Review by John Burnside
Anyone feeling a little jaded with what Helen Vendler has called ‘the constriction of human possibility implicit in identity politics’, or perhaps anxious about the apparent takeover of the lyric by sociologists and documentary-makers manqué may well greet William Brewer’s debut collection, I Know Your Kind (Milkweed Editions, 2017), with something akin to gratitude. True, as the cover blurb informs us, the poems collected here ‘give America’s worsening opioid epidemic a local habitation and a name’, but they also remain fiercely true to what Vendler calls ‘the dimension of the lyric that goes beyond the merely personal, the merely social.’ In short, the subject matter here may be dramatic, politically charged, even topical (though I, for one, have no wish to damn writing of this calibre with the skewed praise embodied in that most toxic of critical terms, ‘relevant’), but the poetry that gives that topical matter meaningful shape is never compromised.
William Brewer is not a sociologist. He is a poet. He is often political, but he has no party allegiances, nor does he for one moment entertain the received ideas of the self-censor. The book opens with a historical portrait of Oceana, West Virginia, a former coal town now best known as the central location for Sean Dunne’s 2013 documentary film, Oxyana, about widespread abuse of the prescription drug Oxycontin, (aka ‘hillbilly heroin’). This first poem, by turns tender and bitter, opens with the announcement:
None of it was ever ours: the Alleghenies,
the fog-strangled mornings of March,
cicadas fucking to death on the sidewalks
and continues, through images of working class life and labour – glassmaking and coal, manufactured and mined by the poor so as to grace the tables and swell the coffers of the Roosevelts and the Carnegies – to catalogue the legacy of that rapacious past:
dumped cinder, the grey waste
between breaths, poisoned trees
black like charred bones,
where we burned cars while girls
wrote our death dates on our palms
with their tongues
To live in this world is to spend a lifetime ‘looking through a hole / in the wall around heaven.’ No wonder, then, that the local people turn to opioids. The human cost of this epidemic is dramatically realised in poem after poem in which compassion and the matter-of-fact business of self-preservation strike an uneasy balance:
You can’t come here anymore, not like this, I said that, it’s true,
and because of love, turned my brother away to the dark.
But what is astonishing about this painful poem is how it ends, in an image of the eternal beauty of the land, that somehow shines through, no matter how toxic, where ‘Fall had dragged its brush of tangerine across the trees.’
Along with addiction/dependency comes treatment – a minor industry, at times a religious rite – and the long process of ‘rescuing, impermanent but not imperfect’ in which the supplicant in ‘Ode to Suboxone’ receives the medical host – a ‘Good gentle strip dissolving on my tongue’ – at the start of each day, then waits, pacing his hideaway alone, until the time comes for another dose, when he goes again to
wait in line for you and, when I’m told, stick out my tongue
and feel my appetite for worship turn to snow.
This beautiful yet heart-breaking aperçu puts this reviewer, at least, in mind of David Foster Wallace’s remark, that ‘there is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.’ However, when all we have to worship is a heaven owner-occupied by others – or rather, a lifetime of fleeting glimpses of that heaven – then the very idea of enough is a cruel joke.
On its release, the people of Oceana were reluctant to watch Dunne’s prizewinning documentary, partly because of what they saw as its voyeuristic nature, and partly because, as one Oceana councilman, put it, ‘they hate the thought of [Dunne] making money out of their curiosity.’ This is probably unfair on Dunne, who himself grew up in a drug-dependent community, but it is not a criticism that could be levelled at I Know Your Kind. A West Virginian himself, Brewer sees Oceana with the eye of a native son – and it is hard to imagine anyone but a West Virginian writing these lines in a tribute to his home state:
This is what want does, this and the raindrops
becoming pills in their throats, spurring wings,
all that fluttering the hum of a false heaven.
And who, through that, can hear a few wings
folding under the weight of death? It is too late.
Like timber, like anthracite, death is a natural resource.
The colony glows. The colony does its work.
Of course, Brewer knows that, historically, through centuries of industrial plunder and reckless degradation right up to the Autumn weekends of today, when the tourists from DC drive in
to take pictures. Women in silk dresses
picking our apples, posing,
holding our bushel baskets
with a tenderness we’ve never known
‘the colony’ has never belonged to those who live and die there; that ‘oblivion is all we have.’ What makes I Know Your Kind so fine – and it truly is a masterful book, debut or no debut – is that Brewer, and the people around him, still belongs to that land, and that
someone find me, they’ll scream
stay with me as they fish
my tongue from my throat.
Should I wake, they’ll ask me
if I can tell them where I am.
John Burnside‘s last book of poetry was Still Life with Feeding Snake, published in 2017 by Jonathan Cape.