A Feature Review of
Places I’ve Taken My Body: Essays
Molly McCully Brown
Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith
Molly McCully Brown’s debut collection of poems The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded has been one my favorite volumes of poetry over the last few years (as well as The Englewood Review’s Poetry book of the Year in 2017), and I was excited to hear that she was working on a collection of essays. Her poems, which depicted life in this historical institution, were unsettling, yet rich with compassion for its residents. Her collection of essays, Places I’ve Taken My Body, released earlier this summer, does not disappoint, full of the brutal honesty and grace that I had come to savor in her poetry. As the title implies, these essays are largely personal ones, with a loose thread of her experience as a person with cerebral palsy (CP) woven throughout. All of the essays are extraordinary, and as is often the case with essay collections, I have struggled to review this work without highlighting every single essay. I will hone in on a couple of the essays as exemplars of the quality work offered throughout the book as a whole.
One of the recurring themes throughout the volume is the challenge of living with CP, a condition that impedes the brain’s capacity to control the muscles of the body. One one hand CP is an inescapable part of McCully Brown’s existence and will be so for the remainder of her life. And at the same time, she catches herself at times presenting her body “like it’s a bad suit of clothes or a thing that somehow just keeps happening to me” (110). Not only do these essays give non-disabled readers like myself a glimpse into one particular person’s experience of disability, they also remind us how complicated it becomes to narrate our lives to an audience that does not share our experience. McCully Brown writes poignantly:
I hate my legs, and I don’t. I love my body and I don’t. There is a list of things that are wrong with me, and none of them are wrong with me. I go whole stretches of time without pausing to think: I have a disability. I am always, always, always disabled. When I make my life legible to an able-bodied world, all the nuance, all those contradictions, which aren’t really contradictions, get sucked out of it, somehow. Even I start to forget them. Any way you slice it, explaining is an act of erasure. Either I am describing my body so it can be understood and thereby forgotten (look, it’s not scary after all — there it goes settling down in the corner to sleep) or I am describing my body so that it begins to subsume the rest of me (look, she grows curiouser and curiouser — that wheelchair, that weird walk, that way her hands curl up) (111-112).
This wrestling with her disability, knowing that it is integral to her being and yet desiring not to be fully defined by it, is a theme that runs through many of the essays in this collection, and perhaps is one of the book’s defining themes.
One of my favorite essays in this work was “Poetry, Patience, and Prayer,” which McCully Brown shapes around lines from Christian Wiman’s familiar poem “Every Riven Thing,” particularly the title sentence (of which Wiman playfully tweaks the grammar several times over the course of the poem): “God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.” We are riven beings, McCully observes, “split, severed, torn apart,” and yet it is precisely in this rivenness that we encounter God. Although she is naturally loud and impatient, she finds that however difficult it is for her to enter into stillness, it is there that she encounters God and is able to write poetry. She observes: “[If] poetry is the territory of stillness, and the singing, straining, riven thing, then it’s the territory in which I know how to make sense of the margins of my body — and the manner in which it works its way through the world. I was built to slow and pay attention. When I yield, consent, and do it, something in me harmonizes. Call it what you will: purpose, grace, a storm of peace” (121).
One other essay that will be of interest to our readers, and especially in light of this week’s unraveling of Jerry Falwell, Jr., is “The Cost of Certainty,” in which McCully Brown tries to make sense of the Liberty University community (in her hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia), and how they square their evangelical faith with Falwell’s unwavering support of Donald Trump. Crucial to the essay is a conversation with (now former) Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior. McCully Brown also weaves in her own personal experience of faith, raised without a faith tradition but converting to Catholicism as an adult, wanting to have certainty in the work of God, and yet deeply troubled by public expressions of those who professed the same faith. This piece is an exercise in her grappling with “how to hold on to your certain faith even when the way it’s put into practice feels damningly human and flawed” (149). The course of her explorations and her conversations with Karen Swallow Prior, take her to a place where she is slightly more sympathetic to those whose certainty about supporting Trump has wreaked a wide swath of havoc across American society. She too desires some degree of certainty, even though she is perhaps a little more conscious of the cost at which that certainty often comes.
Even if you aren’t one to regularly read essays, I encourage you to pick up a copy of this collection. Molly McCully Brown’s wrestling with faith and identity, and the humility in her recognition of how messy and unresolved this sort of reflection can be, is deeply moving and deeply human. Places I’ve Taken My Body is an exemplar of the sort of thinking and writing we will need to find our way — slowly and painfully — in a world in which we can no longer rely on the destructive logics of Enlightenment modernism.