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Opium and Ambergris

Forthcoming, Health Humanities, Poetry, Wick First Book

DescriptionWinner of the 2023 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize

Opium and Ambergris is the haunting debut collection by poet Colin Dekeersgieter, whose lyric poems scrutinize a family’s history with addiction, death, and mental illness.

Reeling from the loss of his brother to a heroin overdose, Dekeersgieter grieves while doing his best to keep his suicidal mother alive and raise his family. As a result, these poems shift between historical retellings and urgent examinations of love. In the title poem, “opium” is associated with death and “ambergris”—a substance formed in sperm whales’ digestive tracts and valued by many cultures for over one thousand years—is associated with love. As family history, death, trauma, and duty become entwined with the acts of living, suffering, growing, and writing, these metaphorical categories become essentially interchangeable. Opium comes from the beautiful poppy; ambergris is an ingredient still used in high-end perfumes to help the fragrance last longer, yet it is extracted from dead whales. Thus, “opium” and “ambergris” come to represent the possible coexistence of love and loss.

With many poems written in emergency departments, behavioral wards, and intensive care units, Dekeersgieter does not just honestly chronicle a family crisis but seeks to survive through poetry.


Colin Dekeersgieter is a poet, editor, and teacher. His work has appeared in Brink, the Greensboro Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. He received an MFA from New York University and is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.