The Low Passions
The Lord came down because God wasn’t enough.
He lies on sodden cardboard behind bushes
in the churchyard. Wrapped in faded red. A sleeping bag
he found or traded for. Dark stains like clouds
before a downpour. The stone wall beside him rising,
always rising, the edges of stone going blunt
where the choirboy climbs. He opens his mouth,
but nothing goes in and nothing comes out.
Like the sideshow man who long ago lost
his right testicle to the crossbar of a Huffy.
He peddles the leftover pain. The stitches clipped
a week later by his father, the fiberglass bathtub
running with color, the puffy new scar,
the crooked look of the pitted half-sack.
He tells me you only need one nut, and I want
to believe him. I want to believe he can still
get it up. I want to believe he has daughters, sons,
a grandchild on the way, a wife at home
in a blue apron baking. But why this day-old bread
from the dumpster, this stash of hollow bottles
in the buckthorn, this wrinkled can of Pabst?
The Lord came down because God wasn’t enough.
Because the childless man draws the bathwater
and cries. Because the choirboy never sings
as he climbs. Because the bread has all molded
and the mouths are all open. Open to the clotting air.
Homeless, anything helps. Anything. Anything you can
spare. God bless you, God bless you, God bless. God,
Lord God, God God, good God, good Lord very good God.
Gathering Firewood on Tinpan
I bundle them against my chest, not sure
if they’re dry enough. Gauging how long
they’ll keep me warm by the thickness.
I step around carefully, looking for
the deadest, searching the low places
for something small and old that will catch.
I pick up the dander loosened
as my father folds his hands, lowers his head.
The rolling thunder on the surface of a nail.
I pick up the cross that seesaws his chest
with each step. The day I lost my faith.
The night my dog ran away and came back sick.
The battery-pump of her final breath.
Still wondering if she left alone,
or if my father walked her out of this world.
Still wondering what he used for a leash.
I go further into the trees and find
more fuel. My friends faded on oxy
and percocet. My cousin Scott
buried young in the floodplain.
My brother and the ways I burden him.
Living it over and over each night.
My father walking into every dream.
My fire not bright enough to reveal anything.
Not even his face. Not even the leash.
To My Cousin Scott with Nothing
I didn’t look under the hood the way you would have.
An old Ford hardtop wedged between two trees
in a cornfield as if it was parked there before
the trees took root. The backdoor jimmied open.
The steering wheel in place, but the pedals gone.
I was walking a shortcut to the hospital
because you were dying again. You’d been dying
for so long it was hard to say from what.
Ten years ago it was liquor, which led to diabetes.
Now add cancer. Now pneumonia. The first drops
of rain nickel-and-dimed the windshield but lacked
the body to run the glass. They sat like solo climbers
bivouacked at night on a bald granite face.
I stretched out on what was left of the backseat,
the springs squealing at the pressure points
as if to complain of the various weights of me.
Meanwhile you were adding up to less and less.
Forget about muscle––your skin waxed down
to a window pane, your limbs thickest at the joints.
And as I lay in that totaled car waiting out the storm,
all I could think about was how you waterskied
at the family cabin years ago, how you slalomed
with a natural’s ease, held the towrope one-handed,
carved walls outside the wake, threw eight-foot sprays.
And after a few days in the emergency wing
getting half your liver removed, followed by
that short stint in rehab, I remember the last time
you tried––the same old life vest so oversized
you had to switch it for a kid’s one. The easy
bruises on your shins. The towrope assuming
from your hands like a loon before you could lift
above the wake. What happened to that athlete?
That engineer? What slipped from your hands
and skidded across the lake and sank? I couldn’t sleep.
The wind picked up. Raindrops veined into each other
and pooled, sluicing down in chutes to the hood.
And honestly Scott, I wish I could say the surgery
failed, or the cancer spread, or the pneumonia found
a foothold. I wish I could tell you I never made it
to the hospital to see you. That in the end it rained all night
and bad luck struck one or the other of the trees
I was under. I wish I could believe the reasons
the preacher gave at the funeral, or the mumbles
of our mothers under the motor-drone on the drive home.
But the truth is, you lived on for years. Thinned
your six-foot-four frame to ninety-five pounds
fully dressed and wet. You didn’t lose a fight.
Nothing was after you. You moved up to the family cabin
to avoid paying rent, smoked Camels
with the curtains drawn and the television on,
though you didn’t watch it, and one day you were gone.
Anders Carlson-Wee is the author of The Low Passions (W.W. Norton, 2019). He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, Bread Loaf, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. His work has appeared in The Nation, The Kenyon Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, BuzzFeed, Best New Poets, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. His chapbook, Dynamite, won the Frost Place Chapbook Prize. He is codirector of the award-winning poetry film, Riding the Highline, and winner of Ninth Letter’s Poetry Award, Blue Mesa Review’s Poetry Prize, New Delta Review’s Editors’ Choice Prize, and the 2017 Poetry International Prize. He lives in Minneapolis.