By Francine Conley, Guest Reviewer.
Anders Carlson-Wee’s newly published and thoroughly engaging chapbook, DYNAMITE, gives heart to the art of concealment. A winner of the 2015 winner of the Frost Place Chapbook competition, the nineteen poems included in this vibrant collection reveal much by restraint. The poems are riveting and action-driven, showcasing a bold new voice of a spiritual insomniac who trespasses danger, willingly, and—at times—playfully.
The title poem “Dynamite” opens the book on hazardous fun between brothers who view nature as artillery. Pinecones are grenades, and pine sticks are rifles. But when his brother disappears and reappears with a bloody nose and a real hammer in his hand, the stakes are raised, and we don’t know what to expect next.
Indeed, each poem that follows “Dynamite” carries a degree of menace and suspense, delving into familial bonds (especially brother-brother and father-son) and beyond. We learn about the formative years of a poet who spent much of his youth wandering from home, exploring yards, hopping trains, dumpster diving, and hitchhiking. This wandering unleashes language and insight, as well as a degree of concealment, from hiding in train cars to dumpsters. Even the wounds of others the poet encounters are hiding places that help him access the language of compassion and comparison. He lets others speak, almost as a way of understanding his reason for being. But as much as Carlson-Wee advances the chapbook’s themes in each poem, he crafts distance as measure in style and subject matter, as if to withhold or prevent explosion. There is no end in this book; there is only journey.
On a stylistic level, Carlson-Wee is a deeply curious poet. He exploits muscled and sonically dexterous language, and shift points of view effortlessly. He wields sentence fragments like choke chains, such as in a wonderfully short-tempered poem, “Northern Corn,” which carries the rhythm of passing train cars. End-stopped, unruly and abrupt, each line reads like a measured burst, felt best in the portrait of a ninety-year old father sketched this way: “The size of his hands. / The size of one finger. / The flathead prairie of his calloused / thumbpad.” Such fragments fall down like sacks of flour from a train car and beyond; we find compound words that enhance the tonal compactness of the poems in which they appear. This is bulk realism. This is the mind of a bona fide survivor with a less-is-more approach: coal-dust, wind-eddies, blue-faded are expressions, that recall Gilbert or Larkin’s influence, while showing Carlson-Wee’s comfort with both depth and obscurity. He is terribly insightful of the protective mechanisms by which we (and he) abides.
Two standout poems showcase the art of concealment. In “Moorcroft” the speaker chances an overnight stay in the home of one who admits a past murder, and adds of his heinous act: “I wouldn’t change it.” A parallel is drawn between the yoke of one man’s violence and the continued but unspoken menace the book’s opening poem ignites. Why share this story? The man concludes, “Family is family,” before he brings the poet “clean sheets for my bed.” So the hardness of one tale juxtaposed with another lets the reader into what inspires this writer into danger, as much as the soft shell of a bed in which he’ll sleep so close to danger.
This is a poet willing to risk his life in order to get closer to what hurts inside himself and others. “Gathering Firewood on Tinpan” might be about gathering wood, but the imagined father and the tender tension felt in the image of his “folded hands,” is interrupted by an abrupt, declarative fragment that speaks deeper: “My brother and the ways I burden him.” Again, Carlson-Wee exposes the double bind that familial bonds necessitate, and how these attachments between men magnify once out in the world.
To that end, “Shoalwater” is an aria and one of the most complex, nimbly constructed, and important pieces in the chapbook. A hybrid form that interweaves his past with an external landscape, this poem articulates beautifully how the external shapes the internal:
Waves grind the shoreline and darken into pools.
Crabs shuffle sideways, lost in the washed-up eelgrass.
Seagulls spit littleneck clams to the rocks
and don’t even eat the shattered bodies.
Carlson-Wee’s use of nouns—waves, pools, crabs, eelgrass, seagulls, and littleneck clams—intensifies the interdependence between all moving parts. Yet, the assertive verbs (grind, darken, shuffle, spit) view menace in love’s rare movements that surround the speaker, and furthermore, the tension of the unspoken is palpably felt in such modifications as darken, crabs shuffle sideways. Love shuffles in the dark, is lost and guarded, and then flares as it does in a dream in which his brother appears and disappears from his gaze, as if a reverse Orpheus. Feeling is camouflaged in all things until some force comes along and breaks us open: “We leak every time / we are opened. Out beyond the waves, / love says the same of itself.”
What follows is a striking reverberation as the speaker walks down the beach and throws stones at water. As if out there love necessitates an act of aggression, like in the opening poem, “Dynamite,” to shape itself into words. When he spots a seagull drop a clam against a rock, he notices how it shatters as much as he names the bird’s unabashed disregard for its insides. The horrified innards sit exposed on a rock, but what holds our attention is less the breaking than the moment before the clam’s shield shatters, before the deed is done. Violence comes before the act, in other words, and for this reader, such unique insight intensifies the book’s thematic pursuits.
Love is a clamshell’s first touch against rock,
whatever tenderness can be found
in that contact before the crack. It’s been years
since I was last out on the water. The night sky tightens
like that familiar mouth.
“The thud of a body surrounded by hollow” reveals the sound love makes in the absence of feeling, and then a moment in which the speaker offers a rare admonition: “It’s been years / since I was last out on the water.” The night sky “tightens,” like his brother’s familiar mouth. So much is suggested in silence, in so little space.
Dynamite is thus a dynamic exploration of restraint, and evidence of how physical every feeling can be contained and distilled. The body appears everywhere in the book, but in “Shoalwater” it’s as indecisive as shoreline water, as breakable as the shell seems firm before it’s dropped. “This is the best we can do,” Carlson-Wee writes. So we commit heinous acts, but we survive by being resolutely vulnerable.
Standing at the edge affords Carlson-Wee his own education, or how he was trained to see by standing apart and listening: “Listening to a Rail in Mandan” ends the chapbook not at a shoreline but “at the edge of the brake” where the speaker listens for the sound of oncoming trains. Where others failed to see, this speaker ironically learned how to observe, as he continues to do: “No stars tonight. No fire. No brother by the junkers awaiting my call. / No father walking toward me.”
Closure comes as the speaker admits he learned to note what’s been lost and overlooked. Surely the brother and father are measurements of the speaker’s identity, but their absence in the last poem signals a vital shift, as if alone this speaker can no longer hide. The formative relationships of his youth are gone: he can only be a witness to himself.
Anders Carlson-Wee is a 2015 NEA Creative Writing Fellow, 2015 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow, and the author of Dynamite, winner of the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative, New England Review, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, AGNI, Best New Poets, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading series. Winner of Ninth Letter's Poetry Award and New Delta Review's Editors' Choice Prize, he holds an MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University. His poem, “Leaving Fargo,” will appear in the Spring 2016 issue of The Adroit Journal.
Francine Conley has a chapbook, How Dumb the Stars (Parallel Press, 2001). Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Literary Review, Juked, Paris-Atlantic, Shadowgraph Magazine, Asteri(x) Journal, Naugatuck Review, Hartskill Review, and New England Review, among others. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson. For more on her art: http://francineconley.com