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It's Always Heads

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The opioid crisis, a now health crisis; a fund-less crisis teetering on bankrupting rural America, namely West Virginia; the rate of overdose three times the national average. A stone’s worth of pills thrown into the water of us, now rippling toward everything. So what do we do? What do you do?

Winner of the National Poetry Series, William Brewer’s debut collection I KNOW YOUR KIND (the title taken from Cormac McCarthy) faces our drug disaster as it is. Set in fictional Oxyana, West Virginia, these poems peer into the coal-dark and illuminate more than we’d like to admit. Consider the closing lines of “Origin of Silence,” a poem about the shame the speaker’s brother has after relapsing. Brewer has them in a truck together with, “…a silence so entire / I thought all the crickets hanged themselves. / I said that to him, but he didn’t hear me, / not with all that noise inside his head.”

I Know Your Kind: Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9781571314956
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Milkweed Editions - September 5th, 2017

Brewer’s speakers wade through irreparable relationships, most explicit in “Early Oxyana: An Anecdote” where we see an almost utilitarian violence between two addicts: “I crushed [his hand] with a hammer / then walked him to the ER to score pills. / Why’d you keep hitting, he asked. / I don’t know. And I didn’t. The nurse / asked what happened. Tails, I said. / Excuse me? He called tails, I said. / But it was heads. It’s always heads.” Yet there is also the arc of recovery present, the possible redemption, several poems taking place inside halfway houses and detox centers. One of his speakers vowing a New Year’s resolution to get clean: “Last night / was the last night / I’m high. I mean it.” And you want to believe it for them. Brewer gives us heroes we desperately want to find resolution, but we’re heartbreakingly skeptical of their comeback.

Part of the strength of this collection is Brewer’s ability to say things so painfully plain. Some writers get caught up in the romanticizing of addiction, and the writing reads inauthentically, a sort of, I think this is what this would be like. Brewer knows his subject, though in what capacity he has experienced addiction himself other than growing up in the region, I’m unsure. Though many poems are realistic and direct in their approach on opioids, he also scatters some figurative elements throughout the collection. One of the most memorable occurs in a couplet (the only hard rhyme I experienced) at the end of “Withdrawal Dream on the Cape,” where he closes, “each flag became a noose / I used to wash my apples in apple juice.” The juxtaposition between a sing-song rhyme compounded by the childlike reference of apple juice against a flag as death device crystallizes Brewer’s skill. He also invokes a certain gluttony that parallels addiction when needing to wash apples in apple juice, always more of what you want.

Perhaps the strongest poems in the collection are the pair "Icarus in Oxyana” and “Daedalus in Oxyana,” exploring the relationship of both drug addicted father and son. Brewer captures the genetic component to addiction, a passing down of destruction. Each of these poems read as a persona piece of each mythic figure. Though a slanted retelling, Brewer’s poems emphasize flight. One of the opening lines in “Icarus” reads, “Two Vs of geese colliding. / An X, exploding. Pretend / not to worry about your father, / or that he no longer worries for you.” Event the West Virginian landscape is in on the joke, the synthetic drugs reflected in the natural world. What escapes it? Nothing. In “Daedalus” Brewer invokes a tenderness when it comes to the sharing of drugs between father and son. It seems like it should be sinister, but there’s a quiet love in its place. Daedalus says, “…syringe still hanging like a feather from my arm. / What are you doing, [my son] asks. / Flying, I say. Show me how, he begs. / And finally, I do. You’d think / the sun had gotten lost inside his head, / the way he smiled.”

The exchange feels like it could be a father showing his son how to change a tire, how to cast a fishing line. Brewer has normalized the region’s drug use so expertly, almost to being unrecognizable as anything you’d want to avoid. How beautiful: a syringe, simply one of Icarus’ feathers.

Surely there will be further legislation and speeches and promises and pictures and hashtags and funerals and setbacks and progress and stigmatization and God and science and fear and hope as our opioid crisis expands, ripples. Brewer’s I KNOW YOUR KIND is an exceptional document of what life is like for millions of Americans caught in pit of opioid addiction.. But it’s not his responsibility to propose any solution to the problem, it’s your responsibility to not look away from what’s in front of you.