Anybody who has stepped off the usual path will recognize the power of travel in facilitating introspection, and it is this recipe—let’s call it one part adventure, three parts reflection—that poet Kai Carlson-Wee nails so masterfully in his debut collection, Rail ... Trains serve as an entry point into the speaker’s core, the grief and joy and wonder that make up the real heart of this collection. And what a heart it is ... If the speaker has learned anything by the end, perhaps it is that there is no true end. For each of us, yes, but not for the cosmic train yard of existence. That machinery will go on churning, and Carlson-Wee offers some comfort in that.
...glowing poems, which are alive with curiosity and wonderment ... his poems ring with a longing to genuinely feel his world, and, ultimately, our collective world, and he does so in these very fine and shining poems.
Kai Carlson-Wee’s debut poetry collection Rail—a brave examination of the self through the lenses of travel, desperation, and depression—is an exodus from old identity and a restless search for new signifiers of self ... Fire, the ultimate signifier in this collection, denotes the temporality of life and permanence of its impact. These elements and others speed through Rail with the force of a freightliner, revealing at last the burning glow of the self.
The poet’s picture of a fading heartland captures the despair many Americans feel today, and he parallels economic and personal desperation ... Carlson-Wee effectively uses repetition to build tension in poems that are deceptively simple and homey, and the tempered language draws readers into his heartfelt lines. Even those who don’t typically read poetry will enjoy.
Beneath the thick cloud of depression, and within the empty pursuits of late capitalism, the tangible solidity of the train—its predictability and pragmatism, its incontrovertible physics –provides something for Carlson-Wee to anchor himself to as it rumbles across the prairie ... Kai Carlson-Wee is himself no lighter for having ridden the weight of a freight train, but those days and nights rolling on the broken backs of America's rustiest metaphor for its own failed dreams perhaps allows him to release himself, however briefly, from the spiritual consequences of mortality.
Echoing Guthrie, Dylan and Springsteen, the poems of Kai Carlson-Wee's first collection are the stories of nomadic vagabonds. They spill over with the jargon and brand-name clutter of a life riding the rails, hitchhiking dirt roads and sleeping it off in the fields of the upper Midwest ... Whether riding a rollerblade rail or a freight rail, Carlson-Wee speaks with the authentic voice of a nation of unmoored drifters searching for a home. Rail is a knockout debut.
These lyrics, remarkable for their unpretentious, un-performative Americana, accumulate images, secondhand stories, and plainspoken observations while avoiding the rhetorical signaling so common in rural poetics.