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Book Review

Rachel Custer, Editor-at-Large

A Review:

To Suffer None of It:
Lack and Gratitude in Disease of Kings



  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ W. W. Norton & Company (October 3, 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 112 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1324064706
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1324064701
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 8.8 ounces




“The rats want what we have,” begins the speaker in Anders Carlson-Wee’s new book, Disease of Kings. It is a foreboding beginning and indeed, by the next page, the speaker’s cat watches “half a rat crawl away from itself” in a bloody spectacle roommate North calls “natural.” (8) The two humans, who have spent the poem selling their meager belongings for what money they could get, sleep on camping pads, having sold their beds.

These poems are all like this beginning in that they flinch from nothing and they frame the natural course of life as difficult for all involved. North and the speaker scratch their ways through life, “dumpstering” eggs and foraging wild onions for breakfast and making do with what “you” (i.e., we, the readers) throw away: “Throw away eggs and I make/breakfast, plastic and I weave/rugs, duct tape and I reinforce/a chair leg, milk cartons//and I plant seeds, start/a nursery” (11).

What could be read as an indictment were it less deftly handled feels more like a simple sharing of confidences – less the fervor of an evangelist for a lifestyle that truly seems to bring peace than a confession of a secret, somewhat shameful joy. Here there is no ambition, as in the poem of the same name (16). Friends in the faraway hometown of the speaker die of pills and unspecified illnesses (17); the only goal is “to suffer none of it” (16).

This tension of a lifestyle lived dumpster-to-hand-to-mouth resurfaces in “B&B.” “For a little income,” he has taken to renting out North’s bed to strangers, North having taken a job on a fishing boat in Alaska. The speaker’s mother “was good/at justifying my lifestyle, calling it/stewardship of the Earth,” but the real truth is she knows “how cheap I was, how greedily/I clung to each free hour/of each free day.” (26) This is a recurring theme – what won’t this speaker do for a few bucks? And should he feel ashamed that he doesn’t feel ashamed?

Along similar lines, “Cups” tells the story of a speaker who saves a Subway cup in his school locker and pilfers pop from the restaurant every day after school, washing the cup clean in the drinking fountain. “Another Thrill” is about a speaker who buys the most expensive shampoo he can buy and enjoying a month of clean, shiny hair before returning the empty bottle “for cold cash no questions asked” (33). Again and again, the speaker in these poems grins at the reader from the dumpster, where we feel as if our headlights have just lit him for our view. Again and again, we wonder, might he have something here? Could we live like this? And if we did, would it make us better people?

In “Gout,” North gets the “disease of kings,” and limps around on crutches while the work falls to the speaker. “The problem was how easy it was/to find rich foods. And not just some./Ungodly amounts. We ate a diet/we never could have enjoyed/if we’d been paying for it” (53). What we know, though – what is always there looking at us, like a cat caught toying with rats, is that somewhere, somebody is paying: “You can’t/keep bailing out your dad,” the speaker says in “Blizzard” (61). North bites back: “You wanna talk dads?/What about yours – what happens/when you don’t have his handouts?” (61)

The speaker doesn’t romanticize what it is like to live like he does; in “The Family” he rushes to eat a family’s leftovers at a restaurant and in “Food Stamps Interview” he lies to make himself sound worse off than he is for additional help. He is so lonely in “Living Alone” that “For company/[he] record(s) [his] impressions/of celebrities and play[s]/them back” (72). Still, we almost think we might be missing out by not living this way.

And then, suddenly, devastatingly, the hammer of judgment is swung. In “Lay It Bare,” the speaker turns that shameful spotlight back on us:

“I know you’re hungry for it.
More money. More news. Desperate

for any laurel that parades you
as happier than you know

you are. A car. A cruise. Some haircut
reeking so deeply of depression

no one with a nose could miss it.
Making more each year. Spending

more. The pride of how little
time you have to spare. I know

I embarrass you, still living
on expired food I find, dented tuna

I squirrel away, spending at a pace slower
than a pulse. Slow, that’s what

I have. I’m not happy either.” (78).

We are caught, digging just as frantically at our dumpsters, desperate for anything we can find that might give us a sense of meaning. We are caught, looking just as poor and hungry as the speaker ever was.

And then, masterfully, Carlson-Wee’s speaker leaves us with hope. In “Contact,” the final poem of the book, we are again digging through a mound of trash with him. But tonight, somebody has reached out to let us know where the good stuff can be found. “I didn’t want to trust the messages,” he says, but he does, and eventually: “…elaborate cartoons began to coil/around the messages–a troop/of monkeys meant bananas,/a school of fish meant sushi./What else could I do? Thank you,/I wrote in the branches above/the monkeys. Thank you, I wrote/in the ocean below the fins.” (84)

In the same way, these skillfully wrought poems reach out to us as we rummage through the trash-filled rat races of our days. We want what Carlson-Wee’s speaker has – a sense of what’s truly important in life, what’s worth selling it all to obtain. These are poems full of freedom and gratitude, rejoicing even in lack, and providing us with another vision of how to live successfully. I hear what Anders Carlson-Wee is saying, and see him guiding me toward the good stuff, and I respond, as he does – thank you.


About the writer:
Anders Carlson-Wee is the author of Disease of Kings, The Low Passions, a New York Public Library Book Group Selection, and Dynamite, winner of the Frost Place Chapbook Competition. His work has appeared in the Paris Review, Harvard Review, Buzzfeed, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

About the reviewer:
Rachel Custer is the author of Flatback Sally Country (Terrapin Books) and The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). She was a 2019 NEA fellow. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, Valparaiso Poetry Review, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, One Art, and The American Journal of Poetry, among others. Rachel Custer is Editor-at-Large (Reviewer and Editorialist) at O:JA&L.


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