Set against a landscape of rail yards and skate parks, Kai Carlson-Wee’s debut collection captures a spiritual journey of wanderlust, depression, brotherhood, and survival. These poems—a “verse novella” in documentary form—build momentum as they travel across the stark landscapes of the American West: hopping trains through dusty prairie towns, swapping stories with mystics and outlaws, skirting the edges of mountains and ridges, heading ever westward to find meaning in the remnants of a ruined Romantic ideal. Part cowboy poet, part prophet, Carlson-Wee finds beauty in the grit and kinship among strangers along the road.
I pull up the blanket
to cover my bare arms. Cool air filled
with the pressures of falling dew. This is the best
I can give for a reason—the metal accepts you,
whoever you are. The train you are riding will only
go forward. The straight line is perfectly clear.
“Rail is a lovely book, strong and inspired.” —Robert Bly
“This is a wholly unique and powerful collection of poems. The sense of purpose puts one in mind of Whitman’s ‘Song of the Open Road.’ Encounters with fellow vagabonds recalls the tramp-poetry of Vachel Lindsay. But the darker need to search for meaning in the American plains and points farther west—a vastness forlorn and almost unknowable—belongs to the particular vision of this poet. His journey through our national ambiguity discovers a flicker in our roots, a spark popping from obscurity that rises into the heavens. The lived experience behind these deft and subtle poems seems necessary, and reiterates the fact that resilience is not only a feature of the American character, it is a recurring tenet of American art.” —Maurice Manning
“Brotherly love, a sense of displacement and lost time, and the deep care that reminds us of our humanity, form the heart of this book. These poems are a scavengers guide, a survivalist manifesto, a reminder of the way our daily experiences can fuel and forge our faith. A hauntingly beautiful and unusual debut.” —Dorianne Laux
“Equal parts dithyramb and lament, the great American bardic tradition celebrates lonesome wandering even as it hungers for enduring communion. Kai Carlson-Wee is a worthy inheritor of its dusty mantle, worn by Whitman and Kerouac before him, and Rail is a moving testament to the territories of freight trains, Minnesota roads, dumpster diving, and brotherhood. ‘The road goes on. With or without us.’ Yes, but how much better to have this unforgettable music to guide the way.” —Campbell McGrath