The Low Passions: review

I heard of the American poet Anders Carlson- Wee because of an article about a poem he had written, which caused some controversy. I was interested because he was writing in another voice, something I do frequently in my work and a subject I am writing about at the moment. The discussion around his poem centred on the poet assuming a selection of radically different voices to create a layering of statements highlighting homelessness.

Some readers found this unsettling and it generated questions about this kind of writing being a cultural appropriation of voice, that resulted in racist and ableist language being used.  Is it appropriate to write in an invented voice, or the voice of another person? I have written in the voice of queens, artist’s muses and rock star’s muses. My current manuscript is an imagined memoir of Pamela Colman Smith (there is an interesting article about who PCS was by Dr Elizabeth O’Connor here), so you can see my interest in all the ethical and creative considerations when writing in another ‘voice’.

My impression on reading Carlson-Wee’s poem was that it was more like a chorus in a play; many voices presented by the author to create a scene. An attempt to render passing voices that had been overheard. This may not have been successful for some readers, but I didn’t believe it was intentionally appropriating, rather it was theatrical and observant. It was an interesting discussion though and the poem was useful for my research about utilising other voices/identities to create a new piece of work, and I was glad the controversy had brought me to the poet.

Image result for the low passions

This brings me to the poet’s latest work, The Low Passions, which is a remarkable book.

There is an immediate sense of  the journey, both literal, as a travel memoir and something more spiritual. Wondering and wandering could describe the concern of the book. 

The first poem sets the scene for the whole book. The poem’s narrator marvels about, ‘all the hazards we pass through/in amazement.’ That ‘we’ is important because there is an echo in this collection, not only the people inhabited in the persona poems or observed, but a brother, who skirts in and around the narrative. That sense of brotherhood is reflected on, both in the sense of the relationship between personal family, but in the larger sense of a human family.

But this personal brother is challenging within the various imagined narratives; there is a truth in the observations that speaks of memoir. It is compelling. The poet returns to this often bloody and dramatic relationship like a painful scab that needs to be touched. Carlson-Wee is an excellent observer, both of voice and detail. He captures the competitive and painful reality of siblings, in the poems Dynamite or Polaroid, then in  contrast in the poem titled The Raft, he describes fishing with his sibling, checking cooked fish for tenderness, when it is the poem itself that aches with tenderness.

There is a feeling of Biblical incantation in the opening poem, Riding The Owl’s Eye, that also echoes Whitman’s ‘Out of the cradle endlessly rocking.’

‘Out of all the dumpsters […] Out of all the hazards.’

In Carlson-Wee’s book the landscape and people are carefully observed and recorded so that they seem fully realised on the page, which reminded me of Frank Stanford’s poems. Reading these poems is a visceral experience. Carlson-Wee swaps persona and dialect from poem to poem, and they all combine to create the feeling of a dramatic assembly. Unlike Stanford, Carlson-Wee does not reflect epic, brutal reflections to the reader, rather the poems have quieter, contemplative stories to tell.

However, the poet is both amazed and angry contemplating the magnificent-horror of life and there is lament and prophesy in these poems; questioning the meaning of life in relation to faith. For example, the character of Cousin Josh is brilliantly realised and ultimately tragic, forcing the reader to question why these things happen to a person. Carlson-Wee elevates other voices, the disenfranchised and lost.

Movement, travel and a sense of motion is constant within the book, but also, in contrast, profound stillness. Again in the opening poem, Carlson-Wee demonstrates his skill that continues throughout the collection, of moving from the large landscape of a poem, to hyper-focus on a small detail that he describes in a way to show its equal enormity.

[…]Some say the world is broken,/some say the Good Lord has forsaken our dreams,/ but I say it our own throat that grows/the cancer, our own asthma that blackens our breath/to a wheeze. And the truth is, the mile-long train/ will always crawl past. The socket-fixed gaze/of the owl’s skull will always turn perfectly/backwards. […]

To me, it felt like Carlson-Wee was asking a big question about place and belonging. What is the meaning in this life? Is it a series of roads one must travel down to find meaning? If you want to understand the landscape and people, you can’t sit back as a mute observer. You must actually live that lifestyle and experience a true sense of place, and the endless question of belonging to that place. However, it doesn’t feel like poverty tourism, rather a renouncing of materialism; a humble shape for the poet to inhabit so they can see.  There is a sense of deliberate vulnerability within the narrative that unfolds; turning away from comfort and stripping down to bare living. What this does is uncover precious time for contemplation.

My favourite poem in the collection is called, Primer. It is a written as a lesson in how to survive if lost in the forest. I read it as a child receiving the lesson from a relative. Carlson-Wee does what he does best in the collection, writes something that seems like an observation of place and nature, or the interplay of voices. Or perhaps it is about the tenderness of relationships and the gift of knowledge, but then he elevates it into something much larger; a lesson in having faith. Faith in God. Faith in a human voice being heard in the unfathomable place that is beyond observation:

And what do you listen for?

Sounds that shouldn’t be there. Yes

Sounds that shouldn’t be there but aren’t.

Yes. And what have you heard

since we started? A bird? Yes. Another bird

far away. Yes. A gust in the trees.

Yes. Your voice, if your voice counts.

Yes, my voice counts.



Link to Primer poem on YouTube