New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019. 80 pages. $26.95.
Marshaling a critical rusticity reminiscent of America’s late-century romantics—Larry Levis, Robert Bly, James Wright, etc.—Anders Carlson-Wee’s The Low Passions adopts what some might see as an outmoded poetic ethos to address the Midwest’s widespread social crises: dwindling manufacture, cultural homogeneity. Poverty, drugs. The speaker is not immune from these forces. He hops trains, dumpster dives, consumes “animals / burned alive in forest fires” (“Fire”). Much of this haphazard behavior arises as a result of itinerancy, though the people around him, most of them stationary, indulge a similar frugality—though perhaps with less agency. The speaker performs a careful negotiation, one that recognizes industry’s role in shaping this decline while also accounting for avarice: “The Lord gives us trains and we waste those distances / transporting coal” (“Riding the Owl’s Eye”). He does not let himself, or his community, off the hook for their suffering. But beauty here mitigates destruction, redeeming an exhaustion felt equally by landscape and denizen. Such pleasure constitutes an ethic, imbibing both nature’s gifts and the cleft splendor of socioeconomic destitution. A trenchantly observed and moving debut, The Low Passions evinces a faith in the “low”—in the stolid fiber of a people subjected to slow violence—even as it sings a critique.
The speaker’s complicity in this world is perhaps most evident in “McDonald’s,” which details not an errand for a Big Mac and fries but a pit stop for furnishing necessities: water, soap—a not-so-public piss. The speaker has “walk[ed] all night and into the next day” in the “sudden October snow” of what readers take to be an already wintry Minnesota. Written in the second person, the poem implicates the reader, who him- or herself has “no money or hope of money,” whose “gloves have no thumbs” and whose “backpack is a cloth sack with duct- / tape straps.” Complicating this conceit, the piece recalibrates what, for many readers, is a middle-class perception of convenience, rendering it—through the speaker’s desolation—one of sheer utility. Everything from plastic spoons to condiment packets has a use, often one Carlson-Wee’s more comfortable readers would be unlikely to imagine. The “napkins,” for instance, “you’ll ball later // for insulation beneath your clothes.” Toilet paper is converted to “kindling.” Such amenities are minor, but significant: the speaker’s ability to “sit and rest and do nothing,” to simply “think nothing, and be no one,” is a great privilege. When the cashier slides him (“you”) a cup of water “out of habit”—without recoiling in disgust—that habituation evokes less a sense of normalcy than of relief.
Elsewhere, the poems enact a visual calibration, as in “Jim Tucker Lets Me Sleep in His Treehouse.” Shifting from second person narration to dramatic monologue, the piece adopts the voice of Jim Tucker, who speaks in depth of his late son, Brian. Not only does the monologue shift the reader’s view, but Tucker also describes his son’s uncanny ability to measure short increments—as small as a sixteenth of an inch—by sight alone, even from obtuse angles. While this ability might seem a rare gift, it is, as Tucker explains, acquired: “My son built this whole thing [the treehouse]: measured / every board, pounded every nail,” and spent so much time in it, he “just about lived / in this tree.” Such familiarity gives way to an intimacy obtained through hard-wrought experience. As Tucker states:
My boy loved this tree and this tree kept him
busy. Taught him the eye for true,
the eye for level, the eye for inches.
Once you see the world that way
there aint no shakin it.
Such is true, too, for the narrator of “McDonald’s,” whose hard-won view of fast food utility similarly remains unshaken. The poem ultimately turns toward bawdy humor, despite Brian’s death. (He died, we learn, in “the war.”) “My wife says I got / an inflated sense of my own manhood,” states Tucker, “but I tell her I know ten inches / when I see ten inches.” The poem again asserts the importance of perspective, ironizing Tucker’s lewd innuendo with an observation from his wife (“Jim Tucker, if only you could see / how odd it looks from this angle”), only to deflate tension with comic idiom: “Bet you never heard that one before.”
Among the strongest pieces is the title poem, which begins on what, at first glance, seems a paradoxical note: “The Lord came down because God wasn’t enough.” While “God” is, indeed, God, readers quickly find that “The Lord” is an itinerant—an addict, I presume—and God can’t keep him high. He rests “on sodden cardboard behind bushes / in the churchyard.” The image casts an altered valence over the title: these aren’t simply sad or “low” emotions; they’re sacrifices, sufferings, though for what or whom, it’s hard to say. The poem weaves the anecdote of the Lord with that of a “sideshow man who long ago lost / his right testicle to the crossbar of a Huffy.” The speaker attempts to imagine a painless future for the man, one wherein “he can still / get it up” and have “daughters, sons, / a grandchild on the way, a wife at home / in a blue apron baking.” The imagery is saccharine, and the speaker’s sympathy, empty. The man is as hopeless as the Lord. And so “the childless man draws the bathwater / and cries,” just as the Lord eats from a dumpster and sleeps in a “bag / he found or traded for.” Their attempts are ineffectual; their plights cannot be helped. Yet for the “Homeless,” the speaker claims, “anything helps.” The poem then breaks into liturgy, ostensibly useless, except perhaps by the logic that “anything”—language, belief, even mere sound—effects some kind of intervention: “God bless you, God bless you, God bless. God, / Lord God, God God, good God, good Lord very good God.”
There is a risk inherent to such poems: the ventriloquization of people or voices other than the poet—and thus classed, raced, or gendered differently than Carlson-Wee, who is a white man—might obviate the social or political stakes otherwise tendered so trenchantly throughout The Low Passions. This is precisely the cause for which Carlson-Wee’s “How-To” came under attack when it appeared in The Nation in 2018. That poem ironizes perspective, foisting a critique upon the “good enough / Christians” whose meagre charity indulges their conscience but effects no real social change. While its methods might verge on racial or cultural appropriation, it also generates complex social criticism. That intention doesn’t efface the problematic inherent to the poem (which does not appear in The Low Passions), but it does lend a sense of nuance to it and others like it. As Carlson-Wee suggests throughout The Low Passions, often by situating himself within the communities he both empowers and critiques, the “low” are exploited by forces larger than themselves, over which they have little control, but that does not prevent them from becoming corrupt, shameful, or problematic themselves. That same imperfection renders these characters psychologically complex, and readers identify with them more clearly for their faults.
Despite the destitution it presents, The Low Passions is also a hopeful book, one that does not merely delight in the grotesque, but that locates salvation in it, even if that salvation remains doubtful or in progress. “Some say / we’re still on the way to human” (“The Mark”). These people do not choose to be poor, and they can’t do much about it, but the action they do take is imbued with value, one that surpasses the Christian paradigm of transcendence precisely because it’s grounded in the real. As Cousin Josh, a recurring character, states: “It aint my fault I aint / Christian. I’d be the first man up the believin pole / if there was somethin to believe in” (“Cousin Josh on His Liver”). Of course, there’s nothing material for such characters to “believe” in—not the government, not the economy, certainly not a God. Yet action belies a faith in self-endurance, an investment in autonomy that is not given but earned. Such small action comprises salvation, even if it manages only to wipe the slate clean. As the speaker writes, in “Northern Corn,” “You have allowed another year to pass. / You have learned very little. / But that little is what you’re throwing / in the furnace.” When options are limited, every choice is an ending. Some endings are also renewals. Often it’s a gamble. In either case, for the people of The Low Passions, it’s time to “unplug the machine.”