Mark J. Brewin, Jr.’s ‘Scrap Iron’
by Mark J. Brewin, Jr.
University of Utah, $12.95 paperback, 92 pp.
Mark Jay Brewin Jr.’s debut collection, Scrap Iron, travels to the imperfect memory of the past and calls back a resoundingly: “Some things don’t grow back. Some things you don’t lose a feeling for.” Moving from the farmland of rural south Jersey to the islands of New Zealand and Ireland, Brewin’s poems map the jagged landscape of conflicting experience, tethering between the limits of self-odyssey and the desire to reattach to the ground in which our roots first sprung—home. These poems are haunting, at times elegiac, and unquestionably honest about human experience. But, what I love most about Brewin’s prize winning collection (2012 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry) is its unflinching preoccupation to tell the story, stories as closely represented by human recollection as possible, however true or untrue they may be.
But, these poems are more than just a map from home to self-invention. They investigate the endless complexities of familial relationships and the relationships we develop with our places of origin. In “On Thunderstorms”, the speaker finds himself caught between nostalgia for his family, and the convoluted relationships he now has with them in the present. He writes:
so you remember the times your family
hurt each other . . . the way the house rang
with your parents—your father drunk and pacing the back deck,
yelling at your mother that you are his favorite child
because you were named after him, and how she said
nothing, only cried; your brother sobbing on your first semester
holiday home, pleading with you to never come back because,
when you did, no one paid any attention to him. And this is how
sound tail the blinding, momentary dissection of the sky.
How frightening it rings after the real danger.
This turning back toward the storm is what Brewin does so well throughout this collection. He shows us the gravity of recollection, how even the minutia of our family histories can flash back into our minds. And memories, like thunder, are most frightening after the threat is gone, once they are embedded into our conscience.
It’s difficult, though, to inhabit the world of memory without deviating, however far, from the truth. Christian Wiman in his essay, “The Limit”, argues that “to cast an experience into words is in some way to lose the reality of the experience itself, to sacrifice the fact of it to whatever imaginative pattern one’s wound requires.” And, Brewin is nothing if not aware of the flawed nature of remembrance. In “Hounds”, the poet struggles to remember what Steve Pait mumbles to his abused dog, Cassie, after he beats her.
I will never know. Much of my life I have been a witness
to things I cannot understand or can only half remember
how it was, can only remember the character of the story,
not how it ended.
We see, here and throughout the collection, the poet struggling with the fallibility of memories. That, in truth, we will never know the answers, but we can find solace in the scraps. Those tiny bits “good for one last thing: the mystical” as Brewin says in “Burning Down the Camper.”
But, what’s most compelling about Brewin’s collection is his willingness to buy stock in the invented story. That, in remembering, our closest approximations to the truth become lies, but in these untruths we find hope and assurance. Brewin highlights this logic quite beautifully early on in the collection in “Midnight Shift.”
A preacher was on channel five, waving a green handkerchief with gold trim. He
promised the swatches of material cured arthritis and sickness, healed wounds and brought
money to a broken home . . . If I had enough cord to walk the telephone receiver over
and stand beside the screen . . . I’d like to think I would have dialed the number to
have the holy man pray for my father’s machine-crushed hands, his missing fingers.
This prose poem (if we can call it that), fully devotes itself to the idea that we can, and often do, allow ourselves to buy into the most improbable of stories. But, in reliving them, we are often blessed with the gift we never expected to find—healing. And, as Brewin says in “A Bridge is like a Tongue”, “living is reason enough / for story telling”, and Scrap Iron does exactly that: it shows us how to relive the story. And if living is reason enough for storytelling, then Brewin has taught us all a valuable lesson here: how to live.