Metaphysics in Kai Carlson-Wee’s “Steampipe”

Carlson-Wee places the poem “Steampipe” within section II (of V) of his collection RAIL. In reading RAIL, I immediately identified section II as a bounded network of poems connected deeply by violence. In “Steampipe,” Carlson-Wee explores the contrast created by form against empty space. His speaker describes, for example, the vapor created by methamphetamines as “perfectly odorless” and “colorless,” and yet, the occasion of the poem is a participation in getting high, which I would presume to be a detail-oriented, colorful experience. The character of a tadpole is introduced as the darker element of the poem: “I got one here, he says, seined us a toad. / He holds up a little black tadpole, / kicking its one black leg in the air.” Not only is the tadpole twice categorized as black (in opposition to the odorless, colorless drug), it is also the object of violence: “Put it in the bowl, the first man says, / and positions the lighter beneath / the pipe.” The moment continues; the man who captured the tadpole laughs as it’s “writhing now, / knocking its head against the glass.”

The casual violence with which the group of three men (pipe owner, tadpole catcher, and the speaker–a passive spectator) treat a small tadpole characterizes the occasion of getting high on methamphetamines as possibly a violent action in itself. It may lead a close reader to ask, is the use of methamphetamines inherently violent? Is being high on methamphetamines a colorful, form-filled experience, or is it colorless and odorless (empty) as the term “faded” implies? And what does empty (or form-filled) space have to do with the violence, however small, that a person agrees to observe?

Carlson-Wee creates sorrow in “Steampipe” by characterizing its tadpole as helpless, colorful and thus ultimately in contrast to the emptiness, the lacking, by which the meth is marked–and the small creature is cruelly swallowed by this emptiness. No, not the emptiness itself but rather the heat that is provided by the moment’s light: “The trick is to boil the water, he says” is the first line of the poem. This is the key to all that follows. The tadpole (which represents form) is swallowed up by the emptiness, which the heat enables to swell. “The water begins to bubble and drift, / swirl in colorless patterns of heat.” As the water is boiling, the first man’s instructions are followed and the tadpole writhes and glows in the boiling heat. This heat makes it glow and allows the emptiness to swallow it; this heat kills the tadpole in a moment of ceaseless violence, allows it to be no longer.

To return to my previous questions, is this poem making a blanket statement about meth? I don’t think so. That doesn’t seem in line with Carlson-Wee’s style. However, it seems that he’s doing something with metaphysics, and I read it this way: In the occasion of this particular poem, the use of meth is characterized by a contrast between empty space and form-filled space, and the heat which boils water is enabled by the light (in this case, of a fluid lighter), and ripples violence everywhere (in this case, both at and beyond a riverbank): “the resulting steam, which will spread out thinly, / rising above his enormous head, perfectly / odorless, barely a mist in the late-day sun.”

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