On Disease of Kings by Anders Carlson-Wee: A Review by Ann Fisher-Wirth

A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.  

~Henry David Thoreau

The title of Anders Carlson-Wee’s new collection, Disease of Kings, has haunted me for weeks now, ever since I first read the poems. The “disease of kings” is gout, of course—a buildup of uric acid in the blood that can cause tiny sharp crystals to settle in and around joints, especially the big toe, leading to redness, swelling, and episodes of excruciating pain. It has traditionally been thought to be caused by a diet of rich foods and alcohol that only the wealthy could afford; Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Henry VIII, and Benjamin Franklin all suffered from it. So does North, the lodestar and “only friend” in Disease of Kings. But North and Carlson-Wee have chosen to live at the bottom of the social order; as Carlson-Wee says in an interview, “The speaker in Kings (who is based on me) yearns to escape all societal norms and responsibilities. He wants to never work, never pay, never give away even a shred of his precious time.” So, for five years, much of that time with North, Carlson-Wee lived on $3000 a year and “found everything [he] needed in dumpsters.” North’s gout, ironically, is the result not of wealth but of poverty—too much bacon, too many steaks, found while dumpster-diving. But the phrase “disease of kings” seems to signify more deeply. Millions of Americans live in poverty, but there’s a kind of sublime, even kingly, arrogance in choosing to live in poverty in order to free one’s time for writing poetry. So poetry itself becomes, in a way, a disease of kings. The terrain is vast, full of unexpected treasures and—to make a bad pun—worthy subjects, but finally very lonely. 

One of the loveliest poems in the book, “Gout,” recounts the saga of North’s illness and the gruff tenderness with which the poet cares for his friend:

Each morning 

I’d heat water, wrap his foot

in blankets, and dole out painkillers

I dumpstered from Walgreens

and kept hidden in an empty jar

of laxatives.  

But North is a difficult patient, keeps gorging on greasy food, and, when Carlson-Wee throws it all away, sneaks out to the trash and reclaims it. “Our life as it was, North wasn’t / getting better, hadn’t left / the house in weeks.” Things devolve until he steals all the pain pills and passes out on Percocet, at which point “I fumed. I debated. I changed / my mind and let him sleep.”  Here the poem turns. Unbeknownst to North, Carlson-Wee has found and repaired a boat, and, on North’s birthday, confiscates a wheelchair from a nearby hospital, and wheels him to the river. “When I unveiled the boat, he didn’t / ruin it with words. He knew me.” The landscape through which they drift is no Eden:

Squirrels. Piles of trash. Plastic bags

resting in eddies. The tarps and tents

of the homeless...

Nevertheless, in the midst of this there are joggers on the trails with “small clouds” of breath. And there is beauty:

On the far shore, so many cardinals

had gathered in one tree

it appeared to be fruiting.

The poems in Disease of Kings attain deep emotional resonance through the smallest details. There is, for instance, “Call and Response”—a title with religious overtones, for a poem in which Carlson-Wee discovers that yet another friend from his past life is dying—this friend, in the hospital “for no one knows / how long.” Going into the kitchen, Carlson-Wee finds North busy making enchiladas; when North questions him, he is unable to speak. And here, North becomes the one to extend tenderness, though it’s indirectly expressed: “I watch him / wash tomatoes. He’s so gentle / with them I have to look away.” Or “Blizzard,” a small poem that describes the poet’s delight at being snowed in, “trapped,” and North’s refusal to be caged: “Barefoot in underwear / he goes to the living room / and climbs out a window.” Upon rereading, the poem has an ominous undertone: the poet, delighted to be where he is with his friend; North, able to get away. Soon enough, North is “offered a permanent job / fishing in Alaska,” and as he and Carlson-Wee pace a frozen lake, with the poet trying to convince North that they don’t need money and North replying, “No, ... you don’t need money,” the magnitude of the poet’s incipient loss opens out in these beautiful lines:

The moan

of the lake comes again, low

and vast like outer space

expanding. Where I’m going. (“Good Money”) 

Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg, Ruth and Lucille in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping (and after Lucille leaves, Ruth and Sylvie)—like them, North and Carlson-Wee keep loneliness at bay, for, as Robinson writes, “Having a friend is... like sitting at night in a lighted house. Those outside can watch you if they want, but you need not see them.... Anyone with one solid human bond is that smug...”(154). But North does leave, and Carlson-Wee, anxious for company and money, starts running their dilapidated apartment as a B&B—lights turned low so no one can see the dirty sheets, gourmet meals served 100% from dumpsters. In several dramatic monologues, some memorable eccentrics, whose voice Carlson-Wee captures vividly, wander through the poems. There’s Lou the gambler, whose wife wouldn’t let him go to the racetrack but, to tide him over, let him watch the races on TV and bet with chocolate chips. And Oscar, who has invented invisible suspenders after his wife left him “cause I have no ass”:

I go to work one day and come

back home to no trace of her. No photos.

No toothbrush. Not even the carrots

she raised in the garden bed, just holes

in the earth like buckshot where she plucked em

free. And of course, she got custody.

And Barb, an inspector of rentals (but not B&Bs), who rambles on about her life story, her enthusiasm for pancakes and butter and bacon, her love for a job that lets her see “fear in men’s eyes,” “saying yes ma’am, yes ma’am, yes ma’am, terrified / I’m gonna find mouse poo on my walk-through”—the poem having opened with these gruesome lines:

Oh trust me, honey, you don’t wanna know

about the pelvis of a doe I found

in a Johnny Rockets, or the bone broth

made from stray dogs, or the raccoon burgers.

That’s whiskey talk, if ever. Don’t worry—

I won’t inspect your kitchen.

Despite the love of his parents, both Lutheran pastors—a father who gives him money when he needs it, a mother who justifies his lifestyle, “calling it / stewardship of the Earth”—Carlson-Wee’s desolation deepens. “I don’t wish you were poor,” he writes in “Lay It Bare,” presumably to North. “I wish you were here.” But the book ends in a single poem that makes up section V: “Contact,” in which there is at least a tentative turn back toward the light. Some anonymous grocery store employee starts to leave messages on dumpsters: 

Be careful—I’m filled with glass.

Two broken cans inside me.

I’m the good stuff, open me first.

No matter how Carlson-Wee tries, he can’t discover his benefactor, who starts to leave elaborate cartoons of monkeys meaning bananas, or a school of fish meaning sushi. “What else could I do?” he writes. 

Thank you,

I wrote in the branches above

the monkeys. Thank you, I wrote

in the ocean below the fins.

Ann Fisher-Wirth’s eighth book of poems is a poetry/photography collaboration with Wilfried Raussert, Into the Chalice of Your Thoughts (University of Guadalajara Press, forthcoming). Her seventh book is Paradise Is Jagged (Terrapin Books, 2023). Her sixth is The Bones of Winter Birds, and her fifth, a poetry/photography collaboration with Maude Schuyler Clay, is Mississippi. With Laura-Gray Street, she coedited The Ecopoetry Anthology and is currently coediting The Ecopoetry Anthology: Volume II. A senior fellow of the Black Earth Institute, she has had Fulbrights to Switzerland and Sweden, and residencies at Djerassi, Hedgebrook, Storyknife, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2023 Governor’s Award for Excellence in Literature and Poetry from the Mississippi Arts Commission, as well as numerous other awards. Ann retired in 2022 from the University of Mississippi, where she taught in the MFA program and directed the Environmental Studies program for many years. Until recently, she also taught yoga at Southern Star in Oxford, MS.