A Review of
The Low Passions: Poems
Reviewed by Aaron Brown
When given the chance, I often proclaim to my friends and family that we are living in a highpoint of Midwest literature, from Sarah Smarsh’s National Book Award-finalist Heartland to Meghan O’Gieblyn’s searching essay collection Interior States. These works are both born out of and breathe the Midwest, praising the bareness of the landscape while wrestling with “a loss of telos,” as O’Gieblyn puts it, that all Midwesterners feel. It’s no surprise then that Anders Carlson-Wee’s riveting poetry collection, The Low Passions, both operates within this tradition while also exploring new forms.
For Carlson-Wee, the Midwest is the Dakotas and Minnesota—small communities where church steeples rise above rundown homes, where the same people who sit next to you in the pew, shoot heroin into scarred veins or smoke through packs in grocery store parking lots. The poet is a wanderer in this milieu, elegizing the landscape before it becomes “less and less.” Take his poem “County 19,” for example, where the speaker is given a ride by a mother and her Happy Meal-eating son. As he helps the young boy eat his food, the speaker meditates on the irony of hitch-hiking down the streets of his hometown, passing the nursing home where his grandmother slowly deceased. The impulse to be known is so strong, the speaker asks to be let outside the nursing home. But he can’t bring himself to enter and instead returns to the road, the only place that seemingly grounds him. When a farmer who picks him up “asks me / where I’m going I say as far as you can take me.” The poem ends with the poet as pilgrim, journeying to a destination that has long since passed away and yet can be reached through the road of memory.
But Carlson-Wee does not simply stop at the old trope of poet as pilgrim. Instead, by inhabiting the voices of family and others through persona poems, the narrative begins to become prophetic. Whether through the voice of “cousin Josh,” whose death via overdose overshadows the collection, or of the many people who open their doors to the poet during his travels, we come to understand that the poet is voicing their pain, their struggles, their longings to anyone who will listen. And Carlson-Wee is the one who is willing to listen—giving ear to those who otherwise would be passed by or forgotten at the end of a lonely road. In “Ms. Range Wants to See Me In It,” the speaker is invited into the home of a woman whose deceased son never returned from where the “Bomb / tore him up so good they had to get the name / off his tags.” In a touching moment, the woman makes one request of the speaker: for him to don the clothes of her deceased son, for her to relive the gift of seeing her son one last time.
It would be easy to mistake the prophetic impulse in Carlson-Wee’s poetry as a savior complex, as a perspective in which the speaker always finds the truth and dispenses help whenever asked. But nothing could be further from the truth. Where other poets may speak from condescension, Carlson-Wee speaks from a place of humility and understanding—he has walked these roads, hitchhiked these highways, jumped these trains.
The final third of the collection, however, begins to alter. Here, the speaker comes full circle: from pilgrim to prophet to simply another human in need of saving. The closing poems of the book express a kind of lamentation and apocalypse that makes the reader chilled by the final page. Carlson-Wee wrestles with a sense of vocation and belonging to a place he both loves but which causes him endless pain just as the land itself is disappearing. Here, Christ is a vagabond: “The Lord came down because God wasn’t enough. / He lies on sodden cardboard behind bushes / in the churchyard. Wrapped in faded red.” The heart is found to be inherently alone: “Nothing you’ll find more orphan than the heart.” These realizations destabilize and humble the speaker.
Indeed, as the overarching narrative of the collection begins to come together, we quickly realize that it is not the landscape or its people that need saving—it is the speaker himself: “Each day… another stranger saving you.” As the speaker records the barren plains around him, he discovers at the same time that there is “less and less of me / to find.”
There is something deeply biblical to Carslon-Wee’s poetry—a kind of episodic history of violence and redemption one might find in the Old Testament. In the collection, the speaker struggles with that classic dichotomy between innocence and experience, reveling in the carnality of existence while wondering if it is possible to rise above our inner demons. Even Cain-and-Abel, Jacob-and-Esau poems exist here too, where the speaker both fights with and worships his brother. The poet thinks often of his “brother and the ways I burden him,” such as in the poem “Dynamite,” where a boyish game of throwing pinecones at each other escalates into a bloody fight.
If the poet’s name sounds familiar to you, you may recognize his name from the uproar surrounding his poem “How-To,” which was published in The Nation in July 2018. Critics of the poem labeled it ableist and callous with its use of African American vernacular. Others came to Carlson-Wee’s defense and complained about the insertion of political correctness into the already volatile world of poetry. The editors of The Nation kept the poem online but added an editor’s note apologizing for the poem’s publication. Carlson-Wee donated his compensation for the poem to a nonprofit. If anything, “How-To,” which was not included in Low Passions, represents the often little discussed risk of persona poetry.
Whereas “How-To” may have failed as a poem, the impulse to explore and witness other people’s stories is an endearing quality of Carlson-Wee’s work. Take “McDonalds,” for example, a poem which succeeds at witness and advocacy where the poem “How-To” had its shortcomings. In the poem, the speaker addresses his subject through second person rather than the risky first person. What follows is a portrait of a homeless man whose McDonalds ritual is a kind of comforting performance that lends him dignity. The man washes himself in the bathroom, dries out his coat, grabs napkins for insulation, and asks for a cup for water. In an elegant turn, the cashier asks “out of habit if that will be everything.” And as readers we are uplifted by this intimate exchange between two human beings who otherwise may have never crossed paths. The poem asks how our habits shape who we are, how they are able to give us a kind of dignity, even when the world around us has turned its back. It’s a quiet, observant poem as much of Carlson-Wee’s work is, and it asks us to simply pay attention—pay attention to the imago dei we find in the people we would otherwise pass over. It is this prophetic, advocating sentiment that is both the risk and reward of Carlson-Wee’s poetry.
Aaron Brown is the author of Acacia Road, winner of the 2016 Gerald Cable Book Award (Silverfish Review Press). He has published or forthcoming work in Image, World Literature Today, Tupelo Quarterly, Waxwing, and Transition, among others. Brown grew up in Chad and now lives in Texas, where he is a professor of English at LeTourneau University.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com