Anders Carlson-Wee’s ‘Dynamite’
by Anders Carlson-Wee
Bull City Press, $12.00 paperback, 40 pp.
Winner of the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Competition, this debut chapbook from Anders Carlson-Wee is rife with poems that are some of the most urgent, tightly-paced narratives I’ve read in recent memory. They’re lithe, loaded with small, essential details, and there’s a priority placed on literal physical details which largely erases any sense of artifice or construction. Each poem had my fingers gripping tightly to the (now) curled pages, hoping each character would escape his most recent scrape, although I always felt confident and reassured that everyone had to survive. If I had to dig out a central theme or idea from this chapbook (reductive, sure, but perhaps useful for a review) it would be this: Living is dangerous, but we will survive and be thankful.
Let’s begin with the danger. Almost every poem in Dynamite has direct or implied violence, and even in the best of circumstances, our speaker (who, even when traveling with his brother feels singular and unifying) is hitching a ride to a new town, hopping a train, staying with a stranger, or rifling through a dumpster for his next meal. And despite what most would call a struggle or hardship, there is not a single line of suffering or self-pity. In a few of the poems, brothers play with a fury that borders on fratricidal, but still manage to keep their innocence. In others, we see obvious signs of loss and resilience: a fingerless man who can roll his own cigarettes or a hospital wing devoted to patients tentatively testing their new prosthetics. And while the damage is real, even sad at times, it doesn’t feel like grief. There is no sense of defeat, and acknowledgement of what the world has wrought doesn’t put an end to the future. Take “Flood of ’97” which starts with the line “In the flood of ’97 everything went to shit.” Seems bleak, right? A few lines later, it reaffirms this with a simple statement of fact: “Not much was saved.” But by the end of the poem we see more observation and fascination than sorrow, and the townspeople young and old pick up the pieces and continue on.
Even in a poem like “Living” that largely has our speaker elbows deep in the viscera of dead pig parts outside a butcher’s shop, there’s the sense that everything is the way it should be. The speaker is in control of his destiny, and in some ways has been the master of his own path:
I get everything I need for free.
These boots came from the factory
dumpster on the far side of town. This hat
was moldering on the kitchen floor
in the foreclosed home I picked through.
This coat, this backpack, this brand-
name headlamp. I got this cornmeal
behind the grocery store, this flatbread
behind the bakery, this french press
in the alleyway next to the coffee shop in uptown.
And the speaker continues this litany before getting back to his gruesome work. He owns a banjo, a bible, almost anything he could ask for just by scrounging through what the civilized world has discarded. Is it wrong to be a little jealous of this freedom? Is it wrong to see a character like this as being rich?
So while I’m not ready to give up my life for a stolen train ride west, I do find something romantic to the overwhelming sense of gratitude and contentment in the poems. Perhaps some of this has to do with the classic American story of heading west to find a new life. Perhaps a bit of this romance has to do with living a simple, unencumbered life. Some of it surely has to do with self-reliance and individual responsibility in a time when it’s easy to feel small and helpless in a big world. Some of it has to come from the outright religious reverence shown again and again. In “Riding the Owl’s Eye” our hero (and I say this in earnest; he becomes more than a protagonist) has concealed himself in a hidden portion of a Canadian Grainer train car and meditates on lost human potential commenting on our faithless belly-aching: “The Lord gives us mountains / and we fail to mine out that grandness. / The Lord gives us trains and we waste those distances / transporting coal. 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.” No matter the circumstances, we are the ones who own our lives. At the end of “The Low Passions,” we’re sent off with an ecstatic litany of praise juxtaposed against an image of homelessness and supplication: “Homeless, anything helps. Anything. Anything you can / spare. God bless you, God bless you, God bless. God, / Lord God, God God, good God, good Lord very good God.” It’s stark and perhaps unsettling, yet it reverberates through the body and feels true and right.
Now the more cynical voices in my head would like to worry about the future, that this may be a “project book”—a sometimes synonym for “gimmick.” I’ve had somewhat heated discussions with other poets who worry that there’s too much investment in subject matter, especially since the author has two other chapbooks on the way which he’s co-authored with his older brother, largely on the same experiences of riding the rails and surviving off other people’s wasted food. But when I am honest with myself, I could easily take another twenty more of these poems if they’re this well-composed; it’s hard to deny the passion and resilience behind the art. Even if the figures can sometimes seem out of a bygone era of American history, just like the trains themselves, Anders Carlson-Wee’s poems are necessary, powerful, and I can hope they’re just picking up steam on the first stop of a much longer trip.