reviewed by Stephanie Burt
Opioids have left trails of disaster across America, but few places have been hit harder than West Virginia, few communities harder than rural white ones. William Brewer’s pitch-perfect, tightly focused first full-length collection builds on his chapbook Oxyana (Poetry Society of America, 2016), named for the town of Oceana, whose new nickname comes from its opioid casualties. Brewer displays concision alongside journalistic skills, demonstrating how the rise in addiction matches declines in hope, and in employment (in this town, it’s glassblowing, which gives Brewer further ironies). More often, though, he gets personal and makes us see one figure’s hardships: in “Naloxone” (named for the drug that treats ODs), “All the things / I meant to do are burnt spoons // hanging from the porch like chimes.” Opioid dependency, in “To the Addict Who Mugged Me,” is “[a] never-ending dial tone / chewing the receptors in your brain.” Salvation for Brewer’s hard-pressed home state looks like “raindrops / becoming pills in their throats, spurring wings.” What can save him, though, and save other individuals, are the concrete life changes of getting clean—of halfway houses, for example—which come with their own introspection, as in “Detox Psalm”: “Only in the slow braid of a dream / can you study want and need….You’re asking to be taken apart.” Such clarities talk back to the news, but—more than that—they place Brewer (who is now a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University) in a tradition of writing about dependence and emotional extremes, one that goes back from Nick Flynn to Thomas De Quincey, and—perhaps sadly—won’t shut down anytime soon.
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2017.