In Scrap Iron, the debut poetry collection by Mark Jay Brewin Jr., he struggles to answer the question, "Can one really go home again?" The answer is not clear, but his exploration is worth reading. From the flooded farmlands of Southern New Jersey to the island countries of Ireland and New Zealand, we watch as a narrator struggles to negotiate the relationship of personal identity with home and family.
Scrap Iron is divided into three sections. The first section is dedicated to memories of the poet's youth in New Jersey. The narratives detail a hardscrabble life of rust and water and work. The opening poem, which is untitled, acts as a prelude to the collection where the poet describes the landscape around him: "Water was always the problem surrounding/our rancher anchored to the low end of the acreage--/rain lurched in, ankle-deep pools filled every dip/in the road..." The narrator goes on to explain that his father "donned his fisherman's rain suit/shoveled sand along the edge to keep street gutters/from overflowing and making our house an island/in a slump of the farmed plain." The family, meanwhile, hunkers down at home, with a mother taking care of three children and waiting for a husband who, seemingly disappears in the drowned land around them.
What follows this poem is a collection that explores the family's everyday life. My favorite poem is "Scrap Iron" where the narrator tells about finding and collecting scrap metal for extra money. Detailing the landscape, it's easy to see that Brewin knows this world well: "We hunted for steel along flat-bottom train rails -- glass/blanketing the gravel track bed like chicken feed/jimson weed between creosote-steeped timbers/picked over buckled trailers and garbage stacks:/crack pump heads, mower blades, band saws rusted mid-cut."
Many of the poems detail physical labor and focus on the effects this work has on the body. In one poem, "So Intricate, So Inconceivably Complex" the narrator explains that his father lost fingers "when he/wedged the index and middle fingers of his left hand in the cogs and gears." Following the theme of survival which pervades many of the poems in this collection, the reader later learns that he had "to relearn how to grip objects with his left hand, the nerves/too sensitive to touch anything." In another poem, "Peeling Skin" the narrator tells how he and his sisters used to peel away "flakes of sunburned skin" from their father's shoulders. Making a game of the ritual, the siblings "had little contests/to see who could pull/the largest piece, the best shape." Even more than a game, the narrator seems to realize they had a more noble cause: "We tended/him as if we could peel/the mark of hard work from his body."
Other sections of this collection find the narrator traveling away from New Jersey, both physically and mentally. In "Working First Shift at the Progresso Soups Factory" the narrator takes a summer job, knowing that after a few months he would walk away from "this calloused glance at another life" to attend college. In other poems, he travels further away. In "The Island Meditations" the narrator explores the land and culture of New Zealand, and tells his sister over the phone, "I can't tell you/how nice it is to be some place so very different from home." Ironically, throughout most of this particular poem, which actually is composed of a sequence of events and recollections, we find the narrator thinking of home more often than recording the world around him.
Brewin is a master of a narrative poem. Working with the unreliability of human memory, he weaves stories from both history and the rough landscape he knows well. Readers will be drawn into his stories without ever getting lost in his images of landscapes and people. Indeed, walking away from this collection, you may find yourself wringing rain water from your clothes and looking for rust on your hands and metal splinters in your skin.
Brewin's collection won the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in poetry, and this book definitely deserves the honor. It's also a collection that leaves me wanting more of Brewin's work and looking forward to his future books. For more information on Scrap Iron and Mark Jay Brewin, Jr. visit the poet's website
In many ways, I am more of a reader than a writer. This page will serve as a home for my informal reviews of what I've been reading.