August 24, 2018KR Reviews

On Rail by Kai Carlson-Wee

Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2018. 108 pages. $16.00.

At age twenty-five I hopped freight trains across America with three hometown friends. We rode boxcars, grain cars, double-stackers. We ran from railroad bulls outside Chicago. We slept on trains, in railyard “jungles,” in parks. We got stranded in a midwestern lightning storm so beautiful-ferocious that it shook our train on the tracks. We gaped at the nighttime Mississippi River rolling below us like an ocean. But mostly we waited.

Hopping freight trains, despite the moments of adrenaline and awe, is primarily a state of waiting. Waiting for the next west-bound train to roll into the yard. Waiting for a crew change. Waiting for a stalled train to heave and start. Sometimes you wait for hours. Sometimes for days. And what to do with all that time? My friends and I joked around a lot, sure, but I also remember those long stretches as a time of deep reflection—reflection on family and lost friends, on love and death and the future. Anybody who has stepped off the usual path will recognize the power of travel in facilitating introspection, and it is this recipe—let’s call it one part adventure, three parts reflection—that poet Kai Carlson-Wee nails so masterfully in his debut collection, Rail.

At first glance, Rail might seem like a book of train-hopping poems, but in fact, of the collection’s forty-five poems, only seven take place on the rails. And to be clear, these “train poems” are divine scraps of hobo lyricism (“Somewhere near Havre the rain disappears. / The beat slows down and the sun spreads two / red parallel flames on the tracks. Weird / benediction. Beautifully there for a moment / and gone.”) but even here the poems are not explicitly “about” hopping trains: always the speaker turns sharply inward, reflecting on his father, his grandmother, his brothers, his youth:

Childhood birthdays
I can’t seem to access. Parked in the brain
with invisible cities. Trials of proving ourselves
more alive—I don’t understand where it leaves us.

Trains serve as an entry point into the speaker’s core, the grief and joy and wonder that make up the real heart of this collection. And what a heart it is.

Rail is divided into five sections, and train poems bookend the first two. “The train / is my shepherd” states the speaker, and after the collection’s eponymous introduction, (an excellent opening salvo that drops us into the action), the train shepherds the speaker into the past. Over these first two sections we meet a young man who dumpster dives with his brother, who needs a pharmaceutical cocktail to survive the day, who finds his friends glassy-eyed on heroin. The titles—“Depression”; “Mental Health”; “Where the Feeling Deserts Us”; “Crystal Meth”—tell much of the story. Here is a young man stuck in a place he does not wish to be:

You count the weight of every
breath. You know it can’t go on like this. But here you
are. This is life. This is the way your day begins.

But these first two sections are more than lamentation. The speaker is curious, searching. “Is there no understanding the secret of death / in the dying?” he asks. “And what grainy, impossible dreams / used to guide us?” The questions keep coming: “What do we find in the comfort / of time’s absent shadow?” he asks. “And my thirteenth birthday, setting off flares in the train yard, scraping my name / on the rust-lined door. What became of those abbreviated years?”

These early poems often circle back to the tracks, as though the speaker is working up the drive to hop aboard. When he finally does, the trains don’t bring tidy answers to his questions, but they do offer some relief:

This is the best
I can give for a reason—the metal accepts you,
whoever you are. The train you are riding will only
go forward. The straight line is perfectly clear.

Which leads us to section three, “American Freight,” a sprawling, epic poem that maximizes the collection’s golden ratio of adventure to contemplation. Here we follow the speaker on the rails through a long tunnel, something that, speaking from experience, is a truly hallucinatory experience. The blackness is so perfect you lose all sense of movement, of self, of time. I remember present and past folding in upon one another. I remember reaching out to touch my friends to make sure we were all really there. The speaker in “American Freight” describes his out-of-body tunnel transference:

I see the entryway fade to a bright coin,
blue in the circling stone. Sounds are thick
and pictures of gone lives float
on the calcium walls. Gently rocking.
Absolute black. Holding my fingers in front of my face
there is nothing. Only the diesel exhaust
in the airflow, my brother and I
in bunk beds hearing the freight trains buckle
and shift.

“American Freight” also works overtime as a natural mid-pivot to the book. The speaker is passing through the darkness, “. . . gone in the dank hole, gone to the deeper earth . . .” when he spies, literally, a light at the end of the tunnel:

before our birth and after we fade like so much windblown sand,
the light that finally comes
is warm, and all at once,
and blinding.

It’s been a while since I hopped my last train but I can still hear the relentless ker-chunk, ker-chunk of wheels over railroad ties. The rolling crash of all that steel thundering onward—it was an ever-present soundtrack to the journey, and a rhythm I recognize in Carlson-Wee’s disciplined meter: “The muscle of diesel / and slack-line beneath me.” “The wheels that brought us this far / still roll . . .” “To endure / without knowing there’s anything left.” The beat is soothing, a pleasure to follow along with. It is not universal throughout the collection, however, nor should it be—for no train runs at the same speed forever. There are sudden stoppages. Derailments. Every ride comes to an end.

In Rail’s final two sections, once the speaker has emerged from the tunnel’s dark void, we might expect something of a victory lap: questions answered, lessons learned. But what adventure ever landed so smoothly? Rather than offering a neat wrap-up, Rail defies an orderly progression toward epiphany. Sections four and five spin the speaker back into memory, to thoughts of his dying grandmother, to further questions unanswered.

This isn’t to say that the speaker gains nothing from his experiences. The collection builds slowly toward a sense of wisdom earned, thanks in large part to the line “The road goes on,” variations of which surface repeatedly throughout. As the speaker tells us in the collection’s heartbreaking gem, “Cry of the Loon,”

The day goes on fading.
The night goes on beating its drum to the hideaway stars.
We are given a few years to laugh at the danger.
To break ourselves down in the service of joy. And then,
we are floating. The water is black. And our quiet Alumacraft
fishing boat carries us farther and farther from shore.

If the speaker has learned anything by the end, perhaps it is that there is no true end. For each of us, yes, but not for the cosmic train yard of existence. That machinery will go on churning, and Carlson-Wee offers some comfort in that.

Nick Fuller Googins
Nick Fuller Googins’s fiction has been read on NPR’s All Things Considered, and has appeared in Southern Review, Ecotone, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. In his spare time he installs solar panels and plays trombone as the least-talented musician in an activist street band.