Poem of the Week | April 20, 2015

This week we’re featuring another poem from our new spring Editors’ Prize issue, 38.1. Anders Carlson-Wee is a 2015 NEA Fellow. He is the winner of Ninth Letter‘s 2014 Poetry Award and New Delta Review‘s 2014 Editors’ Choice Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in New England Review, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Best New Poets 2012 & 2014, and elsewhere. A recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Residency Fellowship, Anders is currently an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University.
Author’s note:

This poem was inspired by a series of train-hopping trips I made across North America. On one ride I got busted by bulls in Alberta and was almost banished from Canada forever. Another time I was with my brother Kai on a 4-day overlander from Minneapolis to Seattle and got caught when a second train searched the train we were hiding on. But most of the time not much happens. You sit around in the bushes waiting, eating peanut-butter-and-jellies, trying to stay awake. You second-guess your plans, you reconvince. It’s easy to get a little paranoid. The noises of the railyard take on shapes in your imagination. This poem inhabits that space. If you like it, you might want to check out the train-hopping poetry film my brother Kai and I are releasing soon, called RIDING THE HIGHLINE. Watch the trailer here.


Listening to a Rail in Mandan


I’ve heard it said that you can feel it coming
in the tremor of the tracks, that you can cock
your head and cup an ear to the smooth steel
and sense it coming in vibrations, in rattles,
that you can gather the blaze of friction
as it builds, the heart murmur climbing the pass
through the mountains inside your head.
I stand at the edge of the brake and listen
for far-off signs: whistles, footfalls, gravel
ground under truck tires. I crawl up the grade
to the raised beds and the rails, the bull-run
on the far side of the yard lit by overheads,
each pool of light like a crude betrayal
of the darknesses between. The rails
take parallel trails of light past the sidings,
past the curve at the end of the yard,
past the bottleneck at the Heart River bridge––
two aisles of light like childhood brothers adrift,
like a father’s eyes carving the dark land
beside the dark river. The shape of a tree.
The shape of an owl grinding the sky.
I’ve heard it said that you can feel it coming
from as far off as a mile, the distance erased
in the pump of a vein, in the flicker of overhead lights,
the bull-run laying in its own dust wasted,
the tire tracks zigzagged and stacked
where the rail-cop makes fate his listless routine.
I shoulder against a fishplate and lower
my head to the rail. I wait for a chime, a shiver,
some thunder to ride past the overland silence.
I’ve heard it said that the kingdom of heaven
surrounds us, though we fail to see.
No stars tonight. No fire. No brother by the junkers
awaiting my call. No father walking toward me
on the tar-blackened ties. No dog’s eye
catching the searchlights. Not a single sound
fleshing this tank town as the rail begins to shake,
as the train begins to whisper my name.