Book Review

“Do you hear that? All the things / I meant to do are burnt spoons / hanging from the porch like chimes,” William Brewer writes in his debut collection, I Know Your Kind, winner of the National Poetry Series. Set in Oceana, West Virginia, nicknamed “Oxyana” for being the epicenter of the opioid epidemic in the United States, Brewer investigates how drug use has ravaged a community and the lives of users, enablers, and those fortunate enough to have survived. We are brought to places that feel all too real: halfway houses, emergency rooms, high school reunions, and scenes that bend toward the surreal—ecstatic dreamscapes in the midst of a high or withdrawal—placing the reader squarely in a kind of no-man’s-land where we must reckon with our pasts in order to survive.

The collection opens with “Oxyana, West Virginia,” a poem that evokes both the beauty and oblivion associated with the mountain state. “None of it was ever ours,” Brewer writes, “the Alleghenies, / the fog-strangled mornings of March, / cicadas fucking to death on the sidewalks.” And while the Appalachian landscape often feels picturesque from a distance, the reader quickly realizes what looms out of sight: industry—coal and timber—and a rawness deeply rooted in those hills. “Even now,” the poem continues, “rain choking the throats of smokestacks, // the river a vein of rust and trash.” This is a landscape rich in beauty whose creek beds could be turned “into wineglasses / the Roosevelts used at state dinners,” yet, it’s also filled with the constant blares of ambulance sirens rushing from one overdose to the next.

This compromised beauty is mirrored in the characters we encounter throughout the collection. Indeed, they are beautiful and tender; like the landscape, however, they are susceptible to outside forces that strip them down to something more dangerous and desperate. In “Voices as of Lions Coming Down,” a remarkable poem titled after a line from Wallace Stevens’s “The Sun This March,” we are forced to confront the darkness of a lake in winter as well as the darkness that dwells in each of us. It’s a strange scene: two voices haunt the poem, trying to navigate the harsh cold and whether or not they’re at fault for the brutalities they face. Fish are described as “gods of the lake” and snow as “so many terribles.” In a backwards-feeling dialect, Brewer investigates our own capacity for light, warmth, and divinity: “We watched it: the lake // eat the light. All of it. Why / we ask; but nothing.” While one speaker tries to convince himself light can survive in this world, the other emerges to shoot down these notions: “Reckon we involved? —Yes. / And violently? —Violently.” Brewer successfully builds a scene in which light can be buried—in a lake or in a body—and cannot be retrieved, at least not with any ease. Perhaps these voices are the voices of lions—predatory and primitive— “Coming Down” off something, returning to this doomed and frozen landscape of theirs.

I Know Your Kind proves to be a collection that understands these complexities of character, that we are more than just good or bad; it understands, too, that there are no shadows without a source of light. Throughout the collection, we see people trying desperately to be decent and courageous in the face of hardships. A man tries to help his drug-addled brother in “To His Enabler,” and tries again to help in “Against Enabling.” In “Today I Took You to Our Oxyana High School Reunion,” a speaker attempts to pay off a dead friend’s debts and find something of value—a lesson or a memory—in a community now numb to tragedy. In “Resolution,” one speaker wants a new and sober life, and will seemingly do anything to wake up and discover “all that light bursting in. / No wind. And the world, // finally at a distance.” These are poems that want to believe in the world’s capacity for tenderness, even when that world is Oxyana, West Virginia.

Ultimately, Brewer establishes himself as a master of this balancing act, consistently yoking the grotesque to the divine. Like faith, drugs can bring a person to ecstasy and become inescapable. As a result, a series of psalms runs through the body of the book, though instead of exploring a relationship with God, they spelunk deeper into the slush of addiction and dependency. “Detox Psalm” ends with the lines, “make me in the image / of the bullet. I begged, release me / from myself and I will end a life,” a wonderfully jarring image that parallels Genesis 1:27 (“So God created man in His own image”) and somehow makes the unholy holy. Indeed, what we are devoted to—what we worship—is not God in Oxyana; rather, in Oxyana, substances have the power of an ill-tempered, Old Testament God. Capable of either illuminating the world or breaking us down, they are all-powerful, all-knowing.

Brewer’s imagination in these poems, too, is tremendous. In “Halfway House Diary,” we search the eyes of dead cows and recognize the distant look of those we loved as they nodded off and slipped away from us. In “There Is a Gold Light,” the final poem in the collection, the speaker feels compelled to kill flies and stick them to his eyelids so “when I bat my lashes, I’ll levitate a little. I’ll buzz.” In these poems, we experience a world we recognize—full of late light, mason jars holding trapped wasps, flocks of blackbirds in the sky—yet all of its significance is made fresh, untangled before us. As Brewer draws connections and pulls us deeper, the scenes take shape, crystalize, and shimmer even as each poem isolates us.

In I Know Your Kind, William Brewer takes local tragedies and weaves them into beautiful meditations on desire and grief. Oxyana is at the heart of this collection, but there is something startling about the familiarity of these figures, their desperation and hope. Brewer consistently spins the terrible into something unexpected and gorgeous, until the mere act of living—marching through a world as brutal as our own, living day-to-day—is celebrated for the remarkable gift it is.

About the Reviewer

Rob Shapiro received an MFA from the University of Virginia where he was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize. His work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in the Southern Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, River Styx, Blackbird, and Pleiades among other journals. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.