How Contemporary Poetry Treats the Old Myths of the American Railroad
Thomas Dai on the Poems of Kai Carlson-Wee and Jenny Xie
Like many Chinese-Americans, I first encountered myself in US history class as a coolie hard at work on the American railroad. In that guise, I wore a funny, wide-brimmed hat and sported a ponytail whose tip bobbed just above my waist. It was a nice waist, thin and attenuated, and I liked to bend it beneath the California sun as I laid my lengths of track.
Back then, I had no face to photograph, or none as craggy and expressive as those of the “robber barons” my teacher liked to ridicule in class for their mutton chops and unkempt brows—her scorn tempered, I suspect, by our very American reverence for affluent swindlers. (These were bad, greedy men, but damn were they rich). I had no name, no backstory, just the hat and the hair and the waist. But still, I was there: a few sentences in a textbook, an answer on a multiple-choice test. To want for more seemed like greed of another sort.
The Transcontinental Railroad turns 150 as I write this—15 decades of change since the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines were linked in 1869. That joining of tracks was mythologized in the same textbooks which taught me about Chinese migrants and their place in U.S. history, the same books which found multiple ways to euphemize what that marvel of infrastructure likely meant to the Chinese laborers who worked and sometimes died blasting tunnels and laying track in the Sierra Nevada range, or the indigenous peoples whose lands and sovereignty were usurped so that certain Americans could ride a metal line from coast to coast.
Since then, trains and the journeys we take on them have become a familiar part of America’s cultural landscape. On HBO’s recent hit series Westworld, for instance, visitors to the titular park—a simulated frontier town where customers can play out their Western fantasies—first enter the park by train. It is the train which delivers visitors into the company of gunslingers, bar wenches, painted natives, and other archetypes of the American West. For the length of their stay, visitors are encouraged to dispense with their usual codes of conduct and to behave however they please, all while interacting with a narrative arc the park’s creators have imagined for them. Those who can afford it keep coming back for the Westworld experience.
They keep getting on the train and leaving their old selves behind.
Sometime in his twenties, the poet Kai Carlson-Wee started riding the trains. A child of the upper Midwest, Carlson-Wee writes in an essay titled “Train-Hopping Gave Me Back My Life” that he acquired a renewed sense of freedom from riding the rails, so much so that he spent ten years writing poems about these experiences.
Released in 2018, Carlson-Wee’s debut collection Rail opens with a train poem. “I find it here in the wild alfalfa,” he writes, “Twenty years old on a freight train riding the soy fields into the night.” The nature of the “it” found in these lines seems purposefully unclear—is it solitude? Joy? Some other queer sensation absorbed from the train’s laminar flow?
The poems collected in Rail try to locate this feeling, this “it,” while also depicting scenes from the poet’s transient life. We watch Carlson-Wee hitchhike, root through a Trader Joe’s dumpster, sleep outdoors and under tarps, steal, go on food stamps, take drugs, fare-dodge, etc. (Carlson-Wee has stated in interviews that almost all his poems are autobiographical.) All the while, the poet scans the horizon for a train he knows is coming, the machinic glory which will take him away from all this: “But then there were moments of pure / unexplainable light. . .and for a moment of sweetness / I knew I was gone.”
As Carlson-Wee well knows, this rhapsodic engagement with trains, travel, and the American hinter is hardly new. Whitman has been this way before, as have Kerouac and London, Dylan and Guthrie. In the foreword to Rail, Nick Flynn calls the book’s imagined space an “endless, epic, American nowhere.” But reading these poems, I couldn’t help but wonder whose “American nowhere” these lines were meant to capture. In Rail, Carlson-Wee’s poetic individuality is often forged in relation to the background he traverses. This semi-mythic space of rusting cities and abandoned train yards is never explicitly racial, though it contains its fair share of inert or missing people of color. Consider the “Indian” figure of “Jesse James Days,” a poem addressed to Carlson-Wee’s brother:
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 the 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
In this poem, the brothers have “discovered,” lying supine in the reeds, an indigenous person they approach as they would an aspect of the landscape, a copse of trees, or an old, weathered knoll. The brothers try to show kindness to the Indian. They “recognize” in his features a set of signs they interpret as the “inevitability of all things defined by their pasts,” as if this is how it always will be: white men crossing the land as the fallen Indian lies wilted by the road, stippled in a light which isn’t even firsthand.
This dynamic of the mobile, white traveler probing at a stationary, primeval, at times even topographic other gets restated in a long poem titled “American Freight.” In that poem, Carlson-Wee pairs images of the freight trains he rides with references to the metaphorical “freight” of historical trauma which lies heavy over these lands—a ghostly ballast which includes “unmarked Chippewa graves” and murals of Crazyhorse (relics, once again, of cultures apparently dead). Later in the poem, we read of the poet’s grandfather, a hard-working midwesterner of the Depression years, who rode the trains over “the Chinese immigrants / dying for nothing, hammering holes in the hearts / of mountains.”
Such is the fate of the indigenous and/or Asian subject in this poem: the former cedes the land and retires to an unmarked grave; the latter builds the train lines and then lays his body down as a tie.
Jenny Xie’s first poetry collection, Eye Level, also begins on a train. In “Rootless,” Xie’s poetic “I” sits half-asleep on a train bound for Sapa, Vietnam. The mood is somnolent, rain-washed, with “clean slabs” of rice paddy parsing the distance. “Can this solitude be rootless, unhooked from the ground?” the poet asks, and just like that, the reader is entered into the musing motion of trains, that category of thoughts one only dives into when caught in a suspended but mobile state. “The mind resides both inside and out,” Xie writes. “It can think itself and think itself into existence.”
Whether she is traveling by train or by foot, Xie’s speaker keeps a wary distance from the oracular, gonzo mode of many American travel writers—all those “Authentic encounters executed… just so.” The vagrant poet’s vantage, her ever level eye, gets both dissected and polished in these poems, the cornea oozing out its vitreous humors. How do our bodies serve as fallible recording devices for the world? these poems seem to wonder. How do outsiders apply their “extravagant need” to unfamiliar places? And how, especially, does this need get refracted, bent and twisted until the gaudy insides show, the wayfarer made conspicuous in her slick, neon anorak?
In a poem about expatriate life, Xie writes, “I’m still where I am, in conditions of low visibility.” I read this line both as an allusion to the bleariness of the weather and to the speaker’s poor eyesight, a trait she connects to genetics—the faulty shape of an eyeball passed down the family line. Unlike the farseeing, unfettered bard readers often meet in poems about wandering, Xie’s speaker occupies a blinkered view, one mediated always by the optometrist’s glass or the flaws carried by one’s “coarse immigrant blood.”Such is the fate of the indigenous and/or Asian subject in Carlson-Wee’s poem: the former cedes the land and retires to an unmarked grave; the latter builds the train lines and then lays his body down as a tie.
The problems inherent to viewership come into sharpest focus in a poem called “Visual Orders,” in which Xie describes many different ways of viewing and being viewed. Some of these sightlines have a paralytic, sequestering effect: “If to behold is to possess, to be looked upon is to / be fixed in another’s sight, static and immutable.” Others lead the poet and reader toward a mysterious, perhaps unseeable space, what Xie calls in another poem “the borderless empire of the interior.” As this poem and others repeatedly remind us, the visually impaired can still be sightseers. “I’ve gotten to where I am by dint of my poor eyesight, / my overreactive motion sickness,” Xie writes, a seeming contradiction which, if you allow yourself to follow the book’s implicit logic, starts to make sense.
Reading Eye Level, I began to think that perhaps the optically impaired are lucky in that they don’t take what they see for granted, and so avoid heedlessly identifying with everything available for sight. This sightseer still looks at the world, but does not so easily confuse looking for understanding or possession.
In contrast to Rail, the poems in Eye Level move across the map while orienting the reader inwards, towards that “borderless empire” within. This space of interiority, memory, and secret dissimulation seems sacrosanct to Xie; it is a space whose traversal occurs in private, even as the body moves publicly through the world. Reading Eye Level, I was reminded of Sarah Jane Cervenak’s work on black, feminist texts and the narrators who “move in ways that are invisible, along the grooves of their own mind, in the motion of a rambling tongue, outside the range of an administrative and purportedly enlightened gaze.” In Cervenak’s words, wandering for black women can be an “ethical, harm-free embodiment of self-interest—a recuperative, deregulated, interior kinesis.”
For me, Xie’s work underlines the prospect of an Asian American subject who also travels without claiming the spaces they cross. This wanderer traffics in the interior kinesis of daydream and poetry. She fleets across the landscape, drawing our attention to her own, intractable problems of witnessing, trying—even if she knows she courts failure—to disappear into herself.
Ultimately, if Xie is writing a kind of vagrant poetics, hers is a vagrancy hyperaware of its own limits. Spending time in an unfamiliar place—“something I can’t ever enter”—submits the poet to a process of reduction. In “Phnom Penh Diptych: Dry Season,” this whittling down culminates with a gesture not of triumph but of acquiescence:
I kept twisting my face in bar bathrooms,
In wet markets, in strangers’ arms.
And the years here—
They broke through barriers
One by one, in a kind of line.
Men and women came and went.
The city was dry, and then it wasn’t.
I knelt to the passing time.
To submit oneself, to make way, to kneel to the passing time—these are as much (if not more) a part of the vagrant experience as any victory the body might secure over borders and states. It is the vagrant and not the land who gets obliterated, cut open, diffused, the vagrant who is “wiped of age first thing in the morning,” reformed, asked to repeat the rigamarole of living once more.
The divide I am charting here between Xie and Carlson-Wee is not merely one of positionality—the “woke” Chinese American poetess vs. the White American poet—but of sensibility: How willing are we as travelers and writers to retread or rewrite the paths and stories we have been given? Indeed, writers of many races have penned romantic odes to trains and motion. Frank Chin—a writer of Chinese descent who once worked as a brakeman on the rails—describes the experience of getting on a train as follows: “No matter how many times you’ve gone out… it’s like John Wayne stepping outside and turning a commonplace outdoor scene into the West, his West. You take possession.”
Chin goes on to extoll the larger-than-life feeling which riding the rails once imparted to him—”I was above history. I was too big for the name of a little man, Frank Chin”—before shifting abruptly into critique:
In the vastness of speed, you become roomy enough to accept the knowledge that the railroader you believed in, the steel and iron version of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Westerner you were and still are is no good. The independent, self-reliant, walk-tall, common sense, personal-experience-favoring good man doing what a man has to do who built the railroad and made it work a hundred years ago, who led civilization and learned only from his mistakes and shot straight and dealt square, the iron rider, Marlboro man in this part of the twentieth Century as a real man is racist, bigoted, politically and socially prejudiced against all reform and book learning and finds it difficult to acknowledge the existence of a world beyond the railroad and his home.
Although Chin had once embraced his own Westworld persona, performing hard-boiled frontiersman “in order to survive,” he wants to claim that this is his “last trip ever as just this man,” for that man cannot acknowledge who Chin also is: An Asian-American, an artist, an agitator for reform.
What Chin wants to give up, in other words, is his own, uncritical view of what it means to be an outsider. Vagrants often style themselves as people exiled from settled society. Insofar as this is true, it underscores the fact that outsiders—Chin being no exception—can and do create their own outsides. As Adrienne Rich writes, “Too often, the ‘exceptional’ or token outsider is praised for her skill and artistry while her deep and troubled connections with other outsiders are ignored.” For Xie, avoiding such “troubled connections” means focusing her work on the internal oscillations of perspective and point-of-view which traveling helps enact. Bringing such acts of interior kinesis to the fore helps this poet stay attentive to how her passage through space might cut across the experiences and histories of others.
The wanderer still wanders, but, as Cervenak writes, she makes an “ethical refusal to exploit others as the grounds for one’s own movement.”
Carlson-Wee writes: “When I got on my first train, I didn’t know where I was going, or even why I was riding, but I felt… for the first time in a long time, entirely alive.” I do not doubt that it is possible to ride the train into a livelier, freer day—into love, into beauty, into that wild something in the alfalfa. But wandering, in my experience at least, rarely takes a vagrant as far afield as they might hope. Eventually, the writer returns home or settles somewhere new, if only to complete their travelogue. The writer sits with himself and his words. He tries, perhaps, to write a story different from the ones he already knows.
In this anniversary year, I’m happy to ride the trains reading poetry by writers attentive to such alternative routes and meanders. To get from Providence to Boston, I could spend time with the poems of Jenny Xie but also Hieu Minh Nguyen (“No matter where we go, there’s a history / of white men describing a landscape / so they can claim it.”) and Sherwin Bitsui (“But the linguist still runs his hands up the length of our tongues, / perplexed that we even have a tongue at all.”) and Tung-Hui Hu, whose collection The Book of Motion contains a mini-fable about a man who crosses the country by train. In all the different “nameless towns” to which the train carries Hu’s speaker, he tries to show passerby his photo album, which has “the wary look of foreignness woven into its spine.”
Most of the people the man meets soon forget their encounter with the traveler and his book of foreign-looking images. But others get drawn in, as if sensing a story both different and the same as their own. Hu writes of these strangers, “They shared a nostalgia for endings, and when I pulled out my letter of introduction, they said no need. I would be shown a room, and there I would stay until my welcome had worn out.”
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