Bellingham poet's book recounts his battle with chronic pain


Matthew Brouwer loved to hike, bike and dance, but severe pelvic pain laid him low when he was 27.

Over the next several years, the pain migrated to his knee, then to his thigh, then back to his pelvis. It became difficult to walk. He needed crutches.

Finally, unable to carry on, he left his job running a food bank in Seattle and moved back to his parents' house near Bellingham.

Lost his job; lost his career path; left the big city. In time, Brouwer realized that his losses, and the pain that triggered them, amounted to a hidden blessing.

"It's been an opportunity for me to learn more about myself," he said. "I learned that I can take a lot."

Brouwer's experience with pain and healing form the core of his new chapbook of poems, "Men Who Walk with Canes." The 13 accomplished poems in it are personal without being maudlin, probing without being dense.

A saxophone-playing graduate of Mount Baker High School, Brouwer entered Seattle Pacific University with the idea of majoring in music, but changed his tune and earned a degree in English instead. Still, he didn't fully dive into poetry until he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for a regional food bank and trained workers in nonprofit agencies. After four years away, he moved to Seattle and managed a downtown food bank.

"The Pacific Northwest called me," he said. "The mountains. Family. Friends. A woman."

His pelvic pain, which first arose at a manageable level while he was an athlete in high school, worsened after an overnight hike in the Cascades.

"Something gave in my low back," he recalled. "I came back hurting more."

The pain would lessen, but then Brouwer would push himself too hard and the pain would return. He saw doctors and physical therapists. The pain didn't go away.

"It felt like pinched nerves," he said. "I was hardly walking anymore."

His return to nearly normal took almost three years, helped in large part by physical therapy and massage that targeted his muscle knots, also called "trigger points."

Today, Brouwer, 30, is grateful to be mobile again, and glad to be living in Bellingham instead of a big city.

He's energized to pursue his love of poetry. He reads aloud at events, runs a writing circle open to people suffering chronic pain, and presents workshops to local students through the Poetry in Public Education Program.

"A lot of teachers have a difficult time with poetry," he said. "It's hard to broach."

For spare fun and spare change, he performs in public, alternating poems with riffs on his sax.

Brouwer also is offering his services as an organizational trainer, and as a life coach for people with chronic problems. He hopes his background working with nonprofits, addressing pain, and expressing himself through poetry can help others face their own challenges.

"As a poet, my job is to help people move into those emotions, those passions," he said.


• Matthew Brouwer will read from his new chapbook, "Men Who Walk with Canes," at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 5, at Village Books, in Fairhaven.

• To contact Brouwer, and to learn about his workshops and his writing circle, go to

Reach DEAN KAHN or call 715-2291.

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