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The train you are riding will only go forward

Two poems by Kai Carlson-Wee

Where the Feeling Deserts Us

  • I wake somewhere on the outskirts of Portland.
  • The crickets are singing. The train is refusing
  • to breathe. Off in the distance a truck gears down
  • on a service road bordered in trees. The river
  • beside me, babbling kind. Headache. Earache.
  • All I can see of the field dissolves in a stale white blanket
  • of moon. Nothing moves. Even the cold machinery
  • seems to be riding itself in a dream.
  • Sliding away from the steel retainer walls.
  • Boxcars stalled on the next four strings. The train
  • is my shepherd. I finger a dead leaf. Star-lights dance
  • in the field beyond my cage. We are never returning
  • to the field itself, only the mystery hidden inside.
  • Night after night in the speed of your leaving.
  • Soft of your veined hands tracing my thigh.
  • The flavor of dust where the feeling deserts us.
  • Maybe the blonde heads of needlegrass swaying.
  • Bodies of cows in the next field over. 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.

Holes in the Mountain

  • Even the dead rats in the alleys of Oxford,
  • head-crushed and tossed in a trashbag,
  • left to fester behind the fence, are waiting
  • for crows to divide them, to carry their bodies
  • away. And if not crows, or the street pigeons
  • picking a leg-bone, then the broom
  • of a street-sweeper keeping a rhythm
  • to one of the tunes in his head. Or the wind
  • as it funnels the dust in a mini-tornado
  • above him. Because it isn’t enough
  • to say god is the speed of the wheel
  • that turns the sky, or that god is the distance
  • between two trains, hurtling at the same speed
  • toward you. It doesn’t matter what stories we use
  • to explain these impossible themes —
  • they will always turn fake or explode
  • in our faces. On Mount St. Helens
  • the fires went into the roots of the oldest pines,
  • smoldered and stayed in the coals for a month
  • before burning the farms on the opposite side
  • of the mountain. They found this out later,
  • tracking a mouse through a network
  • of intricate caves. We used to have ways
  • of explaining our failures. Now all we do
  • is erase them by spreading the veils of blame
  • so thin. The scars on our hands are only around
  • to remind us: don’t grow old in yourself,
  • don’t get lost in this scrimmage. Because even
  • death, in its marble skies and free-wheeling borders
  • is an art of remembering everything over.
  • And although the soul is a joke we tell
  • to the part of ourselves we can touch,
  • it’s only because the soul is a fire, and laughs
  • at our sorrow, and has already survived us.

Kai Carlson-Wee’s first poetry collection, RAIL, is forthcoming from BOA Editions. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he lives in San Francisco and is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.

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Where the Feeling Deserts Us

  • I wake somewhere on the outskirts of Portland.
  • The crickets are singing. The train is refusing
  • to breathe. Off in the distance a truck gears down
  • on a service road bordered in trees. The river
  • beside me, babbling kind. Headache. Earache.
  • All I can see of the field dissolves in a stale white blanket
  • of moon. Nothing moves. Even the cold machinery
  • seems to be riding itself in a dream.
  • Sliding away from the steel retainer walls.
  • Boxcars stalled on the next four strings. The train
  • is my shepherd. I finger a dead leaf. Star-lights dance
  • in the field beyond my cage. We are never returning
  • to the field itself, only the mystery hidden inside.
  • Night after night in the speed of your leaving.
  • Soft of your veined hands tracing my thigh.
  • The flavor of dust where the feeling deserts us.
  • Maybe the blonde heads of needlegrass swaying.
  • Bodies of cows in the next field over. 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.

Holes in the Mountain

  • Even the dead rats in the alleys of Oxford,
  • head-crushed and tossed in a trashbag,
  • left to fester behind the fence, are waiting
  • for crows to divide them, to carry their bodies
  • away. And if not crows, or the street pigeons
  • picking a leg-bone, then the broom
  • of a street-sweeper keeping a rhythm
  • to one of the tunes in his head. Or the wind
  • as it funnels the dust in a mini-tornado
  • above him. Because it isn’t enough
  • to say god is the speed of the wheel
  • that turns the sky, or that god is the distance
  • between two trains, hurtling at the same speed
  • toward you. It doesn’t matter what stories we use
  • to explain these impossible themes —
  • they will always turn fake or explode
  • in our faces. On Mount St. Helens
  • the fires went into the roots of the oldest pines,
  • smoldered and stayed in the coals for a month
  • before burning the farms on the opposite side
  • of the mountain. They found this out later,
  • tracking a mouse through a network
  • of intricate caves. We used to have ways
  • of explaining our failures. Now all we do
  • is erase them by spreading the veils of blame
  • so thin. The scars on our hands are only around
  • to remind us: don’t grow old in yourself,
  • don’t get lost in this scrimmage. Because even
  • death, in its marble skies and free-wheeling borders
  • is an art of remembering everything over.
  • And although the soul is a joke we tell
  • to the part of ourselves we can touch,
  • it’s only because the soul is a fire, and laughs
  • at our sorrow, and has already survived us.

Kai Carlson-Wee’s first poetry collection, RAIL, is forthcoming from BOA Editions. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he lives in San Francisco and is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.

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