Book Review: Rail by Kai Carlson-Wee
Kai Carlson-Wee is the author of RAIL (BOA Editions, 2018). He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and his work has appeared in Ploughshares, Best New Poets, TriQuarterly, Blackbird, Crazyhorse, and The Missouri Review, which selected his poems for their 2013 Editor’s Prize. His photography has been featured in Narrative Magazine and his poetry film, Riding the Highline, received jury awards at the 2015 Napa Valley Film Festival and the 2016 Arizona International Film Festival. With his brother Anders, he has co-authored two chapbooks, Mercy Songs (Diode Editions) and Two-Headed Boy (Organic Weapon Arts), winner of the 2015 Blair Prize. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he lives in San Francisco and teaches poetry at Stanford University.
A Review of Kai Carlson-Wee's Rail
Kai Carlson-Wee is an author from Minnesota that has lived the life of a nomad throughout the United States. The poems in Rail give the reader a glimpse at what it means to live this type of life. Carlson-Wee’s experiences as a train hopping traveler is very prevalent throughout the book, as the speakers of the poems often reflect experiences that seem inspired of his journey. In a way, the quasi-autobiographical nature of the poems establishes an intimate tone. Rail, portrays the feeling of wanderlust through the poetry that often changes in its form or subject matter to keep the reader in the unfamiliar, as if they are just wandering through the book themselves not sure of what will come next.
The poetry throughout Rail is interspersed with a large array of topics and scenes that can make the reader shiver, sneer, and even laugh. No place is safe from perusal, a poem may bring the reader into situations with a methamphetamine addict, the concrete valleys of a skatepark, or a supermarket’s produce aisle. Often throughout these experiences, there is a speaker presented that often reflects the author, and the strangeness that can be seen highlights the journey into the unknown. The details provided within these poems often bring unfamiliarity, but also a much-needed intimacy that connects the reader. In the poem, “Miss Diana,” we get a speaker who is describing many of the elements of their childhood as well as some horrors of adulthood. As the speaker describes their past, lines like “I rode my chestnut horse in the sun. My dad called him Sweetness. / He lived for the prairie” give specific details that show its authenticity. This poem then is juxtaposed by the switch from light hearted images of childhood into the visceral problems of adult life:
“I am pretty much / hateful of Red Bull. I lived with a man once. He would /
This switch gives the story an interesting contrast as it maneuvers through the beauty of the speaker’s life and then looks at the ugly things within it. Often the content of the poems can lead to scalding subjects, but this is what makes the poetry feel real. It shows how some events can be brutal even when least expected.
This sense of contrast is also seen throughout the book with many of the pieces varying in style. Another poem that does something like this is “The Boy’s Head.” The first half of the poem describes the speaker and what the neighborhood is like. But, about halfway through the poem there is a shift that brings surprise and is a reminder of the unknown:
“I went to the skatepark in El Cajon and attempted to flirt / with the girls. People came through, disappeared, made claims. The sun / never altered in its place in the sky. The floodlights came on and the / metalheads listened to boomboxes perched on the stairs. I was down there / one day in September, a day like any other day, when a boy’s head was / found in the playing field.”
This great shift is something that is seen many times within the poems in this book. It is always something that brings shock and shatters the comfortable feelings that are felt just before. It is something that catches the reader off guard as they wander through the rich landscape that is illustrated within Rail. There is a feeling of curiosity as every poem has interesting details or a new perspective that is unexpected.