Book Review: I Know Your Kind by William Brewer
I Know Your Kind by William Brewer is a bristling collection of poems set in West Virginia’s Oxycontin capital, selected for the National Poetry Series. “The result is a chorus of interrogations that peer at addiction from every angle,” says Mary Ann Koruth, who reviews the collection for us today with insight, and with grace.
In “I Know Your Kind,” William Brewer approaches America’s opioid epidemic in a series of insightful and disturbing elegies. It is set in the locale of Oceana, which lends its name to the title poem, “Oxyana, West Virginia,” an epithet awarded to the city for its status as the state’s Oxycontin capital. The poem is an ode to the city and a lament to the toll that addiction has taken on it:
“None of it was ever ours: the Alleghenies / the fog-strangled mornings of March /
cicadas fucking to death on sidewalks” – from “Oxyana, West Virginia.”
“None of it was ever ours,” Brewer’s quietly thunderous opening captures the hopelessness and desolation visited upon a beloved and beautiful place — Oceana — rendering it mortal and sullied. It calls to attention the addict’s shaky hold on life, on sanity, and reality. The city belonged, not to its men and women and children, but to the cameras of tourists,
“Autumn weekends when DC drove in to take pictures / Women in silk dresses / picking our apples, posing, holding our bushel baskets / with a tenderness we’ve never known.”
—And to the companies, the mines:
“Hog Hill where Massey Energy / dumped cinder, the gray waste / between breaths, poisoned trees”
Brewer grabs hold of the hard socioeconomic truths that birthed the epidemic, while slipping artfully and brilliantly into an addict’s consciousness. His language is unfussy, his tone often dry and pitched low—no violence here, other than the violence of situations engendered by addiction, no trumpeted tragic air to an ongoing tragedy. Instead, Brewer’s power is in listing out the ordinary. He is meticulously methodical, and the sadness that spills out of his verse is a quiet, desperate sadness, a matter-of-fact recitation of asides, memories and confessions.
“I can hear my brother explaining / how when Jonah woke inside the whale, / he didn’t know where he was / I’m not saying this ends with a leviathan, / but I’m not saying it doesn’t. / Here it comes, rising through the floor, / the voice that tells me I’m tired // Of the world, that pulls me down / to its pale kingdom.”
Here is the voice of the addict as Jonah, swallowed into a monstrous, walled-off world, the whale of addiction, pervasive as floor and walls, rising between the furniture in a house in a city like any other, but to the obliteration of everything else. Brewer’s master stroke here is the biblical reference that, with the gravitas and tragedy inherent in the story of Jonah, also lends a mythical quality to the epidemic.
“…I always see the five / buck heads over Crockett’s bar, their racks / like the hands of saints upturned and open / to receive the next havoc—how calm / they’re made to look after terror…I always thought one of them must have wanted it, if only / a little, the end —an orange star blooming between the elms, sound too slow to hear” – from “Clean Days in Oxyana.”
Phrase by phrase, Brewer’s poem slow-dances into the mind of an addict in remission, re-enacting her half-willed descent into dependance, her weak, but knowing submission to the drug. In the image of animal heads, stuffed by a taxidermist on the wall of a local bar, their racks opened to the sky like the hands of saints, we see a junkie’s rapture, and in her diminished grip on life, the trap of hallucination. Brewer’s immense talent for evoking the “mise-en-scene” of the mind is at work here. It doesn’t just do the job of the poet, which is to mirror life. It draws out the interiority of a recovering addict staring her life in its face, willing herself—and, us readers,—to understand the immensity of her struggle to clean up and live with whatever is left of her.
Several of the poems in this collection are executed as monologues. The “I” in them is alternately introspective and dramatic, when speaking in the voice of an addict. When speaking in the voice of the onlooker, it emerges from a compassionate but honest and brazen consciousness. It sees, it compiles, it judges, it sees again. The imagery in these poems has a magnificent simplicity that is never contrived and always exact.
“I dreamt / disappointment / is like finding a balloon / in a drawer. Once it floats out / you can’t fit it back in. // It just hangs there. / I just hang on a string” – from “Resolution”
Compare that with a rare tendency towards abstraction. In “Halfway House Diary,” the speaker says,
“I pretend it doesn’t wreck me, / that I don’t wonder all day where the other half went. / In the sun’s mouth, where for years I pissed heaven? / In the arithmetic of things I was never able to say?”
Brewer’s metaphor for a high, pissing in the sun’s mouth, is strong in its nod towards the fact that a drug user’s ecstatic experiences have no knowable equivalent in ordinary life. In comparison, a phrase like “arithmetic of things” feels far less original and predictable. I note this more as a caution than a complaint because Brewer’s work is otherwise full of acuity and surprise.
Take the poem “Oxy 40,” — a single sentence delivered in sixteen lines. It captures with perfect clarity, the addict’s loss of potential, the vacuum created by lives lived, but lost.
“Think of the mason jar / we use to kill yellow jackets, / the way it’s sealed upside down / over the nest’s grassy mouth, / …little empire / with the luster of gold tiles / stripped from an ancient mosaic / of the sun, the incandescence / of a ghost light burning lonely / in the Theater of All / That Could Have Been,…” – from “Oxy 40”.
“There is a Gold Light,” the last poem in the collection, is filled with the sadness of the bereaved.
“Each morning, I put on my best suit, stuff it / full of dried grass, and go walking through the fields. / The crows totally lose their shit and I feel dead / and alive in that blurry way it got for you near the end—high, not high, nodding off, so bent over / it seemed your spine was made of feathers…”
The speaker compares himself to a scarecrow, emptied of joy, feeling dead, appearing alive. In the poetry of loss, which is what a lot of poetry is about nowadays, I have yet to come upon a more original image, so replete with grief, yet so elemental and true to the landscape of its subjects.
In “Oxyana,” Brewer bears witness to the death of a community. Sung in many voices, this is a compilation on pain, “as a private choir moving through you,” (from “Icarus in Oxyana”). It’s poems weep wherever they can. They stand to alert, ready to salute the unconsolable. A father tells his son:
“I press an ice-cube to my chest // and it cries.”
“Should you come home how you always did / when the dark makes its largest sound —I planted night-blooming flowers // so there’s something to rise and greet you.” from “Letter in response to a letter from my son.”
The result is a chorus of interrogations that peer at addiction from every angle of that torn and ravaged condition. The pathos of “I Know Your Kind,” is deep and personal, and though its subjects remain nameless, Brewer has shown us, in his deeply felt evocations, their faces and their minds.