Disease of Kings
reviewed on October 20, 2023
The task was gargantuan.
For Anders Carlson-Wee, Disease of Kings had not only to navigate the fallout surrounding his 2018 poem “How-To”—including the craven apology for the poem issued by the editors who published it—but to answer detractors who have found in his writing, from the 2015 chapbook Dynamite on, an appropriative relation to and aestheticized representation of poverty and its trappings.
“Know your lane,” one prominent cultural critic responded to “How-To.”
“Unless you have suffered in that language,” opined another, “don’t write in that language.”
And anyway, isn’t his brother a billionaire?
Such objections—which would reduce poetry to autobiography—are met head-on by Carlson-Wee in his sophomore collection, in which he lays bare the myriad hypocrisies and self-delusions involved in his speaker’s dumpster-diving, bike-jacking, off-the-grid, grunge-Fourierist lifestyle. Disease of Kings, that is, appraises the privilege involved in its speaker’s voluntary poverty, acknowledging his class and cultural background in ways evocative, I think, of someone like Joan Didion in “Goodbye to All That.” “I never told my father that I needed money,” Didion writes, “because then he would have sent it.” “I caved and made the call,” Carlson-Wee confesses in the poem “Snow,” and “my dad covered most of the summer.”
As Carlson-Wee suggests, Disease of Kings hardly concerns itself with the representation of “genuine” indigence; rather, the book examines with nuance the temporary indulgence in poverty of a speaker who can escape it at any time, a speaker eking out an existence at the margins of society yet who is always—inescapably, appreciably—one of that society’s foremost sons.
If Disease of Kings aestheticizes the life of the urban poor, moreover, its speaker insists that aesthetics are precisely the point, as dumpster-diving and its attendant practices allow him access to a kind of classical “good life”—“eudaimonia,” the Greeks called it—which he “never could have enjoyed / if [he’d] been paying for it.” From caviar and truffles to “the thrill / of finding the most expensive / shampoo you can buy” discarded in a dumpster, the speaker throughout Disease of Kings aspires to a self-sustaining alternative economy, one in which he is free from the obligations of labor and able to indulge, therefore, in that most precious of commodities: time. Though he can never fully extricate himself from regnant capitalist structures—“what happens,” one character inquires, “when you don’t have [your father’s] handouts?”—Carlson-Wee’s speaker explores the limits of vagrancy, itinerancy, and indigence as anti-capitalist practices, as he “cling[s] to each free hour / of each free day.” Across Disease of Kings, that freedom may be seductive, but it is also scrutinized, its title suggesting a speaker regal but in many ways sick, marginal perhaps, but never truly menaced.
Disease of Kings is not without lapses. Some of its persona poems fall flat, and its speaker’s most involved entanglements in systems of power—where, for instance, is Bitcoin, that true disease of kings?—go relatively unaddressed.
As a window into one aspect of its speaker’s life, however—and as an intervention in the discourse surrounding Carlson-Wee himself—Disease of Kings is nothing short of a coup de maître, contextualizing its subject in the landscape of contemporary poetry and limning its speaker with a finely calibrated balance of sincerity and self-loathing.
“I can’t help but wonder,” Carlson-Wee writes in the poem “Trash,” in which his speaker is trapped in a dumpster, “what / would have happened to me if // I’d been taken away with the trash,” only for someone to “find / and dream up a use for my belt.”
Under capitalism, Disease of Kings suggests, we are all trash. Look for us under your boot-soles.