George Guida
Away From the Fringe

Disease of Kings, by Anders Carlson-Wee. W.W. Norton & Co., 112 pp., $26.95.

Anders Carlson-Wee has established himself as a poet of contingency. His debut collection, The Low Passions (Norton, 2019), documents, among other struggles, the lives of young men who dumpster-dive for food and hop freight trains, relying on stealth, cunning, and the kindness of strangers. Disease of Kings (Norton, 2023)is a sequel to The Low Passions. In the first book, the primary speaker embraces his hand-to-mouth journey and the characters he meets along the way, but in Disease he grows disillusioned with the ethical and moral compromises that journey demands. Back in a small town, he has a new companion, a new role as host of an impromptu B & B, and time to reflect on his provisional existence as both a disorder and a source of shame.

The collection’s title is a euphemism for gout, the malady that afflicts his new companion, North. The speaker and North share a rented house furnished with salvage. Their abode and their relationship embody the tension between a place in society and freedom from its demands. In “Listening to North in the Morning,” North prepares a generous breakfast from their larder of second-hand groceries, and the speaker admits, “I like listening to him get reckless, / even though half of everything is mine.” Frugal with goods, he, like the poet himself, invests in intimate connection. “Isn’t that the sacred indulgence / of friendship: being near what you / can never be?” But even as he admires his housemate, for the latter’s having, as his name suggests, a direction, and specifically for having worked on an Alaskan fishing boat (“You’re not picking up nickels, / he says. You’re locking down a buck / every time you touch a fish”), he registers disgust with North’s depradations. When the pair need money, North stages a fake moving sale, “just using / the drama to draw shoppers.” And the speaker admits, “[I]f I’d been alone I would have died / of shame.” In “End of Term,” even as he helps his friend steal bicycles, he blames him for the crime. “I don’t even look at him. He knows / what he’s doing but he’s doing it anyway.”

“Andrew” and “Gout” embody the deeper interiority and conflict inherent in Disease. In both poems the speaker recognizes and deplores his own sloth and deceit. “Andrew” finds him and North committing fraud by filing for food stamps in multiple states. “Gout,” an extended account of North’s ailment, reframes redemption as gluttony.

The problem was how easy it was
to find rich foods. And not just some.
Ungodly amounts. We ate a diet
we never could have enjoyed
if we’d been paying for it.

The diet has aggravated North’s condition, rendering him immobile, a metaphor for the speaker’s inability to walk away from a life of reclaimed bounty. In “B & B” Carlson-Wee breaks lines masterfully to contrast the speaker’ mother’s praise for his thrift with his confession of that same thrift as a sort of sin. She calls it

stewardship of the Earth,
the saving of small parts of God’s
creation. As if she didn’t know
how cheap I was, how greedily
I clung to each free hour.

His freedom is no longer carefree, and by the end of “Gout,” he has reversed the course he followed in “The Raft,” a poem from Low Passions, wherein he steers his brother, Huck Finn-like, away from society. Guilt and the need for community turn him back toward civilization.

Drifting midcurrent with the leaves
gone, we could see everything.
Squirrels. Piles of trash. Plastic bags
resting in eddies. The tarps and tents
of the homeless. Joggers on trails,
the small cloud of each breath.

Here and elsewhere he focuses on images of waste and isolation amid the run of society’s routine. He is uncomfortable and, like North, inclining toward a more ordinary, socially sanctioned existence even as he continues to drift in the “midcurrent,” still outside the mainstream, by choice.

Carlson-Wee, as he does in Low Passions, presents, by contrast, people his speaker and North encounter who struggle within the system and whom they to some degree deceive by serving them, as part of the B & B experience, food rescued from the trash. In several persona poems named for these ham-and-egger guests, he deftly recreates the colorful language of working-class Midwesterners. “Oscar” opens,

Fuck no she didn’t leave me over money.
She left me cause I have no ass. It’s true—
a belt holds on my hips about as good
as an oiled-up pole dancer.

The poet grants these characters full and memorable voice, as he does Cousin Josh in Low Passions, but not North, a purposeful omission. Whereas the speaker romanticizes Josh as a rebel, he now sees North moving away from the fringe and toward workaday social engagement.   

“Blizzard” registers both the speaker’s lingering desire not to follow him and his growing comprehension that he may have to. When he wakes to snow drifts blocking the front door of their house, he settles into what Danes call hygge, in-home coziness and comfort. After making coffee and toast and playing solitaire tic-tac-toe on a windowpane, he is content as a schoolboy with a snow day. “The kid in me gets happy. / I shake North awake and announce / we’re trapped.” North, “[b]arefoot in underwear,” the lighter-out for the inevitable territories of family and responsibility, “goes to the living room and climbs out a window.” And when, in the poem “Good Money,” North tells him that he’s taken a permanent job in Alaska, the speaker remarks with an off-grid mantra, “We don’t need money.” “No,” North replies, “you don’t need money,” leaving his partner to contemplate his circumstances and prospects.

The irony of the speaker’s conflict lies in the very contingency of his life. It is as though dawn has risen on a bright afternoon: For him, as for all fellow travelers, all things must pass. In “New Place,” Carlson-Wee employs hexametric tercets to contain another bygone cohabitant and another domestic situation lost and rediscovered in a old photo:

Eyes shut, smirking, he lifts
his palm into the air which perfectly doubles
its reflection so he looks like a priest offering
benediction. I don’t remember taking it,
but someone did, and I was the only one there.

Companions of convenience recede to temporary blessing and image, but the need for lasting intimacy remains. In “The Family,” a poem about eating other people’s remaindered pancakes at a vacated restaurant table, the speaker contemplates a nuclear family, “a wife and kids gone on a trip / to the bathroom, hot water running / as she scrubs Mrs. Butterworth’s from their fingers.” He imagines this scenario as he confronts his own loneliness. “The longer I’m alone,” he observes in “Living Alone,”

the smaller a gesture could be
and still console
or rattle me. Strange to need
so little, but to need it
so badly. I step into the air

Two poems later, in “Dimple,” he accepts the passing of his relationship with North, concluding, as he averts his gaze from his friend’s eyes, “Sadder than believing you’re alone / in this world is believing / you’re alone while others exist.” In the final few poems, particularly in “The Mattress,” in which he addresses himself in the second person, and in “Lay It Bare,” the speaker lays bare the loneliness that finally overtakes him. “I don’t wish you were poor,” he declares to North, and by extension to everyone with whom he’s shared a transient adventure, “I wish you were here.”

Carlson-Wee’s formally varied poems, with their spare lines and plain-spoken voices, capture a young would-be hero’s quest, while setting it in stark relief against a background of means upon which it depends. While we might be tempted to read these poems as a prescient comment on the outcome of the Great Resignation, we can say for certain that they juxtapose the joy of escape with longing for the antagonistic, grudging familial connection we find in places like Philip Levine’s “You Can Have It.” Front and center in the contest between individual liberty and social responsibility is the poet’s ability to deliver understated, startling emotional truth. “What caught me / off guard,” his speaker tells North, “was the pleasure / I took in changing you.” If he allows his protagonist some retrospection (“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”), then we may allow poet and persona their farewells, as in the valedictory poem “Contact”: “Thank you, I wrote in the branches above / the monkeys. Thank you, I wrote / in the ocean below the fins.” The speaker has returned from his journey, with an optimism poignant and hopeful as Jack Gilbert’s, his italicized thanks a sign that he’s become a historical figure, a character in a tale well told.

George Guida is author of ten books, including two volumes of criticism and five collections of poems, most recently Zen of Pop (Long Sky Media, 2020), New York and Other Lovers (Encircle Publications, 2020) and Pugilistic (WordTech Editions, 2016).