Saturday, August 13, 2022

Red Letter Poem #123

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner




           Red Letter Poem #123




Re-reading the poems in The Low Passions – the debut collection by Anders Carlson-Wee (published by W. W. Norton)  – I kept noticing how, circling inside my head, brutal and beautiful were chiming responses; how some of the most physically and psychically challenging situations he describes seem also to quietly simmer with an unmistakable love.  If Walt Whitman had somehow been born in the bleak stretches of the upper Midwest, with the dawn of the 21st Century just beginning to gleam on the horizon; had he engaged in daredevil skateboarding escapades with his brother to fill dark winter days; twice pedaled across the country, relying on his own wilderness skills and the kindness of strangers to survive; and later hopped freight trains in order to explore the hardscrabble lives common today across these dis-United States – he too might have sung of the America captured in these pages.


Having grown up in a household filled with sisters but devoid of even one male sibling, I was instantly intrigued and astonished by the no-holds-barred combat Anders and his brother Kai engaged in (depicted graphically in poems like “Polaroid”.)  And yet, despite the litany of wounds, the boys seemed to share an unbreakable bond.  And so I was not shocked to learn that both grew up to become poets; co-authored two chapbooks together; and jointly directed an award-winning film, Riding the Highline – a freight-hopping odyssey-slash-poetry vision-quest.  It made me consider how we often engage in the bloodiest battles with those closest to our hearts.  As America’s own caustic sibling rivalry escalates toward what’s begun to feel like an undeclared civil war, I have to say I took a small measure of hope from Anders’ poems.  He depicts the poorest and most alienated circumstances in our country that, somehow, still end up producing acts of kindness and moments of spectacular beauty.

Granted, this is in no small part due to Anders considerable lyrical gifts and a careful eye that zooms-in cinematically on the telling detail – things Whitman also would have admired.  The Low Passions was chosen as a New York Public Library Book Group Selection; in addition, Anders was awarded the 2017 Poetry International Prize, and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Poets & Writers, Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.  And even now, with a certain celebrity achieved from his artistic endeavors, Anders describes himself as living closer to the bone than most would find comfortable: “I dumpster dive for most of my food and live a humble life. I piece together an income from touring, publishing, teaching, awards, grants” and, yes, the kindness of people he meets along his travels.  His poems make us, too, want to look “just beyond the lens” to discover what’s out there, waiting for our attention.







A loose flap of skin passes just below

his eye. Bruises ride the bridge of my nose.

The dark ropes of handprints grip

both our necks. Our fresh buzzcuts

lumpy with goose eggs. It's easy to forget

we were trying to kill each other.

Or at least I was. But what I wonder now

is why our father shot the photo before

he bandaged the hole where the nail

went in, stuffed my raw mouth with gauze.

We stand side by side against the garage,

eyes focused just beyond the lens,

each pointing at what we did to the other.



       ––Anders Carlson-Wee





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