In The Low Passions, poet Anders Carlson-Wee thumbs his way through the new Old West, a place as earthy and brutal as a Cormac McCarthy novel, and as metaphysical and complicated as David Lynch’s timber-lined Twin Peaks.
Based in Minnesota, Carlson-Wee takes up the mantle of unreliable narrator and leads readers through the dives, dead-ends and exploited places of Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. As he encounters travelers and townies with rough hands and calloused hearts, the poet muses on what it takes to succeed at surviving while diagnosing his characters with a failure to thrive.
“Riding the Owl’s Eye” opens the set, with Carlson-Wee counting up something less than his blessings and more like his might-have-beens:
Out of all the dumpsters that could have been / empty, all the weather that could have bloomed over the prairie and ruined me, all the cars / that could have sped by without hesitating and left me / on the fog line nameless forever. The trains / that could have taken my legs. The men / that could have pulled a switchblade and opened me / like a flood enfolding the red North Dakota clay.
Here and elsewhere, Carlson-Wee runs his fingers over rusted-out definitions of providence and a gold-plated awareness of his own sin, both tucked inside his jean jacket like family keepsakes. He doesn’t blame God for the least lots in life, but lays fault at the feet of men that look and act like him.
“Some say the world is broken, / some say the Good Lord has forsaken our dreams, / but I say it is our own throat that grows / the cancer, our own asthma that blackens our breath / to a wheeze,” he writes in the same poem.
Carlson-Wee navigates all manner of squall and situation—some caused by his own hand, others merely a condition of living—in the company of family, both blood-related and makeshift. In “Dynamite,” he and his brother play a game with no winners or losers, “where everything you throw / is a stick of dynamite / unless it’s pine.” As violence, and a warped sense of bonding, crescendos, his hammer-wielding brother “reminds me that everything is dynamite.”
A series of poems invoking a Cousin Josh lends the book both comic relief and surgical truth. Cousin Josh holds court on the apocalypse, his political inclinations, religion, alcoholism and the hassles that come with receiving food stamps. All the topics you’re supposed to avoid in polite company; all the topics that need the piss taken out of them, Josh thinks.
In at least one key instance, Cousin Josh serves as Carlson-Wee’s philosophical ombudsman. The terrific “Leaving Fargo” chronicles a band of adopted brothers and sisters, and the trouble that finds them. Tossing out personal landmarks like well-wishers lob coins at a fountain, the poet hints at the group’s code of ethics: “The Hardee’s parking lot / where the Moorhead kids lounged on the hoods / of their cars, but we didn’t flick them off / because we knew about Garcia, / who’d just hung himself in his father’s closet / with a belt.”
Almost 30 pages later, as that poem nears the recesses and ravines of a reader’s mind, Cousin Josh offers his counterpoint:
You ever had some loose screw try to tell you / your friends is the family you choose? / Well I wouldn’t bottle the breath of the minister / that delivered the message. / The family you got / is the only family you’re gonna get / take it or leave it.
Carlson-Wee leaves readers to sift these arguments, to decide who comes nearest to the bullseye.
Throughout The Low Passions, Carlson-Wee’s words ride the rail, traveling between exquisite and severe; he describes the most merciless situations with a touch of grace. “Living” ticks off the assets a squatter finds with no price tag attached: “This coat, this backpack, this brand- / name headlamp” gives way to “This bible in a bum camp / this banjo / in a trashcan, this headless mannequin / in a free pile outside Honest Ed’s Antiques.” The poet spends the final fifteen lines on “a bag full of pigs” from a butcher’s shop, dissecting them in a manner that’s stomach-turning and oddly sophisticated.
In the title poem, he pulls off the rarest of coups: casting Jesus as a modern drifter, while finding something new to say. Carlson-Wee explodes the overused image with his opener “The Lord came down because God wasn’t enough” and subsequent tales of broken bodies, bread and beer.
“The Lord came down because God wasn’t enough,” he repeats later. “Because the childless man draws the bathwater / and cries. Because the choirboy never sings / as he climbs.”
“Primer” opens with the query “And what if you have nothing?” before describing the kinds of instincts you develop when instincts are all you own. Carlson-Wee ends the piece with a proverb of affirmation that levels the reader both in and out of context: “Yes. Your voice, if your voice counts. / Yes, my voice counts.”
He litters the book with lines like this. Lines which stand up on their own yet mean all the more when they lay their heads down upon an entire poem; lines just begging to be tattooed across someone’s breastbone.
In “Lodestar,” it’s “Nothing you’ll find more orphan the heart”; in “Shoalwater,” it sounds like “Love exists in the way seagulls hold still / in the wind.” The opening of “Taken In” devastates as it stirs up the soul’s waters: “The fear of growing older less than the feeling / of failing to do so.”
Wherever Carlson-Wee wanders, he walks the line between things as they are and as he no longer dreams they could be, between transient bodies and life’s permanent features—pain, shame, duty, the kindness of strangers (the latter beautifully evidenced in poems like “Ms. Range Wants to See Me In It” and “Years, Later I Go Back to Thank You”). He acknowledges the presence of soul and body, reminding us that one often covers for the other.
The Low Passions would qualify as a remarkable feat of poetry all it did was sit in the shadows. But as difficult and dark and splintered as these pages get, Carlson-Wee carves out room for a thread of light to peek through. This feels most evident in the lines which close “Listening to a Rail in Mandan” and the book as a whole:
I’ve heard it said that the kingdom of heaven / surrounds us, though we fail to see. / No stars tonight. No fire. No brother by the junkers / awaiting my call. / No father walking toward me / on the tar-blackened ties. No dog’s eye / catching the searchlights. / Not a single sound / fleshing this tank town as the rail begins to shake, / as the train begins to whisper my name.
At moments like this, Carlson-Wee accomplishes what the greatest raconteurs and ramblers among us aim for: to make the vagabond life sound like the most beautiful and dreadful existence imaginable.
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and entertainment editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. He also teaches at his alma mater, the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column, The (Dis)content, for Fathom Magazine, and has been published at Image Journal, Think Christian, The New Territory, The Blue Mountain Review and more. Follow him on Twitter or find his work on Facebook.