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Drug paraphernalia and other garbage litter a vacant house on April 19, 2017 in Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington, the...

‘Oh, they’re on the pills. We don’t really see them anymore.’

Poet Will Brewer says he can hardly believe the changes he has seen in his home state over the last 10 years. In West Virginia, the state with the nation’s highest rate of opioid overdose deaths — one happens every 12 hours — the epidemic has in some way affected nearly every family whom he knows.

“I would come back for the holidays and someone I knew suddenly wasn’t around anymore and I would ask, ‘what happened to this person?’ And friends would say, ‘Oh, they’re on the pills.'”

Initially, Brewer was hesitant to write about the crisis. He said he has always been conscious of the way that West Virginia is negatively portrayed and he didn’t want to add to that reputation. But he finally couldn’t ignore the subject anymore and once he started writing about it, he couldn’t stop.

“I wanted to write something for people who are going through the experience of deep isolation, of shame, of confusion,” he said.

The result is a collection of poems called “I Know Your Kind” published by Milkweed Editions in September. In the book, Brewer speaks in many voices: sometimes an observer, sometimes a concerned family member, most often the addict himself. In the particularly stark poem, “Early Oxyana: an Anecdote”, Brewer portrays the extreme lengths two addicts go to get more pills:

We were so hungry; Tom’s hand
On the table looked like warm bread.
I crushed it 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.

Brewer’s poems are also filled with vivid images of the West Virginia landscape. He says he’s always been fascinated by the land that has provided so many generations with employment, whether it was timber, coal or agriculture. And he sees a connection between those jobs and the rising opioid epidemic. He thinks that some people became hooked on opioids after seeking treatment for injuries suffered while working in the extraction industries. Others became addicted to drugs after their jobs disappeared and they lost their identity.

“Your connection to the land was very deliberate. So when the coal stops or the timber stops, you notice that absence. There’s this strange shadow problem where you walk around and it’s immensely beautiful but you know there’s this terror going on privately in the homes of its people.”

Brewer, who is a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, says he still has more to say about the opioid crisis. He’s currently at work on a novel and another collection of poems that explore the topic. Here are two poems from “I Know Your Kind”.

West Virginia

Fallen kingdom, conquered by bedlam,
then bedlam’s hunger – hush – heavy
in the air between the hills that crash
like waves into each other. What is a hive
without its queen? Thirst can rule, so can want.
A crown of needles, a gown of clouds she parts.
Bees in the streets below, their tongues
like hands reaching to the sky for an offering.
This is what want does, this and the raindrops
becoming pills in their throats, spurring wings,
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.

Daedalus in Oxyana

Was an emperor of element within the mountain’s hull,
chewing out the corridors of coal,

crafting my labyrinth as demanded.
My art: getting lost in the dark.

Now I practice craving;
it’s the only maze I haven’t built myself and can’t dismantle.

I gave my body to the mountain whole.
For my body, the clinic gave out petals inked with curses.

Refill, refill, refill, until they stopped.
Then I fixed on scraping out my veins,

a trembling maze, a skein of blue.
Am lost in them like a bull

that’s wandered into endless, frozen acres.
Times my simple son will shake me to,

syringe still hanging like a feather from my arm.
What are you always doing, he 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.

Videos by Hamada Hanoura

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