American Freight

1
Under the bridge in the Midtown Yard
where I slept three nights and eventually caught my train,
you can read the graffiti of all the itinerant hobos
who hunkered there, out of the rain,
smoking their filters and waiting for rides
in the north Minneapolis night.
You can read their names: Spider Eyes, Doorknob, Stitch,
in the faint black lines
of a permanent marker the pigeon shit slowly erodes.
Bedrolls and cardboard boxes for mattresses,
half-gallon bottles of Schnapps.
If you look hard enough
you can make out the poem I carved in the truss overhead,
left there to fade with drippings
and winter exhaust turning everything slowly to rust:
I dream of journeys repeatedly. Westbound to Seatown. 2010.

***

Moving now. Under the tower light dropping industrial glow
on my head. River beside me,
swallowing all of it, blending the real invisible stars
with the red-blinking light of the FRED.
Stone Arch Bridge and the Metrodome rooftop.
Gold Medal Mill sign flickering orange, on and off,
and beyond it the high glass hospital walls
where my mother looked down at the wide Mississippi
and sang to her firstborn son. Held me up
jaundiced and covered in dew,
my lungs just beginning to wheeze.
It is all there. High in those floating glass squares
where the sick are being treated and privately
dying, and the mothers are waiting
and new fathers waiting and wandering down
to the vending machines where the windows look out
at the factory stacks
and the big muddy river of iron and blood
where my train disappears in the night.

***

The anti-psychotics I took that year made the world
inside me sublime. My eyes moved over the shape of a face,
the delicate wind in a tree.
I felt nothing. I wrote no poems.
The language of beauty divided itself into basic descriptions
of fact. I wandered from place to place,
stoplight to stoplight,
waiting for something to break from the skyline,
force me to finally stay.
I gained weight. I measured my sadness in lies.
In small medications. Doses.
I smelled things that couldn’t be there,
convinced I was dying from an airborne chemical
someone had blown in my ear.
But then there were moments of pure
unexplainable light. Clouds held signs
in their elegant swells. You could feel them rubbing
their moon-lit backs on the fields
of darkness behind. Sometimes I noticed a face in the glass,
in the polished aluminum wall of a downtown bank,
and for a moment of sweetness
I knew I was gone. I was nothing to speak of,
no one at all. And the stranger I saw
looking back in the dark
was a man with no future, no name to remember,
no place in the world but this.

***

Over the clay dirt. Over the fields of unthreshed wheat,
the sun-white skulls in the railroad ditch. Over the rattling
weight of this train. The silos in Dilworth. The Williston
oil rigs fracking the unmarked Chippewa graves. Over
the lonely cry, lost now. Miles of dark stars, dirt roads
leading in every direction away from whatever you are.
Midtown to Mandan. Dilworth to Butte. Highballing
west on a wheel of sun dogs, prayers, and no goodbyes.

***

Who are you? Stranger who gave me the last of your
laughter. Waited all night
for the Eastbound departure, your Rottweiler guarding
the dark. Rolling your cigarettes one-handed,
knowing the story is always the same,
no matter how far you are
from home. Traveling poet,
songwriter busking for left-over pizza and posting your lines
to a blog. Your history made up and sketchy
at best. Your lovely, obedient dog.
I fed her granola bars out of my backpack,
made sure the water stayed full. The moonlight ignoring
your tattooed face, the skeleton hand on your neck.
We are shadows now,
born to the shape of departure. The engine
a feverish bird underneath me. Wing beats. Gathering speed.

***

Storm clouds again outside Fargo,
again outside Glasgow. Now trailing off into thunderheads breaking
in great gray flowers above the road.
Flecks of blue. Passionate rain in the underswells.
Minor flirtations of sun.
Man covered head-to-toe in oil outside Williston.
Unreal.
Flares in the distance and windwheels
carving the sky.
Decapitated dog on the ballast rock. Still wet.
Chest flashing under the train-line shadow
and seeming to secretly breathe.
Somewhere in the distance a lazy alarm sounds off
in a four-four beat. Bull frogs sing as if trying
to return the call.
Tricoloreds fly and the slow sashay of cottonwood branches above.
The day is born with each new feather,
each fern leaf bending to touch the ground.
Each minor vibration. Each river of heaven
I lower myself in to drink.

***

The Cloudmaker tells me the name of the train,
the number of engines to look for,
the exact bush to bury myself in shade.
You know by the speed and direction it exits,
the number of minutes it waits.
Orange hats for yard workers, Oakleys for bulls—
you can look at the bones of those old prehistorics.
Suicide buckets and gold forty-eights.
You can find it by watching the axle-bolts turn.
Soo Line. Norfolk. Union Pacific. Amtrak. CSX.
Kansas & Western. Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

***

Are all roads endless? Do all roads blend
into one wide road, which ends in a field of unmowed grass
and returns to itself forever?
The Cloudmaker stands on a corner in Minot,
talking a prayer to himself and the rain.
The Cloudmaker rides out of Staples and Whitefish,
filling his bag from a dumpster at Walgreens,
watching the traffic lights
turning for blind cows—crickets in Dunsmuir, dust in the dreamery,
plastic-wrapped chickens in grocery store aisles
and thresher dust bleaching
the stars. The wayward Canadian geese.
The painted facades of train station depots, murals
of Crazyhorse, shit-stained pewter of dead or dying soldiers
clutching their bodies in Custer,
oxidizing softly, deeper
and deeper green,
climbing a hill in their permanent imaginations—
grassfires, vast plains, fields of buffalo thundering under the ground.

***

We enter the storm. Cattlebirds calling out, thunderheads
bleeding a thin green light on the corn.
Feeling of rain and then rain itself,
streaking the railroad dust on my arm.
Lightning breaks out.
I let rain fall into my open mouth, fill it up, tasting
the unfiltered sky. I am made
of a dark matter now, elemental.
I dance at the edge of all singing and leaving.
I shiver myself to joy.

***

Showroom Cadillacs. Soybeans and corn feed. Shipments of ball bearings
packed in Detroit. Scrap iron filings. Two hundred kilos Peruvian cocaine
stashed in a shipment of soap. Olive oil. Crude oil. Blue Mountain coffee
imported from Kingston, flown out, trucked up the Allegheny range. Crate
and Barrel dish sets. Purses from Tiffany’s. Things I could never afford.
Knock-offs from Thailand, Myanmar, China. T-shirts from sweat shops
and fair-trade organics all riding along in the same rusty car. Plutonium forged
in a Tennessee factory. Nikes and import Adidas from unnamed factories
south of the Rio Grande. Whole wings of airplanes strapped to the open decks.
Turbines. I-phones. Evergreen cars for the sawblades in Portland. Bound
for the dealerships. Bound for the freightliners leaving the Puget Sound,
blowing their horns at the Golden Gate Bridge. The weight of it. All of it.
Rolling away from its origin, down from the mountain pass, down from
the bankrupted silver mines leaking, down from the Black Hills, down from
the timberline, down from the flatland to finally rest in the sea.

***

The road goes on. With or without us.
It writes itself into the walls of our passage, scratches its name
on the shoulders of mountains,
concrete embankments, picnic bench tables,
the tear-away bark of a young summer sapling,
stenciled in four-foot ridiculous tags
on the bridge overlooking the line.
It is written in brandings,
in torn leather scraps of a boat cover, faded tattoos,
in the high-ball train and million-layered skywork,
glimpsed momentarily in clouds.

***

Somewhere near Havre the rain disappears.
The beat slows down and the sun spreads two
red parallel flames on the tracks. Weird
benediction. Beautifully there for a moment
and gone. A calico horse bows down
to the barbwire, kissing the stalks of grass.
Darkness comes down as we enter the yard
and I pack up my gear for the bull.
Nothing moves. Only the fishplates
settling cold. I lean to the shadow. I wait.

***

When the Crew Change is finished,
the bull drives by with a floodlight
shocking the walls. Stopping to walk
down the blue forty-eights. I can feel
his boots on the ballast beside me,
searching the rideable wells. All my luck
and starless fate and prayers are his
alone. I know he knows I’m here.
Still, tonight, the flashlight turns.
The airbrakes start their slow release.
The U-locks lurch and slam in place
and the whistle redeems me, washed in time,
in the fine-silt clay of the Red River,
washed in the unrelenting wind. It is washed
in the blood of thieves and outlaws,
washed in the wild drunk calls of bandits
and minor dealers and riff raff apostles
and all the ragged crews of my youth.
The ones who ran and the ones who wandered back,
swearing to never return. It is washed
in the words of my father’s sermon, my mother’s
sermon the same, and I hear it sing
in the mainline metal and curse and anoint
the American prairie and ride my crooked veins.

***

Butterfly caught in the backwind, dancing a dead loop.
Friends now, I give him the end of my finger,
shelter him under my shirt.
Pink Floyd plays from a trailer home window.
Tie dyed curtains. Tall pines drowsy
with sun. Fly fishers casting their lines on the Kootenai,
breaking the rainbows in half.
Boy at a crossing in Libby, Montana. Ten feet away
from my face. I smile and wave
but he stares right though me. Sees only motion and size.
Bats turn soundlessly under the stars.
I sleep in waves, in rocks
and waves. I barely sleep at all.

***

Water towers assert themselves on the morning.
Voices arrive out of nowhere, depart,
trail off into other conversations, other music entirely.
A sequence forms. Songs move out of it,
audibly, over the flapping flags, over the pleated greens
and lawn decorations and all the tragic
factories of the Midwest steaming inside my blood.
All the neon bars. All the faded-out
industry logos. Hot rod cars on the downtown strip.
The family-owned wheat farm my grandfather,
during the thirties, hopped trains down to Beaumont,
South Dakota, to work. The men in those days
all clad in the black and white sadness of silent films,
sated on hard tack, riding the blinds
where the boilerman shoveled the coal.
Over the tender hearts of their future wives,
dead now. Over the grandchildren selling their land
and the fracking rigs taking their place,
on fire. The country they came from
chasing a dream and the actual dream defined.
Over the shores of silent seas, the massive
unsinkable ships. Over the Iron-range, Driftless,
last great depression and boom-town
closing the mine. Over the Chinese immigrants
dying for nothing, hammering holes in the hearts
of mountains, joining the east and west with a golden spike.

***

Dark eye. Darkening into the Cascade Tunnel
I sing myself into a zone. Low down,
sweet and familiar sounds. Train I ride is ten miles high.
Train I ride is two miles wide. Ride on,
Babylon, ride. I see the entryway fade to a bright coin,
blue in the circling stone. Sounds are thick
and pictures of gone lives float
on the calcium walls. Gently rocking.
Absolute black. Holding my fingers in front of my face
there is nothing. Only the diesel exhaust
in the airflow, my brother and I
in bunk beds hearing the freight trains buckle
and shift. All night changing
their mile-long loads on the field roads leading away.
We could tell by the whistle if one
was a coal train or one was a mail train
headed down south. We knew by the rhythm
and clack of the joiners, the speed
they were taking the turns. We knew
there was something important inside the sound.
We crawled to the window to look
at the crossing guards flashing their red-blinking light
on the road. Low drone beneath it.
Malt-O-Meal smoke stacks leaching off pillars
of heat. We spoke to each other
in whispers, the snore of our father asleep down
the hall. We felt the walls tremble, the weight
of a thing that could sever a man’s hand,
cover the distance from New York to Portland,
from ocean to free range. Cut through
the Rockies and prairieland west of us.
Flatten the president’s face off
the pennies and nickels we placed on the tracks.

***

You forget your name. You forget your body
has form. Half in dream, half out, you are carried
in memories only, dull shades, consciousness
born to the basal proximities, there for a moment
and gone in the dank hole, gone to the deeper earth,
not really caring whether you live or die.

***

On the north side of Cloudy Pass,
skirting the edge of Mt. Ridley and Sawtooth
my dad and I hike through the heather with no map,
matching each other step for step,
rock for rock, signaling faintly without words,
hoping to make it downstream before dusk.
I offer the water. He hands me the peanuts
and brushes the circling flies from my back.

***

Where are we going? What door are we
entering now? Purely alone
in the long half-hour of turning ourselves to dust. Scraps
of a lost cause, fragments, small unexplainable seeds
of grief and all our futures gone.
I don’t want to see beyond the hills,
the crumbling walls of barns,
the great herds of elk and boneyards of cattle
we passed in the Flathead Range.
I want to remain in mystery now, in the musty spiritual dark
of this cave, where nothing is lost,
and nothing begins or ends,
or turns around,
or dissolves in the blood’s dark tide.
The river rolls. The ocean throws its tired chain of waves
against the shore. The road goes on,
in darkness, falling rain,
before our birth and after we fade like so much windblown sand,
the light that finally comes
is warm, and all at once,
and blinding.

***

Train I ride is ten miles high.
Train I ride is two miles wide.

***

Over the single direction of time. Over the now and forever,
the long gone. Over the bright orange Burlington cattle guards
blasting the mule deer clear to the weeds, steam lifting up
from the Washington apple farms, swirling their magnified spells
in my face. Over the grinding gears. Over the endless arrival,
departure of light. The whistle calls us back. It rises from ragweed,
ballast and black tar. It moves us. It carries us home.

Photo: David Olimpio

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About Author

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Kai Carlson-Wee is the author of RAIL (BOA Editions, 2018). He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and his work appears in Ploughshares, Best New Poets, New England Review, Gulf Coast, and The Missouri Review, which awarded him the 2013 Editor’s Prize. His photography has been featured in Narrative Magazine and his poetry film, Riding the Highline, received jury awards at the 2015 Napa Valley Film Festival and the 2016 Arizona International Film Festival. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he lives in San Francisco and is a lecturer at Stanford University.

1 Comment

  1. This long poem reminds me of other days long ago, Dharma bum days and lost generation days.
    Good stuff from a young poet.

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