April 21, 2014

Kai Carlson-Wee: “Jesse James Days”

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This week we offer a poem by Kai Carlson-Wee, winner of this year’s Editors’ Prize in Poetry, from our brand-new spring issue, 37.1. Carlson-Wee has rollerbladed professionally, surfed north of the Arctic Circle, and traveled across the country by freight train. His work has appeared in Linebreak, Best New Poets, Forklift Ohio, and The Missouri Review. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he lives in San Francisco, California, where he is a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University.

Author’s note:

I wrote this poem as a love song to my brother. We grew up in a small town in Minnesota called Northfield, famous for its two colleges, its rolling corn fields, and for a bank robbery attempted by the infamous Jesse James Gang. As local legend has it, the James Gang rolled into town at 2 p.m. on September 7th, 1876, already visibly drunk, walked into the First National Bank and demanded the money. The teller that day was a man named Joseph Lee Heywood, who refused to open the vault, telling the James Gang that there was a “time lock” built into the safe. The gang tortured him briefly before shooting him in the head and retreating. The townspeople assembled a minor militia and went after them, wounding and killing a few of the members, capturing a few more, but ultimately, after arriving at a South Dakota canyon, allowing Jesse and his brother Frank to escape. Every year, the town has a festival called The Defeat of Jesse James Days, celebrating and glorifying the life and times of the gang. As kids, my brother and I were always stoked about the opportunity to run around with cap-guns, act like outlaws, and pretend our Huffys were horses. But as we got older, and our relationship to the town became more complicated, a certain kind of sadness seeped in, and the festival came to represent a personal tone of nostalgia, a private regret. When I sat down to write this poem, I knew I needed to write about this shift, about the failure of the present to live up to its past, and about the difficult bond between brothers.

 

Jesse James Days

 

If I called to you now. If I carried your name to the skateparks
and railroad temples of rust, would you come to me, brother,
wherever you are in your faded arrangements,
your growing away from the past? Would you lie with me here
in the shore-grass, watching the college boys paint
the gazebo, the endless advance and retreat of the sea?
I’m trying to imagine us back to our origins.
Skitching the Friday night dump truck in Moorhead,
shoplifting soft packs of Camel Lights,
kicking our boards through the rodeo crowds at the fair,
searching the beer tent for half-finished bottles of High Life,
for cigarette butts in the ashtrays, for lighters,
for dime bags and dollar bills left on the tables, for anything
other than home. We were saved from oblivion once.
Slack in the shoulder blades. Climbing the roofs
of the for-sale houses in Dundas, diving off chimney tops,
ladder rungs, letting our bodies go limp in the arms
of the pines. And here on the fog-covered beach in Bolinas
a girl is rolling her jeans up, gathering seashells and green-tinted nuggets
of sea glass, letting the high water circle
her knees. I watch her approach in the rippled light, lifting a sand dollar,
lost in the sound. I can almost see light falling out
of her body, the space where the sea-wind is too shy
to touch her, too embarrassed to run itself
under her shirt. What grainy, impossible dreams
used to guide us? What wildernesses burned on the vacated stages
and bankrupt resorts of our brains?
Anders, we get old. We divide ourselves up into seasons,
digressions, failed attractions, glorified versions
of jaded and lost men we promised
to never become. Do you remember the Indian
selling us dusters and turtle skulls under the bridge?
And watching the staged reenactment at sunset, the overgroomed horses
and amplified pleadings of Heywood refusing
to open the safe. Refusing to hear what it meant
they would do to him—carving an X in his collarbone,
cracking his skull with the butt of a gun.
The teller lying dead in a puddle of blood
beside him. The sound of the bullet that ripped off his ear,
more a physical weight than a sound, a texture of things
growing suddenly far away, fattening, filled with a needling buzz.
The ease with which he could picture those three
silent numbers, floating like neon-lit billboards against
the darkening lids of his eyes. Really just simple
abstractions, marks on a chalkboard, lines in a ledger that nobody else,
besides himself and the wealthy proprietor
who sometimes stopped in on Sundays
with his twin boys to look at the weekly reports,
could read. Do you remember the way the horses were trained
to carefully lower their heads, to give us the softest part of their jaws,
regardless of whether we carefully touched them
or offered them handfuls of grain? And do you remember
the way we discovered the Indian,
slumped in the willow-reeds, dotted with secondhand light
from the Tilt-A-Whirl sign, sniffing a milk gallon,
laughing at shapes in the overhung ceiling of leaves?
How we were able to recognize the irony,
even then. And even more than the irony, the inevitability
of all things defined by their pasts, by duties that outlive
the vanishing crowds, their instruments measuring
dust. And how you approached him again
as a stranger, and sat at the base of the willow tree,
pressing your nose to the outheld mouth of the jug.
And the river crawled off in a fever of lights
and the music was suddenly clear. Anders, come rest with me here
in the shore-grass, leaning away from the wind.
Enough of these shivers and reverent symbols,
these crab shells and wind-whitened rails
of sand. I want you to walk with this young girl
in silence, speak to her only in footprints, in subtler signs
she can read in the foam, explain to her how we erase ourselves
knowingly, hands outstretched to the sound of it passing us,
letting the riders ride in. The way you became
this ridiculous whisper, sky growing vague in a cover of fog—
whatever description, assemblage of passages,
memories left to the dead. And what do we feel now,
watching the years float slowly by, as if in the skin
of another man? What do we find in the comfort
of time’s absent shadow? Shooting our guns
at the city-born crows. Chucking our bricks at the immigrant carp
in the backwater next to the dam. Look, we are losing ourselves
to the waves. Faltering after it. Claiming or trying to reclaim
the inventions. Wishing for, naming the magic away.
Tell me, what fissures, what twinkling dimples of light
came spiraling out of your face? As the cries
of the fairgoers danced on the water,
and the actor who played Jesse James for the weekend
went down to the beer tent, took off his holster,
his button-up chaps, his handgun that only
shot blanks, and danced to the fiddle and lap-steel guitar,
to the rhythmless crowd, and the hollowed-out sound of the bullet
that still seemed to ring in the streets, that will ring there forever,
in the unopened vault, in the scattered remains of an ear.

 

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