A review of Rail by Kai Carlson-Wee

Reviewed by Samantha Seto

by Kai Carlson-Wee
BOA Editions Ltd
ISBN: 978-1-942683-58-2, April 24, 2018, 104 pp; $16

Kai Carlson-Wee’s debut book Rail embarks on a never-ending journey that montages places in his life, from a freight train to apartments to highways to skate parks to the rolling hills of the prairie to a dumpster. At the heart of the narrative, Carlson-Wee discusses life on the road, spiritual poverty, addiction, liminal spaces, and the erasure of America’s past. He lives in the rural parts of the United States. A shadow looms over his life during the Great Recession. An addiction and waves of depression affect his mind. It plagues him whether it is taking pills in the morning, smoking during the rain, or overdosing on heroin. The poem ebbs and flows with a lyrical voice shifting to create a dramatic tension that rings true in every poem. The title of Carlson-Wee’s book signifies the railroad tracks that the train of thought keeps moving on.

The first poem is titled “Rail,” but also sets the narrative on a train set in motion and captures his travels. Always moving between places represents his identity in the generation he lives in more accurately. The reader might assume that the narrator is quite young because of his poem, “Poet at Twenty-Four,” in his book. He begins by writing, “in those days” and beautifully compares himself to a “piece of glass in the evening sea.” An obdurate, insistent voice in “Thresher” is present from the beginning. Carlson-Wee writes, “There has to be a tree. There has to be a sky. There has to be a chicken hawk / skating the dust rising out of a thresher” to convey a rural setting that he comes across on his path. He paints a clear image of the countryside for the reader to imagine. A conscious narrator reflects on life, “you know it can’t go on like this. But here you are. This is life. This is the way your day begins.” It brilliantly captures an internal voice inside his head. In the dialogue, there is a “you,” which addresses everyone else living in the world.

Carlson-We’s writing often addresses the enduring bond of family. In “Jesse James Days,” he alludes to experience with his brother, Anders. He invokes a favorable, unwavering presence as he writes “Anders, come rest with me here / in the shore grass, leaning away from the wind.” The familiar brotherly figure serves to situate the narrative in reality. In the prose of “The Fog and the Sound,” he writes about his brother again, claiming that “Grace broke his heart.” Anders seems to have a firm, everlasting place in his life. He lives alongside his brother. He not only struggles with his own issues but describes Anders’ problems as well such as losing his love, Grace. Anders might be distances away, yet they are companions, facing life together as it comes.

Carlson-Wee’s book is written like a novel with recurring characters, places, symbols, and themes woven throughout the narrative. He includes quotes from newspapers to preface some of his poems. The reader meets the Cloudmaker, a mysterious, haunting man engrained in the narrator’s memory. This thread woven in the book is fascinating as one learns about the Cloudmaker’s character by the contents of his bag which include a matchbook, needles and balled thread, his own wife’s bones on a necklace, a King James Bible, names of good eucalyptus trees, a passport, a penlight, and more. The Cloudmaker speaks, “This life, he tells me, / is one of those fake plastic rocks in the garden/ you break with a hammer to get out/ the key.” Furthermore, Carlson-Wee writes about an endearing young woman outside a bookstore in the Seattle rain. In “Posers,” a “girl named Saturday plays the guitar.” He clearly uses a curious name for an ordinary girl. The musicality created as she plays an instrument while the speaker and his brother sing along is pleasing to my ear. It also matches the steady rhythm of his heart as the two boys “sing softly along” in key that reflects the meter in the poem.

The personal and divine are closely intertwined. Carlson-Wee has a genuine, authentic voice of his own that profoundly expresses the struggle as he faces conflict. A biblical theme is evident in the nature of his writing. It appeals to the reader who becomes drawn in to learning about his identity. Since I grew up with my faith and church-going, I findhis quiet rumination on his life comforting and inspirational. In “Miss Diana,” he writes “I wasn’t always this way. I was raised in a house of religion.” Carlson-Wee refers to living in his early childhood days. He remembers being naïve and innocent, growing up with his parents. Yet Carlson-Wee’s personal identity has gradually changed as he becomes the young adult he is to this day. In this coming-of-age poem he writes, “I write the words on my hand to remember. “I write the words on my shoe so the road will remember my name. I was here.” Also, to illustrate the beauty of God’s creation of the sun cherished by all on the earth, he personifies the sun by stating that “The sun has its favors to give. It rejoices.” Carlson-Wee’s allusions to the divine empower his voice in “Seven-Day Fast” as he mentions “the spirit,” a theological term, in respect to sacred, holy “prayers” and the metaphysical concept of the “soul.” Religion influences the way he perceives the world and cannot be separated from being deeply rooted in the personal. He speaks of God:

Because it isn’t enough
to say God is the speed of the wheel
that turns the sky, or that God is the distance
between two trains, hurtling at the same speed
toward you.” (“Holes in the Mountain”, 96)

The contemporary times that Carlson-Wee lives in coincides to the pop culture references he uses throughout the book. In “Posers” he writes, “squandering yogurt and leftover bread from the Trader Joe’s dumpster on First.” Trader Joe’s, a grocery store that markets nutritious, healthy food, only became popular within the past few years. Carlson-Wee is mindful of the harsh realities of the world we live in. He focuses on living as a young adult submerged into American culture. In “Mercy Songs,” Carlson-Wee refers to traditional religious songs in pop culture in “the way Nina Simone had sung it live at Carnegie Hall in 1965.” It seems that pop icons like Nina Simone and Jack Wheeler or trends like Red Bull or Steele Reserve have really contributed to his perception of the world. Carlson-Wee alludes to the American literature of Hawthorne and Whitman, which brings the educated reader back to the timeless writers. He lives during our new age, yet he clearly knows of the famous writers and culture of the past. In “Dundas,” he writes catchy phrases like “Hawthorne with wings in their hair” or “madonnas in Brooklyn are crying for their hearts.” Carlson-Wee’s casual voice mirrors living in the modern day:

How weirdly the skull sat shining
in the moonlight. And how quietly I held you then,
watching the tree shadows rise on the downed blinds,
talking of floodlights and wolf eyes and what
a strange gift it would be to be dead. Those moments
are silence inside me now.” (“Wolf Heaven”, 81)

Carlson-Wee’s poetry is about traveling, the diversity of memories and places. His book deserves to be glorified. Rail is a page-turner: a book that can be read in one sitting. Carlson-Wee is a Jones Lecturer in poetry and former Wallace Stegner Fellow, and his prize-winning book reminds me of Kaveh Akbar’s poetry in his second book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf. They genuinely express inner feeling in their writing whether it is speaking Persian, coping with addiction, or contemplating God’s pertinent role in their lives. Often times one may “pick out some pears from the corner store dumpster” and not find the gift of a diamond like Carlson-Wee’s poems. While traveling around the country I recommend you take this book with you because it is truly worth the read.

About the reviewer: Samantha Seto graduated with a B.A. as a Writing Seminars major and History of Art minor at the Johns Hopkins University. She is a third prize poet of the Whispering Prairie Press. Samantha has published in many journals including Ceremony, Soul Fountain, Black Magnolias Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Breadcrumbs, and Chicago Literati. She lives in Washington, D.C.