William Brewer

Oxyana, WV: Exit Song

We can’t go on pretending that the sky is empty,
that the tin-plated clouds haven’t hung over us
for seven years, that our constellations
aren’t broken bottles glinting in black puddles.
Because as long as the glasswork’s windows
are without the twitch of furnace light
raging orange against the morning,
as long as the river docks rot like old fruit
and sink, and the flatbeds sit lacquered
with leaf rot, we can’t pretend
half a town will stop rising every hour
through a lifetime’s worth of grace.
Know that it feels as cruel as it sounds,
that I forget everything except the one thing
I cannot. That I am sorry that I love
what I am sorry for. Sorry to speak of love
as if you believe it’s still shaking like a mouse
in one of the corners of my chest. Know
that the parts of us we think long dead return
when we lose something else for good,
as when I watched my teeth wash down a gutter
like coins into a well, and against everything,
I wished on them. I can’t pretend
that waking this afternoon to a dog
crawling out of my track mark toward home
wasn’t the final loss, that that isn’t
what we call pain: the dogs. Now my name
is the song of the four legs ambling beside you.
Kneel down; run your thumbs like knives
behind its ears. Rest your nose in its fur
that smells, even when wet, like burnt grass.
You, who have kept so much, its keeper now.
And know that without the certainty of pain,
the vulture that is fear loses faith, dissolves
into the gray. It must be that we’re all so close to this
that we have no word for it. This minute when,
as I can just make out the spirals of rain
kicking off the bridge that arcs
like a rib above the ravine, I hear,
from down in the river, the harmonies
of a hundred currents weaving
through sunken vessels worth dying in—
a claw foot tub, a pickup truck—and know
I’ve already started toward where I’m going.
Know the cost of rising through a lifetime’s worth of grace
is a life. That in the hour, as the dark lowers its chin
and the rain glazes to ice, as the streetlight
throws down its brittle halo, as I fade
for the last time, that like one of the rare substances
that expands when cold, with every shiver
there is more of me for the rain to fall through.
And I fall away with it, bleeding down the scrub banks
to the river, free at last from our empire of ruin,
back into the cold hours choked with soot
and mineral, flowing a steady course north
like the Nile, only more ancient and afraid.


Note: “Oxyana” is the nickname given to the town of Oceana, West Virginia, for being what many considered an early capital of OxyContin—and now heroin—abuse.


Halfway House Diary

Late hour when our knees kiss the floorboards
and prayer or thanks or simple breath
fans like prism-light from the cracks
in our heads, is carried on the wind
across the green tongues of the mountain laurel.
Hour when we each, in our own way, feel illuminated
like the names carved on our desks
caressed by the finger tips of lamplight.
I could say gone are the hours
when I am careless with the machinery
of regret, when I let my mind crack a little more,
let the cold years of shame and ruin
spin into the black holes I first saw
as the nostrils of the cow
I found dead in the low pasture,
years back, summer of the great rains,
its snout covered with what looked,
from afar, like dried blood
but which I realized, on approach,
were thick ropes of mosquitoes
swarming down its nose.
Every hour is a version of an hour
coming toward us. How the hour when I wondered
into what oblivion did those eyes stare off
as it fought breath for breath
against death by suffocation,
the hour of too much life to handle,
became the hours when I had to ask the same
of Brittany’s eyes, of Elliot’s,
half-lidded in a sleep that forgets to breathe,
that forgets the body that holds it,
became the hour when I fail to see
the difference. Death by a thousand wings,
black and fat with blood, or a thousand wings
like embers of a pure, bleached light.
Hour of drowning in rain.
Hour of drowning in the sound of rain.
Hour of drowning. Of drowning. Of rain.


Against Enabling

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.

The night was as still as a just-snuffed candle, until there came,
as there always comes after such stillness—or how,

after you’ve done the right thing—you’re doing the right thing,
I whispered to my self, I confess—helplessness descends—

thunderheads cracking their knuckles. The rain fell straight down.
Between us turning from each other, a greater kind of trust, I told myself.

And later, like someone smashing clocks on the roof, lightning.
We survived the night, only to find, as was true of the morning,

we were not who we thought we were. An unexpected chill,
a small relief. Fall had dragged its brush of tangerine across the trees.


William Brewer's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Nation, A Public Space, and other journals. This fall he will be a 2016-18 Wallace Stegner Poetry Fellow at Stanford University. He was born and raised in West Virginia.