Boys and Trains


Kai Carlson-Wee, Anders Carlson-Wee, Mercy Songs.  Qatar: Diode Editions, 2016.

Mercy Songs is not merely a poetic collaboration between brothers; it is a work about brothers.  And it begins with a nostalgic and resonant evocation of a shared experience, a memory of an acute childhood sensory experience:

  We knew
by the whistle if one was a coal train, or one
was a mail train headed down south.  We knew
by the rhythm and clack of the joiners, the speed
they were taking the turns.  We knew there was
something important inside the sounds.

It’s not only a boyhood being evoked, but also what feels like a now disappearing industrial America of gritty blue-collar jobs: “The factory smoke stacks leaching off  / pillars of heat.”  Are these real memories or fictions?

In this world the two brothers played sometimes dangerous games, in which a hammer became a potential weapon and a pet frog a threatened hostage.  Entertainment was a matter of destroying without getting caught:

…lighting the trashcans on Division Street
on fire, watching the fat police lumber
to the flames.  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?  Now they slump
inside the passing days like sand.

(“Deer Bones”)

Over and over these poems call on the elemental (fire, iron, wood, rock) with actions to match (stomping, hammering, smelting, beating).  Somewhere along the way the boys turn into men, but their lives seem only older and more desperate versions of what they had before.  They ride trains, beg on the street, survive on stamps and thrown-out food.   While many poems are written in a collective voice (“we”), others are clearly the work of one or the other, such as “Man in the Glass,” in which the damage of a neglected life gets stripped of its allure:

The anti-psychotics I took that year made the world
inside me sublime.  My eyes moved over
the shape of a face, the delicate wind in a tree.
I felt nothing.  I wrote no poems.
The language of beauty divided itself
into basic descriptions of fact.
I wandered from place to place…

And yet the nostalgia and even romance of such a life doesn’t disappear.  The real power of these poems is their muscular description, used to great effect in the title poem in which “Mercy Songs” reverberate in its rust-belt memories:

He heard them in the weight room, in the white
expanse of the courtyard covered in snow,
the way it reminded him always of Sundays,
waking up late in the empty apartment at noon,
pulling his socks on, holding a cold can
of Steele Reserve to his chest.  He heard them
in the mess hall, in the empty machine shop walls,
the drone of the late-night stations on faith…

This piling on of images is effecting, but sometimes become too much of a good thing.  A more careful use of them, combined with a greater variety of line length, space, breath, etc. might have made these good poems even better.  I was refreshed near the end to come upon “The Mark,” a poem that makes use of its three-line stanzas as it considers the question of what turned us into humans:

Some say fire, some say language.
Some say God made us in his image

on the sixth day.  some say tools,

some religion.  Some say whenever
we first dug a hole, marked
a grave – maybe the Neanderthal

family found in northern Spain:
skulls, ribs, jaws, dozens of teeth,
a nearly complete spine, a hand…

Here is still a piling of one image after another, but they are given more room to breathe.  The poem does end on a disappointingly obvious note (“Some say we’re still on the way // to becoming human”).  For me, the last lines of many of these poems are a bit of a let-down, as if the brothers don’t quite know what to do with their promising material.  However, as the saying goes, it’s the journey not the destination that matters.


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