Review: Rail by Kai Carlson-Wee

Kai Carlson-Wee, Rail, BOA Editions, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-942683-58-2. $16.00

Kai Carlson-Wee is a poet the world needs. He also happens to be a photographer and filmmaker, whose poetry film Riding the Highline has received awards at the 2015 Napa Valley Film Festival and the 2016 Arizona International Film Festival. Although he now lives in San Francisco and lectures at Stanford, he used to Rollerblade professionally. Much has been made of the link between creativity and the neuregulin 1 gene. Less has been made of what is born from that link. Reading his book is analogous to ‘skitching’ a ride on that link, and thrills even as it beguiles your ear, heart, mind and soul into rising as phoenix. The book charts freight hopping across the American Midwest with the rail of the title being at first symbolic, then totemic, and ultimately metaphoric.

….” The mind wants to move in a circle, return

to the lines it remembers the best, find itself riding

a series of high short notes through the ceiling and off

in the ether. The soul says go clear. The heart says

go back to the first cry and do it again. The mind

only spins in between……….” ( Dundas) ( V )

The forty five poems in Rail are subdivided into five sections with ten to eleven poems in each, excepting the epic ‘American Freight’, which is parked midway in its own deserved section. Kai uses anapestic periodicities in the main as metre through which he enters into resonance with the rhythm of the train’s wheels. Almost all are narrative lyrics, although there is a generous scattering of prose poems. I particularly loved ‘The Fog and the Sound’, and its handling of loss.

In the opening poem ‘Rail’ the poet and his sleeping brother are moving across ‘ the black Mississippi of dream’ with a ‘head full/of antipsychotics and blue rain’. The side effects of many of these medications can include sensory distortion, but Carlson-Wee falls back on the four elements of air, earth, sky and water to orient himself. Memory too lends rootedness to this parapatetic.

And always ‘The train/is my shepherd’. (WHERE THE FEELING DESERTS US). Each and every title of every poem in the book is in block capitals, like the billboards seen from a train. The repeated images in this book are mainly non-human: train, lions, sky, fields, trees, fires, water as sea or pool or lake, and those that are human have no power in the mainstream. Hobo camps and bags of garbage are almost synonymous in the culture that America has become. The romantic idealism that attended the great American dream has been replaced by a different type of dreaming.

“ and my friends are half asleep

in their anticipated lives, dreaming in the vain styles

of their age….”          Depression ( 1)

The poem is a brilliant evocation of what being depressed means for the sufferer, and the repeated use of ‘Now’ to open each memory and observation is masterful. The poet nods to Robert Bly here, as is evidenced by the intense imagery of deer bones rattling on the wall and the biblical overtone of  his father after his Easter sermon walking in the garden alone. The poem ends with a floating dead carp. It is the ‘ clarity of small things believing/ in themselves’ ( KING-1) that help him come to terms with loss. Of all the characters that continually recur in this ‘verse novella’, it is The Cloudmaker that makes the deepest impression, for this reader at least. ‘The Cloudmaker’s Bag’ is one of the best poems I have ever read that upends glib assumptions about ‘ the hobo’.

The bag with its nude deck of playing cards, its lighter and phone are all expected. Even the Bible does not surprise, but the will to creatively actualise with the penlight he uses to write on the night sky surprises and births changed perception. One of the characters met along the way is a woman called Miss. Diana, and in the poem of the same name, we are given her true biography. Physical and psychological torment have resulted in her present situation. Freedom is the most important thing to her now.

“ These people don’t understand freedom. They take off

their clothes in the bathroom at night……”

and later

“ ……………………He kept me in bondage.

In psychological fear……………………….”

and finally

“ …….I was a kidnapping victim

of choice. An adult kidnapping victim. 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.

I existed alone in these streets. My name is Diana

and I was born free and I am not his anymore to possess.” (Section II)


Although this is a persona poem, it is real. The ars poetica is then all the more stunning. There is an ironic awareness of the paradoxes inherent in the parallel reality all of the characters in Rail inhabit, best exemplified in ‘THE BOY’S HEAD’. Roberto Bolano is acknowledged here. Its intimate and conversational style as it summons up a melancholy year, and its references to music all echo the late Chilean writer. Although the world that Carlson-Wee draws us into is harsh, it has moments of pure beauty. The unsolved murder of the boy , and its gruesome details make difficult but necessary reading. Of the eleven poems in Section II, only ‘JESSE JAMES DAYS ‘ offers some relief from the jungle of crystal meth and violence. Addressed to his brother, Anders, it evokes scenes of childhood lost, entered only through memory or a clip of an old movie, and once spoken rebirth the ear .  The turning point in the book is the epic ‘AMERICAN FREIGHT’. This is where not only healing begins to be seen to have taken affect, but also where the poet’s ironic detachment allows us to see how ruinous capitalism is. There are many exquisite moments here, when the poet ‘shivers himself to joy’ or when he shelters a butterfly underneath his shirt. Again and again the small things are noticed and named, in complete antithesis to America’s exported icons. History of a nation and of a family and of the underbelly are all considered, and finally the train whistle allows the train to rebegin its journey.

“ …………..It rises from ragweed,

ballast and black tar. It moves us. It carries us home.”

The spirituality in the book is not one that belongs solely to building and book and pastor. It is one that acknowledges the soul, and which begins to appear more and more in the final two sections of the book. Beginning with his grandmother’s lost mind in PIKE, where she finds ease in a treasured memory of her father fishing by a lake. The power of memories in the outdoors as catalyst for healing features strongly all the way throughout the book. Water and light provide needed ballast for the soul, when Hunger and Thirst arrive. These twin malaises are both literal and metaphorical. The mind’s hunger for meaning, its thirst for the soul, and the physical hunger and thirst all combine in the final poem in Section IV to give us these lines.

“ We say the soul. The out-riding weather

inside us. The down-pouring water

that runs from the mountain, that sleeps

in the frozen beet field, that denies

this hunger, that sings in the blood”.     (SEVEN-DAY FAST)


All of the characters in Rail live in temporary enclosures. My favourites are the lions in the poem ‘SPLITTING A FORTY WITH ANT B’ (Section V ) . Biblical echoes abound in the book, but the lions by the river ‘Waiting for one of the zoos to get/finished’ are unforgettable. You long to reach your fingers through the cage and stroke them. Who is it that is really caged this poem seems to ask? The lions or the narrator or us the readers? And there is love too in this journey. Love that attempts to ignore addictions like crystal meth and does in its unconditionality. All of us need it. Not all of us crave it. We would all be liars if we said we did not remember it. ‘SECRET AIR’ transported me to that special place, that ‘secret air that only you will know’. Finally, the poet concludes that  by remembering everything over ‘the soul is a fire, and laughs/ at our sorrow, and has already survived us’.


This transcendent debut is as expansive and extensive as the American Midwest criss-crossed by the poems. The maps they make chart a mind that has suffered a derailment, but he is not the only one.There are other casualties in this domestic war. By moving counterclockwise to the ever forward moving train and remembering the rootings of the past, metamorphosis occurs. By listening to and befriending his fellow journeyers , and  by allowing the light of poetry and air to enter him he arrives  at the other end bathed in the salve of hard won wisdoms. Journey is mantra. Poem is prayer and testimony and ultimately hope. Not since Anne Sexton’s To Bedlam and Part Way Back  published in 1960, has a collection been written that deserves as much attention as it can possibly carry. Travel well.


Deirdre Hines



You can buy Rail here.

Deirdre Hines is an award winning poet and playwright. Her first book of poems The Language of Coats was published by New Island Books. It includes the poems which won The Listowel Collection in 2011. She was shortlisted for The Patrick Kavanagh Prize in 2010. Other awards include The Stewart Parker Award for Best New Play and Arts Council Grants. She reviews regularly for Sabotage. She is the Judge for the Annual Children’s Writing Competition, organised by North West Words, Letterkenny. New poems have appeared in The Bombay Review, Abridged, The Lake, Boyne Berries, Three Drops from a Cauldron to name a few.



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