William Brewer’s taut poem of uneasy homecoming begins, like Joyce’s Ulysses, with a razor. Joyce does it thus:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
—Introibo ad altare Dei.
And Brewer answers:
Had you a head I’d set this razor by your side
as a gift then sweep
your silver hair into a bowl, a nest
of strings from a drove of unstrung cellos
half-buried in a field, in a round, like the parliament
Whether Brewer’s callback to the Irishman who desired ‘to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’ is deliberate hardly matters. Both writers are in the gray of soft exile. Both blinked into self-awareness midway through a retelling of the fable of the prodigal son. Both have chosen, in that long confusion of father and son, of home and roving, to make of manhood’s allure a razor. Brewer’s razor is gently ‘set’ and then operated with a calming and guileless ‘sweep’ and the reader is lulled, almost, into seeing the shaving as an act of tenderness and care. The poetic sentence is one of Brewer’s gifts, and as this first one develops the blade’s menace breaks through and reveals ‘the parliament of death.’ He primes us, then, for his topsy-turvy game of comfort and violence, beauty and unbeauty, with all the restlessness of someone from the ever-expanding Shit-hole Empire. From Great Plainsman to Appalachian, I recognize and applaud Brewer’s struggle to find meaning and even identity in the post-colonial morass of America’s rural places. In a gesture similar to the old regionalists, Brewer and other contemporary poets are drawn to their neglected homelands. Unlike the poets of previous generations, however, we can no longer expect the benevolence of the American experiment to usher in a new renaissance, nor can a populist plain-spoken style guarantee a local readership. Poetry cannot unmine Appalachia; the poet will mostly be read by other poets from other places. And yet there is still so much to be said, to create, to see. Simply by teetotaling against the draughts of hope, Brewer has opened new rhetorical territory. ‘Being who can bless / blessed not this land. No one will say it; / I will. You’re nothing / but the burnt edge of an unfinished history.’
The poem, until its conclusion, behaves as a thought experiment. ‘Had you’ stands in colloquially for the usual ‘what if?’ From the initial shaving gambit, Brewer moves on to an image-heavy, cyclical drone of loosely transmuted Christian symbolism. The sons of Appalachia are made from soot and clay, children eat ‘the last bits of muskrat stew / that oil-slicks the tongue in a Sunday’s light,’ the chosen rise ‘like locusts’ and the sun drops manna to nourish them. Brewer’s use of Judeo-Christian gesture is so graceful as to be nearly transparent. Scripture opens the poem like a breeze. Upon the first reading, or to those unstamped by the tradition, it could go entirely unnoticed, but when thoroughly explored, it acts as a chain wrapping this modern moment of creation to the first moment with a force as mysterious as it is unbreakable. Brewer achieves this, in part, by his commitment to folk imagery. Barges, muskrat stew, cattails, the ‘mud-sick’ river, and quicksilver replace more familiar desert scenes. He’s attempting to reverse-engineer a creation myth from what is before his eyes (the eyes of his memory and the eyes of his memorious imagination) using the ancient physics of genesis. These are the familiar gyrations of we nonnatives to this conquered and pillaged continent that has raised and nourished us nonetheless, and therefore must be some kind of concerned father-god . . .
Brewer breaks the cycle of creation with violence. Suddenly, and in his most direct Biblical reference since the title, we are in the ‘eighth day,’ the day after the day of rest, outside of origin and into consequence. No longer able to layer symbols or construct prophecy from cattails, Brewer reenacts Cain and Abel. First, he declares directly ‘I am your son,’ and then:
I bound my knuckles in a halo of brass
and punched my friend in the face then spat
on his face on the ground
but the wind caught some spit
like flies made of crystal trying to flee from my mouth.
Before excavating the possible meanings of this sudden conclusion, I’ll pause to marvel at its construction. Gone are the hypothetical ‘had yous,’ gone is the rarefied poetic imagery of fire and cello strings and gentle razors, but the dream-time repetition of those passages reappears in the real-world finale with the density of metal. ‘Face’ appears twice in six words, ‘spat’ hangs on the end of a line only to become ‘spit’ two lines later, and then the ‘flies’ from the moment before the eighth day literally crystallize in the last line, a line that concludes with ‘mouth,’ a body part already deployed in the previous ‘Had you a head / you’d have a mouth / and moan the song of a cello played by flame.’ The sharp hard return of these words in a poem that had already delicately primed the reader to expect and be moved by repetition gives the whole work a brass knuckle strike indeed.
But what to make of it all but to marvel at how quickly the mystery of creation, of genesis, condenses into ethics, into a yearning for justice? The genuine origin of the poem is in its final lines, not the mythology that seem to precede it. Brewer needs to account for this violence, the striking of a friend and the ruin of a land, and so he invents a father who contains the inevitability. He invents a being to which he is accountable, and by whom he may be forgiven, someone to whom he can ask ‘Why did I wrap my fist in something metal, something mined from the earth, something waiting there for me, and use it to hurt my friend, my fellow son, and why, in that moment, did beauty appear in the very liquid of my derision?’ The poem leaves us at just this crystallization of yearning, inclusive as all early books, religious or poetic.