings also reinforces the idea of that isolation. The story’s prose is casual, like listening to someone recount their background rather than listening to a formal reading of their biography. This undermines the seriousness of the situations presented to the narrator and the characters around him, but also creates a surreal quality that acts as a glaring juxtaposition. George Saunders’ decision to make up names for the drugs and put an actual trademark brand next to them feels like it is supposed to be his version of dark humor. The only question I have about this story is why Saunders use a first person past tense rather than a present tense. The ending of the story suggests to us that the narrator is dead, yet the tense makes it seem like he is alive. Also, the mysterious ending and the usage of the past tense also raises suspicion in me that the ending might be a hallucination of some kind. Ultimately, I think this story is about the choices that the narrator must make, such as whether or not Rachel or Heather should be given the Darkenfloxx, and whether or not he should escape the facility or not.

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I think that “Exhortation” is a very effective and engaging story for a few reasons. First, the story is able to put a lot of imagery into the readers’ head that is not actually present in the narrative of Todds’ email. This is because we are aware of an audience which Todd is speaking to. We are able to imagine what the workers reactions to this email will be, which adds to the humor of the piece. This is especially true when Todd begins to pick on a specific member of the team, praising him for one great day and then openly discussing his depression. The readers can imagine the embarrassment he must feel as he reads the email and is aware that everyone in his team are reading it too. The email also has a great shift in tone from inspirational and professional to something that unravels into what seems to be a nervous breakdown on the part of Todd, which is both humorous and intriguing (why is he so nervous?). There seems to be a metaphor going on and the “shelves” are not really shelves but something else. It is never clear what work they are really doing but it becomes clear that Todd is afraid of the consequences of not doing a successful job.

Similar to the earlier stories we’ve read in Tenth of December — like “Victory Lap,” for example –George Saunders continues to play with language in his story “Escape From Spiderhead.” He chooses a similar but contrasting structural change between the two stories. In “Victory Lap,” Saunders breaks the narrative up into different perspectives, each having a moment in the story. In this story, the point of view never moves to other characters but instead uses one character, Jeff, who displays a range of different personalities in the story. On top of this, Saunders continues to explore the idea of good versus evil, just as he did in “Victory Lap.”

An important part to this story is the choice to use first person narrative with Jeff. This story runs on the function of point of view. If this story were written with a different point of view, the story would ultimately change its purpose. Having the point of view be from Jeff’s perspective allows the reader to care about Jeff’s concern for freedom and humanity. If the story were not told from the first person, the reader would not have a reason to care about what Jeff or anyone else feels concerning freedom and humanity. In other words, having this story written in first person narrows the purpose of the piece to a more individualized one; if the point of view had been third person, the purpose would probably relate back to groups instead of an individual.

A city was waiting to be discovered, and I wouldn’t let inconvenient facts get in the way. – Garnette Cadogan, “Walking While Black”

We are given the background of Garnette Cadogan from a series of flashbacks from childhood to his adulthood. Each flashback is a descriptive summary without much dialogue; instead, the author picks out the important incidents he remembers, the most memorable of which are from his time as a college student. In this section, Cadogan uses clothing as a form of metaphor for freedom and captivity. “Despite my best efforts,” he writes, “the streets never felt comfortably safe.” Cadogan uses a double-meaning that is for both himself and the white people around him. His mentions of the police tell us that even the law is against his blackness. But all of the experiences in America are once again contrasted with his return to Jamaica, where Cadogan says that he now feels invisible, as he is among a sea of unfamiliar faces but similar stories. He constantly describes places as ‘vibrant,’ an irony to the reality that the people within these cities does not like non-White people at all. Cadogan’s choice in words, such as using the word ‘swarm’ to describe the police officers makes them feel more like a pack of predators than human.

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There are several themes that reoccur in Garnette Cadogan’s essays; these themes are mostly of a religious or racial nature. However, in examining “Walking While Black” and “Love Your Crooked Neighbor/ With Your Crooked Heart,” another theme can be identified. This theme rests in Cadogan’s search for a place to be called home. Cadogan depicts this sort of search and defining of a home very differently in the two essays, though succeeds in articulating the point utilizing different styles, which is a sure strength of his craft. “Walking While Black” makes especially interesting use of narrative style.

In “Walking While Black,” Cadogan follows his own journey from childhood into adulthood. This transition primarily occurs in three different locations, each, for at least awhile, he considered to be a sort of home. In this way, the structure of the essay itself echoes a sort of walk or journey. Scattered among the high points of Cadogan’s walks in this larger metaphorical journey– such as using the walks for mental relief, or enjoying them with a girlfriend –there are many more instances of violence that are described in much greater detail; in this sense, form truly follows function in Cadogan’s prose. Not only has Cadogan given himself the ability to concentrate on the details of the most powerful parts of his story, but he has allowed for greater emphasis on those parts to be perceived as significant by the way the essay is structured to echo the sort of journey he is describing. The reason a reader may feel so “in the moment” with Cadogan in this essay is not only due to his effective wording and setting of scene, but also to the structure which so cleverly accompanies it all.

When reading Cadogan’s personal essays, one can see many themes strung throughout all of them. For this post, I will specifically be looking at race and, similar to Ally’s response, the religious connections that are related to his response on the racism in America. In his essay “Walking While Black,” he speaks toward the struggles and diversity that he encountered when he came to America. He says, “I recognized that the way I would treat dangerous people when I was growing up in Jamaica was the way people began to treat me.”

Cadogan doesn’t just speak of racism in America but takes the reader through a walk in his shoes. In his essay “Due North,” he speaks of the drastic difference between walking down Upper East Side versus the South Bronx. In “Walking While Black,” there is the same theme of racism strung through the essay. In both essays, this theme is not the holding factor of the essay. Instead of just focusing on racism, he discusses racism in a way that has religious undertones, as Ally has also pointed out.

His obsession with the racism in America does not end with pointing out the fact that it exists; he takes it to another level by using language with religious connotations – “pilgrimage” and walking, as well as the idea that he is on a journey, which could be compared to a biblical disciple following Christ. He often is also explaining what appears to be a two-sided, black-versus-white subject. For example, he discusses walking on the Upper East Side versus walking in the South Bronx, white versus black, Jamaica versus America. This emphasis on dichotomy also seems somewhat representative of religious language. For example, in Genesis, we encounter phrases like “heavens and the earth,” “he separated the light from the darkness,” “and there was evening and there was morning,” and so on. These are just a few examples of religious associations that can be made throughout his essays. In understanding Cadogan’s essays as having a religious undertone, one could agree that his essays are about the struggle of encountering racism, but more significantly, they present the journey of a man moving from naiveté to a consciousness of the dangers he faces simply on account of his race.

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Garnette Cadogan uses the word pilgrimages in the other assigned essay, “Love Your Crooked Neighbor / With Your Crooked Heart,” but religious undertones and themes are present in both essays. He states, “Seen theologically, then, walking is an act of faith. Walking is, after all, interrupted falling. We see, we listen, we speak, and we trust that each step we take won’t be our last, but will lead us into a richer understanding of the self and the world.” Cadogan writes of the all-too-familiar narrative of racism, police brutality, and hyperawareness caused by these realities. The reality he describes turns his enjoyment of exploration and immersion into a laundry list of actions for survival when he goes to the U.S. for college. The flow of this personal essay moves the audience to visualize each location, whether in Kingston, Jamaica, or in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and to not only hear but also smell the food cooking in these places.

The description of Cadogan being stopped on the street in New York City and threatened with being shot by a man in a wheelchair whom he was helping was heartbreaking, but each scene is described with a fast-paced subtly that caused me go back and read the scene over. The city streets, he states, “has made it closer to home to me, the city also withholds itself from me via those very streets” and this shrouding of knowledge and knowing is the reverse of his experiences in Jamaica, where those who wandered the streets at night were his “nighttime instructors.” It is an interesting combination of craving for greater knowledge and knowing too much for the streets to become this church, school, and home.


The Lyric

From Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary:

lyric The short poem has been practiced for at least forty-five hundred years. It is one of the necessary forms of human representation, human speech, one of the ways we invent and know ourselves. It is as ancient as recorded literature. It precedes prose in all languages, all civilizations, and it will last as long as human beings take pleasure in playing with words, in combining the sounds of words in unexpected and illuminating ways, in using words to convey deep feeling and perhaps something even deeper than feeling. The lyric poem immerses us in the original waters of consciousness, in the awareness, the aboriginal nature, of being itself.

The Greeks defined the lyric as a poem to be chanted or sung to the accompaniment of a lyre (lyra), the instrument of Apollo and Orpheus, and thus a symbol of poetic and musical inspiration. The Greek lyric has its origins, like Egyptian and Hebrew poetry, in religious feeling and practice. The first songs were most likely written to accompany occasions of celebration and mourning. Prayer, praise, and lamentation are three of the oldest impulses in poetry…

The definition of the lyric as a poem to be sung held until the Renaissance, when poets routinely began to write their poems for readers rather than composing them for musical presentation. The words and the music separated. Thereafter, lyric poetry retained an associational relationship to music. Its cadences and sound patterns, its tonal variations and rhythms, all show its melodic origins (hence Yeats’s title Words for Music Perhaps). But writing offers a different space for poetry. It inscribes it in print and thus allows it to be read, lingered over, reread. Writing fixes the evanescence of sound and holds it against death. It also gives the poem a fixed visual as well as an auditory life. With the advent of a text, the performer and the audience are physically separated from each other. Hence John Stuart Mill’s idea that “eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard,” and Northrop Frye’s notion that the lyric is “a literary genre characterized by the assumed concealment of the audience from the poet.” Thereafter, the lyric becomes a different kind of intimate communiqué, a highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers. It delivers on our spiritual lives precisely because it gives us the gift of intimacy and interiority, of privacy and participation. Perhaps the asocial nature of the deepest feeling, the “too muchness” of human emotion, is what creates the space for the lyric, which is a way of beating time, of experiencing duration, of verging on infinity. (The complete description of the lyric in this glossary can be found here.)

More from Edward Hirsch on the lyric:

Poetry is a voicing, a calling forth, and the lyric poem exists somewhere in the region—the register—between speech and song. The words are waiting to be vocalized. The greatest poets have always recognized the oral dimensions of their medium. For most of human history poetry has been an oral art. It retains vestiges of that orality always. Writing is not speech. It is graphic inscription, it is visual emblem, it is a chain of signs on the page. Nonetheless: “I made it out of a mouthful of air,” W. B. Yeats boasted in an early poem. As, indeed, he did. As every poet does. So, too, does the reader make, or remake, the poem out of a mouthful of air, out of breath. When I recite a poem I reinhabit it, I bring the words off the page into my own mouth, my own body. I become its speaker and let its verbal music move through me as if the poem is a score and I am its instrumentalist, its performer. I let its heartbeat pulse through me as embodied experience, as experience embedded in the sensuality of sounds. The poem implies mutual participation in language, and for me, that participation mystique is at the heart of the lyric exchange.

 

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Discussion 2/9

For discussion today, I will be looking specifically at Trances of the Blast from the perspective that Mary Ruefle is stringing the theme of words and language. When looking at the selected poems that we read for today, there are a lot of different themes to be discussed that Ruefle utilizes, but ultimately I will analyze these sets of poems as connecting directly to this theme of language. For class, please try to be prepared with a few poems that are examples of this theme.

If you need a starting example, begin with “Mimosa.” In this poem, Ruefle is speaking from the writer’s mind through this poem about mimosa. When she writes, “I’ve always wanted to use/ malarky and henna in a poem/ and now I have,” she is speaking from the writer’s mind. Writing appears as a running theme throughout Ruefle’s poem “Mimosa” as well as others.

Frost at Midnight

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,

Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

¶ But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

¶ Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

¶ Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

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In “La Livre De Ma Vie” Mary Ruefle makes use of several structural elements that are imperative to creating emphasis on particular content elements of the poem. The first stanza, which sets up the terms and questions of a vague relationship, is the only stanza of the poem that is not a couplet. The following stanza, “Mr. Potato Head / Mr. Potato Head,” uses repetition to somewhat answer the posed question of the first stanza, but then also to set up the imperatively phrased request of the third stanza. The lack of punctuation in the second stanza is important for that reason as well. From that point forward, the poem becomes a sort of instructional imperative, with the speaker providing the subject with materials, and then asking or instructing the subject on how to react or what it is the speaker would like from the subject’s behavior. For example, “Remove the pipe from your mouth / and smile,” and, “Help me behave, / weeping in the dark earth.”

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