Review: William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind
By Caleb Milne
William Brewer’s first full length manuscript, I Know Your Kind, selected as the National Poetry Series Winner by Ada Limón, mythically and vividly recounts, while personally accounting for, the opioid crisis as it sweeps, and is sweeping, through Appalachia and the nation. The collection sets itself as an exemplar model for personally examining suffering in our own locales. The speaker attempts to articulate, “Should I wake, they’ll ask me / if I can tell them where I am” (from “Oxyana, West Virginia”). This first poem locates the reader with the speaker, in the small, rural coal-town of Oceana, West Virginia. Oceana is the oldest town in, and center of, Wyoming County. However, the speaker of these poems takes up the more popularized slang and refers to Oceana as “Oxyana” throughout the collection. The second epigraph of the book keys us in to this place: “a capital of OxyContin abuse,” in a state which “has the highest fatal overdose rate in America, nearly three times the national average.”
As someone who grew up hours north of Oceana, in Morgantown, West Virginia, I was delighted to find West Virginia all through the collection. Even certain themes that came to mind when I thought of home showed up again and again throughout the collection in new, fresh, and surprising ways. And though Brewer’s poems root themselves in this collection as poems of place, they do not limit themselves to place, but use place as a means to move beyond. Sometimes speaking altogether to larger issues of inequality. For example, in a poem titled “West Virginia”, Brewer manages to place the troubles of West Virginia—its economic problems, its environmental problems, the opioid epidemic—as part and parcel of the larger American colonial project. After deconstructing an image of West Virginia made popular in the John Denver song, “Country Roads,” the ending of “West Virginia” reads:
“…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.”
Our West Virginia, given to us by the speaker here, is not an “almost heaven” as in the popular John Denver song. Not even close to heaven, but if any, a “false” one. This refusal of heaven, this acknowledgement, inverts common West Virginian tropes of being an “outsider” state, and includes it also as central; the “natural resource,” a source of why or how “the colony glows;” “its work.” And though the inclusion is not pleasant, or maybe not what a West-Virginian reader may hope for, the poem bares the truth of what we know. Our intimate involvement. Our complicity. Referenced too earlier in the collection in “Voices as of Lions Coming Down” where readers are allowed witness into a dialogue between two speakers:
“Reckon we involved?—Yes.
While the poems do not flinch—nor do they shy away from oblivion, its gravity of bleak hopelessness, nor from the lure of bliss opiates temporarily offer, their flight-like high—they do present an intense effort succeeding in care and accountability. These poems look both death and desire in the face, knowingly, painfully aware from the get-go. Even the first line’s candid nihilism and flat awareness of exile references speaker to the self, self to Oxyana, Oxyana to West Virginia and beyond. It goes “None of it was ever ours…” (from “Oxyana, West Virginia”). But in this world of gravity and oblivion where seemingly nothing matters, though anything is possible, where it seems that the dying have been left to their vices, a world where few care, Brewer’s poems do the unimaginable and sincerely engage in the creative act of hope beyond what any sense in it is. “What’s the point?/ What’s lost isn’t dead until it’s found” (“Halfway House Diary”).
These poems are thus peopled with characters: lost and found, the dead. Characters mythic, animal, magisterial, damned, desperate, dying. Behind most images and characters in the collection resides a deep, musical and plain-spoken sense of loss: dark sounds of Oxyana.
The characters mentioned and various tonalities therein serve as complimentary foils toward the drama unfolding throughout between the speaker’s “I” and the “you.” The collection rings like an elegy, and like most close elegies, one tinged with survivor’s guilt. The You comes into play consistently as a specific You throughout by which most of the tension and release occurs as elegy. But this quality of the close, specific You, again, also does not strictly limit itself to just that specific You. The You also functions as an extension of the self, the reader, and the royal between and around throughout the collection. In this way, as reader, we always get to be included and feel apart. This deft movement between the “I” and the “You” demonstrates what Frank O’Hara talks about in “Personism: A Manifesto.” As readers, we get the sense, if it was possible, our speaker would just, “…use the telephone instead of writing the poem” (O’Hara). These poems exist, “squarely between the poet and the person(s),” whom the speaker mourns. We see the crystallization of such emotive musings toward a person (isolation, wishing, survivor’s guilt, mourning,) perhaps most acutely in the collection at the end of “Relapse Psalm,” which reads:
“If you were with me I’d ask if you hear that—
way out in the woods, a phone ringing
in an empty booth?
But you’re not.
No one’s here and the phone is ringing.”
The collection presents the reader with a loose narrative arc that maintains these tensions and their release: lost & found/ death & desire/ bliss & oblivion/ relapse & recovery/ the “I” & the “You” and the poems, their progressions as a whole, deliver through and beyond the collection’s final moment. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I’ll pull out another passage, which felt in concert with, and hopeful for, the collections ultimate destination and reach.
“We Burn the Bull” occurs at the end of the first quarter of the collection. The poem stands out from where the speaker has previously taken us in form and content. No myths. No distractions. No punctuation. The lines are double spaced and cause the reader pause. The poem grounds itself in this scene of burning a bull, and stays there. There is no dodging what’s coming to and from our speaker. This poem stands out to me as one of the speaker’s first of many attempts in the collection to reckon, personally, as the speaker interrogates the “You” in the poem that provides the speaker company to make the poem’s “We.” The final moments:
“What was it like
Like the first time you pinch a chicken’s neck and spin its world away
It makes you feel like nothing then
No not its world your world goes
It makes you feel like nothing then
I Know Your Kind hinges on such phrases as “if only,” but refuses despair. These poems are full of what Ada Limón praises as, “an ache that’s eased by the thing that saves,” and folks, I testify that by this important book, by this wild and wonderful debut collection of poems, I have been graced.
96 pages, $16
Caleb Milne is from Morgantown, West Virginia. He currently lives in Lafayette, Indiana and is a Poetry Candidate in Purdue’s MFA Program.