Poet William Brewer’s first collection, I Know Your Kind, is set in Oceana, West Virginia, a little town so awash in prescription drug abuse that it’s been nicknamed “Oxyana.” Brewer is from there, and many of his poems deal with dramas of addiction, withdrawal, and overdose. It’d be easy for a poet to be pigeonholed by subject matter as readily sensationalized as this, but Brewer avoids melodrama in these earnest, confessional poems. The best ones aren’t about drugs so much as they use the processes of abuse as figures for the frequent failures and small triumphs of being human.
The collection is a mixed bag. Brewer’s enthusiasm for abstract images sometimes gets the better of him. “Origin of Silence” opens with a description of a “woodpile / trembling like a calendar of spirit.” The metaphor misses its mark: what exactly is a trembling woodpile? Woodpiles are as inert as they come. More baffling is that “calendar of spirit.” How could it tremble? The fumble is saved two lines later, though, by a powerful description of Appalachia in winter: “snuff-stained pastures, snow-woven dirt.” This second image is both comprehensible and musical. Brewer’s trouble with figurative language may be that it comes too easily. It can sometimes seem like he’s showing off. Thankfully, the good buttresses the bad. For every “steam engine of dementia” (“Sundowning”) and “memory of childhood / equated to a bomb” (“Icarus in Oxyana”) there are such strong images as “the absence of flesh / begetting the absence of light” (“Clean Days in Oxyana”), and “Times my simple son will shake me to / syringe still hanging like a feather from my arm” (“Daedalus in Oxyana”). These images—light, flesh, feathers, wings—come close to, but never fully achieve, cliché. They work best when they flirt with received tropes. In conflating a syringe with a feather, Brewer puts himself in contact with a long list of poets who’ve made addicts into angels. Sidestepping the grandiosity of previous addict-poets like Allen Ginsberg and his contemporaries, Brewer employs a subdued, realistic pathos. This poet is not one for hysterics. Other beatific imagery appears throughout the collection, again with mixed results. “Detox Psalm” falls short because it describes a prayer, while “Overdose Psalm” succeeds because it describes the illumination prayer brings: “. . . the column / of light breaking through the black woods / only a reminder of what once resisted it.” Brewer manages great lines even in weaker poems: “I knew the good news, that home / is an ancient American word / for theater,” for instance, from “The Good News.” There’s also a masterful five-poem run near the end of the collection, from “Letter in Response to a Letter From My Son” to “Explanation of Matter in Oxyana,” that would work even better as a long poem in five sections.
The book’s most enchanting poem is “Withdrawal Dream on the Cape.” Here it is in full:
It was the end of an era unharmed
The north sky still smelled heavy of slate
before they cauterized the fens the farms
at oyster bars we’d vaunt our weight
quit selling fountains none could afford
to keep their yachts named Emerald Vermillion
ghosts named for colors littered the seaboard
the tide came in each flag became a noose
I used to wash my apples in apple juice
I’m not sure what this poem means. It is, after all, a “dream,” and even Freud was willing to concede that some dreams don’t mean anything. Perhaps this poem hints rather than means. It is in part a vision of an impossible past in an impossible place; I don’t know of any capes in West Virginia, unless Oceana counts as a coastline, scattered with the wreckage of addiction. As dream logic dictates, the poem’s images are false and automatic, pulled from the disparate half-memories of a mind scrambled by drug abuse. Because its speaker is dreaming, the nostalgia evoked by the poem feels unsought, as if drifted upon unconsciously. This allows Brewer to reflect on memory without overindulging in sentiment. The poem is also a technical marvel, matching long vowel sounds to soft consonants, enacting the sound of waves, or the wavy delirium of opioid withdrawal. The poem’s close rhymes subvert the pattern of speech we associate with lullabies and nursery rhymes, repurposing it as an addict’s fever dream. Brewer’s rhyming “noose” with “juice” also reveals a caustic irony that many poets eschew in the interest of “sincerity.” This line of thinking is dangerous; if sharp language is insincere then poetry has been damned since Homer. I applaud Brewer for his opposition to such notions. He has a bite, and the language to make it lethal.
I Know Your Kind, Milkweed Editions, September 5, 2017. 2016 National Poetry Series Winner, selected by Ada Limón.