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. The melancholic voices in Rail are those of brothers and fathers, hoboes and railyard bulls, Native Americans and immigrants, stoners and skateboarders, the lovesick and lovelorn. Strung together, they become a kind of Homeric narrative about leaving a childhood home in search of a home of one's own--a journey down "dirt roads/ leading in every direction away from whatever you are." The quest's destination may be unknown at the outset, but the narrator of "Poser" puts his finger on it: "I am/ working to make myself better. Learning/ the rhythm and speed of my heart.... Trying out the words in my own mouth until/ I am finally able to sing."

Something of a Renaissance man, Minnesota-born poet Carlson-Wee is also a photographer, documentary filmmaker and former professional rollerblader--with MacDowell, Stegner, Bread Loaf and Sewanee fellowships to boot. He knows skate parks ("the metalheads listened to boom-boxes perched on the stairs"), county fairs (mechanics "testing the Tilt-a whirl... sipping from plastic bottles/ of Windsor Canadian") and railyards ("bulls in the jungle like janitors cleaning the sinks"). 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. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

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