Books

Poetry for an Errant America

Anders Carlson-Wee (Portrait via AndersCarlsonWee.com)
Anders Carlson-Wee’s new collection captures the shifting landscape of the contemporary Midwest.

The Low Passions, by Anders Carlson-Wee (Norton, 95 pp., $26.95)

Anders Carlson-Wee, like most poets today, is unknown to many, though to some he is now notorious, a passing oblation to the wrathful mob. A poem of his, “How-To,” published in The Nation in July, provoked those who insisted that Carlson-Wee had no right to write in Black English.

But let it not be said that in The Low Passions, Carlson-Wee’s new collection published earlier this month, he is writing of what he does not know. The poems are set in the Midwest — specifically, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Missouri. (Carlson-Wee grew up in North Dakota and now lives in Minnesota.) Each vignette is a passing glimpse of a small corner of America that many would deem “nowhere special.” They are haunts not of those who have a reason to stay but of those who have nowhere else to go.

Carlson-Wee writes of rambling drifters, the dead and dying, and poverty. He has train-hopped across the country himself several times. His collection is a series of ballads, some characters reoccurring, telling the stories of people who would likely never otherwise be heard.

Many of the poems read as monologues from the mouths of varying characters. Carlson-Wee has a canny ability for capturing voices without relying on stale clichés. In “Dynamite,” the narrator is not a detached observer or the main character. But he is involved, a secondary character in the drama; he is extraordinarily typical — his isolation is seemingly unavoidable, and tragedy, if it should touch him, is somehow rendered mundane.

Carlson-Wee captures the dignity of these downtrodden people — their dignity despite, so often, the indignity of their circumstances. Their lives are not reduced to pathetic devices. One man, in the course of describing the help he has to give his bedridden mother, says of her that “she’s basically comatose, but she can shake / her head for no and you’d be surprised / how much power that gives you.”

The imagery of the poems is the broken beauty of a corrupted Arcadia. Carlson-Wee echoes the reminders that what we once knew as charming, rural, and small-town America has been devastated by economic destitution, systematic cultural decay, and drug abuse. His poetry is that of depressed suburbs and shantytowns.

The stifling feeling one gets from the places depicted makes the wandering of the narrator seem more reasonable. In such situations, upheaval is in some ways a respite. The scenes cannot rely on the progressive industriousness of the city or the atavistic mystery of untouched wilderness, Instead, Calrson-Wee focuses on the places caught between both — the refuse of poetry’s long-held aesthetic dichotomy.

Throughout, the poems are depictions of people without any sense of belonging, detached from home or physical possessions. “Jim Tucker Lets Me Sleep in His Treehouse” tells the story of an orphaned treehouse — a possession separated from its keeper. It starts with Jim describing with a father’s pride the care his son took in building the treehouse, but eventually he addresses the absence of the son, saying he had “lost him to the war.” The possessions caught up in the water of the “Flood of ’97” are mixed up like silt and “All summer, people found / rusty things they didn’t recognize. Things / that must have floated from other homes.” The waves of debris and bodies immerse the reader in a wan, untethered landscape.

Possession is chance accident, and wandering is expected. Places are not homes but brief respites from roads. “Living,” a narration by a scavenger, begins, “I get everything I need for free.” He elaborates, describing all the decaying treasure he has found: “This hat / was moldering on the kitchen floor / in the foreclosed home I picked through.” By the end of the poem, the narrator has found pig carcasses, left over from some butchering. He dons white gloves and begins sorting through the pig remains. Gone is the idle pastoral farmer guiding flocks; in his place, the wandering pastor of the dead.

Within the pages lurks a preoccupation with death and eschatological American Christianity. In “Cousin Josh on Doomsday” the narrator says, “It doesn’t matter what you believe. Could be a chunk / of the sun wipin out the grid just as likely / as the Lord Himself snuffin us out one by one . . . Me, I got my chips pushed in for something natural.” Death is one of the unbreakable laws of nature’s kingdom.

There are allusions to ancient tropes of rustic poetry, but in The Low Passions the power of nature is found not in fecund soil civilized by plows but in the weary decay of poverty. The earth, no longer a cultivated subject of an empire, is the unchecked sovereign that thrives in our neglect. With a shade of pastoral longing, Carlson-Wee describes the cigarettes lying at the bedside of a man found dead: “Seven Camels touching on the bedstand / in a measured row, like a pan flute / with flush pipes that, when blown, all hit one note.”

Despite the despair of so many of the characters’ situations, some of the poems cast points of light that are all the more bright in contrast. In lilting hendecasyllabics, “Listening to a Rail in Mandan” taps beautifully into the mythologized life of a wayfarer: “two aisles of light like childhood brothers adrift, / like a father’s eyes carving the dark land / beside the dark river. The shape of a tree.”

But there is a dearth of full musicality throughout the collection. The verse is fitting for a broken land, but the words do not have an easy flow, nor do they stick in the memory. There are neat devices employed, like the predominantly masculine caesura in “Finding Josh.” The lines are often broken-up, staccato fragments. They move, sometimes abrupt and sometimes turgid, like the wanderer through the torn social fabric of desolate suburbs.

A modish aversion to manner and form persists in most of the lines. Free verse is the rule, and his deviations are a welcome exception. Some of the poems are series of unrhymed couplets and some are longer, but none have crisp classical structure or thoroughly standardized blank-verse meters. But there is still something decidedly American in Carlson-Wee’s bald and assertive lines, something reminiscent of poets such Longfellow and Whitman.

The Low Passions will be remembered as a testament to a painful place and time. The collection is not America’s most splendid poetic paean, but it offers a glimpse into a world many outside it would rather forget existed. It will be a different kind of artifact from The Song of Hiawatha and Leaves of Grass, but no less significant for it.

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