Jack Grady, Reviewer
Anders Carlson-Wee’s new collection of poems, Disease of Kings, centers on the friendship through thick and thin between the poet and a friend named North. They are far from being typical, everyday Americans, working nine-to-five jobs, whether in factory or office, raising families and trying to follow the traditional American dream, as was so often portrayed in the post-war baby-boom decades, when America was thriving. Quite the contrary. These two characters from the American Midwest inhabit a current America, an America arguably decaying and in decline, a rust-belt America, an America stripped of its industry and the employment that went with it, This vision of America is graphically presented in the poem “I Feel Sorry for Aliens,” where the poet, in beholding the wreckage of abandoned industry in Butte, Montana, writes:
Lonely nights I walk to the old
elevator that used to hold Montana
grain: beams rusted, train tracks
ripped out, a patchwork of missing
The America that these friends inhabit is redolent of that of the 1930s, with its Great Depression and Dust Bowl, an America with its hoboes riding the rails, the unemployed searching rubbish heaps for food, an America of drifters and grifters. But, at least in Anders’ case, his participation in this America and the lifestyle that accompanies it is a matter of personal choice rather than necessity, a desire to live freely and not be bound by social obligations and conventions, which he reveals succinctly in his poem “Ambition”:
To suffer none of it.
Money, work, or obligation.
To face the days free
of roles. No title. No position…
To have stolen time. And be lost
on how best to squander it.
Though the two friends share this desire for freedom, they are not in quite the same economic circumstances or from the same social background. This is apparent in the poem “Good Money,” where the two friends are drunk on a frozen lake. This poem has some of the most memorable imagery in the book, and you know something pivotal is about to occur when Anders writes:
When we stop crunching
over drifts of snow, what sounds
at first like silence gives way
to the immense agony
of the whole frozen lake
shifting, its great sheet of ice
moaning against the limitation
We then learn that North had told him the previous day that he would be leaving, that he had taken a job fishing in Alaska. As they circle to the middle of the lake, “as if seeking / every privacy the lake can afford,” North announces “it’s good money.” “Now we’re getting there,” Anders tells us, that is, getting to the point. Anders continues:
We don’t need money.
No, he says, you don’t need money.
I stop walking. I try to imagine
the North I met ten years ago
talking this way. You can’t
keep bailing out your dad,
I say, but even as I say it
I regret it. He takes a swig.
You wanna talk dads?
What about yours—what happens
when you don’t have his handouts?
It is clear from this poem, that, though North desires the same unhindered freedom from the system that Anders can afford, for Anders has a father and a mother who work as pastors and will bail him out with cash, when necessary. North, on the other hand, doesn’t have that luxury. He can’t afford complete independence from the system; he has to find ways of making money, for, in a situation opposite to that of Anders, his father is dependent on handouts from him, not the other way around. There is anger here, and regret. Words can wound, especially between friends, and we see that depicted in the final image of the poem:
Behind him, cars crawl
the shoreline like Christmas lights
strung around a garage door,
the darkness of his face
like a bad bulb in the pattern.
Those different circumstances between the two are presented again in the poem “Snow,” where they find a way to pay their rent through the winter by shovelling snow for their landlord. But, in March, North’s father shows up, and:
When he heard about February’s
good fortune he started leaning on North…
What are you going to do? I said, fanning
cupfuls of salt on the concrete.
North shrugged. Give him February.
You can’t, I said. North lifted a shovelful
and heaved it. Stop picturing your own dad,
he said. By April, February was spent.
In May North asked if his dad could move in.
And predictably, with winter gone and its snow no longer a source of income, Anders writes, “the rent outdid us.” So, he must cave in and call his father, who pays their rent for the rest of the summer and treats the three of them to dinner. At the end of the poem, Anders takes a swipe at himself for not appreciating his own father’s generosity or his faith and his livelihood:
I’d forgotten how embarrassing it was
when he offered to pray over meals,
but glancing around the table I realized
everyone was grateful but me.
North is often portrayed as the stronger of the two characters, physically, as well as in his sense of responsibility regarding his father, and, as in the poem “Blizzard,” his no-nonsense practicality. Anders, after it snowed all night, is playful, as he scratches “tic-tac-toe in the windowpane’s / frost and beat myself.” When he tries to open the doors, he discovers that snowdrifts block both exits. Anders writes:
The kid in me gets happy.
I shake North awake and announce
we’re trapped. North says
nothing. Barefoot in underwear
he goes to the living room
and climbs out a window.
We see North’s physical strength in the poem “Sea Change,” where he is “fresh back from Alaska” and “the hauls of kings brought up / in a hundred and fifty fathoms / of net.” Together again, the two friends have returned to their old ways, fishing through black bags of rubbish for whatever’s still good and can be used, and Anders describes him thus:
All summer, he rode the open sea,
hoisted ropes hand over hand,
pounded meals of raw salmon. Now
he’s built like a Greek statue:
sleeves rolled, forearms popping veins,
and each time he flexes to lift a bag
he looks godlike, unbreakable.
But North does have limitations. Strong as he is, he is not in actuality so godlike and unbreakable. The title of the collection refers to gout, known as the disease of kings, and North suffers from it. In the poem “Gout,” North, severely limited in his mobility, is racked with pain. As one familiar with the disease of kings, I found that the following amusing description, though perhaps exaggerated, brilliantly captures the trembling reverberations resulting from a person bounding around on one foot on the floor overhead:
each one-legged hop on his powerful
frame made the house quake.
Cutlery rattled in its drawer
like loose change. The shakers
drifted slowly apart on the table.
Anders looks after him, acts as his nurse, regulates his medication, and tries to control his diet. He proves himself in this case to be the more sensible, the more practical, and, in a sense, the stronger of the two, as revealed in these lines:
Where? He said. Fucking tell me.
I told him he’d get his next Oxy
when he stopped eating crap….
I’d heat water, wrap his foot
in blankets, and dole out painkillers
I dumpstered from Walgreens
and kept hidden in an empty jar
of laxatives. The disease of kings
Wikipedia called it, caused by
overindulgence, excessive amounts
of red meat. No more bacon,
I told him, No more steaks.
But each time I came home the kitchen
reeked of grease…
But this collection is not only about the friendship between North and Anders. It relates, as well, to friendship in general and feelings of friendship for other people, some unnamed, such as one who, unlike Anders, has not rejected ambition but, instead, embraced it, along with its expected lifestyle. In the excellent poem “Lay It Bare,” written for that friend, Anders mocks that person’s obsession with the things that Anders believes will never lead to happiness:
I know you’re hungry for it.
More money. More news. Desperate
for any laurel that parades you
as happier than you know
you are. A car. A cruise. Some haircut
reeking so deeply of depression
no one with a nose could miss it…
But Anders concedes that, even with his own footloose lifestyle, his abundant free time, and his lack of ambition, he, too, is not happy, for he writes:
I walk past bars where flush people
drink. Markets where I dumpster
what I eat. Down streets quiet enough
to hush the last ten years. Parks
dark enough to find Gemini, Lyra.
And he concludes this gem of a poem with this poignant couplet:
I don’t wish you were poor.
I wish you were here.
This collection is loaded with other fascinating characters, as well. Take, for example, the juggler, in the poem by that name, who stutters, but, when it comes time to drum up business and perform his act, astonishes Anders by enunciating perfectly:
his voice comes out clear. Smooth.
Travels to the passing ears like wheels
greased and loaded with the elusive
weight of words. Perfect Rs. Perfect Ts.
And, when North is working in Alaska and his room lies vacant, Anders decides to earn money by turning their abode into a B&B, where breakfasts are sourced from the dumpsters nearby that he plunders to keep his freezer full. Guests include a gambler named Lou, who wasn’t able to return to the race track and bet real money until his wife, who wouldn’t marry him if he gambled money, died. Before her death, to satisfy his craving, she’d allow him to watch the races on television and bet, but only chocolate chips. She’d even join in the betting. Anders has a long-established reputation for being able to bring his characters to life and capture their unique voices, as this passage in the poem “Lou” proves:
...my wife. No bullshit. She hit the Superfecta
one time. Filled her bowl on four horses
and named the order. The exact order:
1, 2, 3, 4. And she won. After we stopped shouting
and cussing and jumping up and down
we did a little two-step right there on the living
room rug, and at the end I even dipped her.
She had red hair for miles. It was beautiful.
In a hilarious poem called “Barb,” a health inspector has spent the night in Anders’ B&B. Over breakfast, provided by Anders from his dumpster cache, she asks him where he found the bacon. We can assume that Anders does not tell her the truth. The inspector then relates why she enjoys her job so much:
Pays fine. What I like is the power trip,
seeing fear in men’s eyes, bosses pretending
not to be bosses to buy themselves time,
saying yes ma’am, yes ma’am, yes ma’am, terrified
I’m gonna find mouse poo on my walk-through…
You know that butter you mentioned? Get it.
I guess I close about ten joints a year…
Okay, okay, another pancake.
Is that rosemary I’m tasting? You sneak!
If it wouldn’t mean completely missing
my flight, I’d take your kitchen by force
and sniff out what your little secret is.
Though she told Anders that she doesn’t inspect B&Bs, only restaurants, I imagine Anders was anxious she might make an exception in his case if she discovered the source of the breakfast she had savored.
Dumpsters figure prominently as a primary source of sustenance for the poet and his friend in this collection. Although the pickings there are free, harvesting the goods in those dumpsters is not without risk. This is apparent in the poem “Trash,” where Anders has a close call with a potentially lethal hazard, that is, a garbage truck coming to empty the bins:
Kneeling in a mix of good and bad
I sort by smell, never noticing
the garbage truck’s approach,
not hearing, over the trainyard’s
lonely horn, the scrape of forks
sliding into the dumpster’s black
sleeves, until the machine
is lifting me like an offering
into the thick midsummer air.
But it is also at dumpsters where Anders discovers generous, if nameless, friends, as in the poem “Where I’m At,” when a woman with a “newborn baby / strapped to her chest” passes him a wad of twenty-dollar bills, saying, “I’ve been where you are at.”
And, in the poem “Contact”, he is surprised by a series of messages from an anonymous benefactor. Written on a piece of cardboard, the first message reads:
Be careful—I’m filled with glass.
Two broken cans inside me.
I’m the good stuff, open me first.
Initially, Anders is suspicious of the messages, but they are true. He tells us:
I’d worked this dumpster
for years, been caught a few times
but nobody had ever tried
to communicate with me.
Another message at the same dumpster leads to more treats, “something sweet / for the weekend,” after which Anders decides to hide and wait to watch the staff bringing out the trash, hoping to discover who his donor is, but to no avail, after which:
elaborate cartoons began to coil
around the messages—a troop
of monkeys meant bananas,
a school of fish meant sushi.
What else could I do? Thank you,
I wrote in the branches above
the monkeys. Thank you, I wrote
in the ocean below the fins.
Thus, in the America portrayed in this collection—an America of drifters and the unemployed, of panhandlers and scammers, of factories abandoned and rusting away, of people living rough but surviving on whatever scraps they can find and from whatever source—there remains hope, the hope sustained by friendship and the understanding, kindness, and generosity that still endure, even among strangers, even in these dark days. And out of those dumpsters and the vagabond lives of Anders and North has come this impressive collection of poetry with its sustaining message of faith and hope in the human spirit, a treat for us, the readers, as much as the treats from that benefactor were for Anders Carlson-Wee.
Anders Carlson-Wee is the author of Disease of Kings, out now from W.W. Norton. He is also the author of The Low Passions (W.W. Norton, 2019), a New York Public Library Book Group Selection, and Dynamite (Bull City Press, 2015), winner of the Frost Place Chapbook Prize. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Harvard Review, BuzzFeed, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Sun, The Southern Review, and many other publications. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Poets & Writers, the Camargo Foundation, Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, he is the winner of the Poetry International Prize. His work has been translated into Chinese. Anders holds an MFA from Vanderbilt University and is represented by Massie & McQuilkin Literary Agents.
Jack Grady is a founder of the Ox Mountain Poets, based in Ireland. His poetry has appeared online or in print in more than a dozen countries and in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Albanian, Russian, and English. He has read at international poetry events in Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and Russia. His poetry collection Resurrection, published by Lapwing Publications in 2017, was nominated for the T.S. Eliot Prize.