Friends and Strangers,
I'm posting my review of Alex Lemon's new book, first published in the new Oranges & Sardines, a literary publication dedicated to the relationship between art and poetry. You can buy it on Amazon, where you can also buy Lemon's book.
I'm a ferocious fan of his and hope you'll run out and steal a copy.
The Amplification of Heaven: A Review of Hallelujah Blackout by Alex Lemon
Milkweek Editions, 2008 $15
Perhaps nowhere in recent American Poetry has a poet expressed such intense mortal anxiety toward nature as Theodore Roethke. Famously tormented by waters, darkness, the mulch of roots and leafy fetor, he nevertheless succeeded in what might be called a “spiritual” verse that faces the awful reality of our corporeal struggle. Alex Lemon’s newest collection Hallelujah Blackout finds kinship with Roethke’s troubled sensitivity to nature, the relationship between the body’s collapse and an ecstasy of the spirit, in which affliction is elation. If pain is the doorway to consciousness, Lemon remains manically awake, fixed on the wild inanity of all experiences Americana. Whether he’s taking a bath, watching the trees bleed a little light, or giving mouth to mouth, Lemon grapples the contradictions of our mortal nearness.
The terrible urgency of Lemon’s work is driven by excess. One gets the feeling that experience is too much, that the poet can’t fit it all in, that he’s in pain and love simultaneously every waking moment. When he’s successful, Lemon balances consumerism: “I wanted more malt liquor / Time. I wanted Pac-Man and Hot Tamales” with the sublime: “The drips. Of blessings, / Unwrapped & tossed. Faces sunsetting, / Blurred windows. The streaks. The blessings.” Indeed, experience itself is the addiction of this book in which hunger is both spiritual and capitalistic. “I won’t lie. My walls smell like meat” he writes in “The Night Diego Maradona Tried”, and later, “oh, how the last bite / of a Big Mac makes you want to slit throats.” Who can forget Roethke’s assertion, “my meat eats me”? “Addicted”, Lemon responds, “verging on mourning, / we hope this is not what it feels like to die”. He ravages the junk of contemporary American life, the “Deli sandwiches”, the “bullet-riddled minutes on Cops”, the “ruined, fizzless colas” and achieves a transformative ecstasy: “the beauty of this place bursting before / and behind and blueblack through my eyes.”
The speed of these poems results in purposefully inconsistent syntax, brilliant broken phrasing, kennings, imagery both grotesque and tender. “This / is what happens” writes Lemon, “when all you can remember / of language is grunt”. When the body is possessed of its own awareness, when it is caught between kiss and kill, violence and intimacy irreconcilably affect speech. Lemon finds his breath “hiving in air”, his “blueberry- bushed insides / are graveled with want”, and his “hands wolf”. The light around him is “burstswept”, the day is “cherry lipped”, he “sings nectar”, he “sings blossom” and the “plum-glut sky” opens, filled with “jeweled-lightning”. Caesura and ampersand further highlight the immediacy of Lemon’s voice, as it chances vulnerable into the world:
I go mercy faced & everything to me whispers no biggie
Motherfucker we’ll break you too
Infested finally & terrible in the knuckle-branched black
This is tireless work that struggles to weigh morbidity with spirit. “Please someone” he pleads, “tell me how / much flesh can // be tolerated / day after day—” Indeed, this book is ripe with imagery surrealist and unsightly: “In the rain a man / ducks into his coat like the split- // ribbed chest of a dead horse / swallowing a wet-cheeked boy”. Things gross: “I once pulled // all of my fingernails off with my father’s pliers . . . you should have seen that salad” make way for things elegant: “I’m not asking you what you know / About yourself, but what’s on / The face of the one who follows you / Around handing out pieces of darkness / As you plead with the trees.” Ultimately, the danger of the body is not absence, but presence. “It’s the kingdom” Lemon writes, “of wandering around / in the dark & roughhousing—” The body, then, capably tends toward violence and vulnerability the same, an attractive mortality that in Lemon’s poetry breaks through to something softer, something musical and abstract so that “above the streetlights hissing / awake down the block, a cello-soft / glow opens like veins through the spruce.”
In his famous villanelle, “The Waking”, Roethke wrote lines that seem to characterize Lemon’s predicament: “This shaking keeps me steady. I should know / What falls away is always. And is near.” It is this nearness that troubles Lemon into contemplation of the body’s now: “You / should have seen the sweat of still-being-alive”. So the rant of experience in this poet’s work is a rant of praise in which a painful existence is beautiful, “the lightninged hall of kisses / in the ballady veins”. Lemon is a poet so filled with human sensitivity he cannot seem to decide if this existence is heaven or hell. “Here then is amplification” he quips, “the cold cold / ground is rawboned on fire”. Painful but celebratory, never heavy or self-pitying, Lemon achieves a mania of voice that powerfully considers bodily death. “I remember,” he writes about a dead swordfish in “Yet I Ride the Little Horse”, “the dead thing really / whispered something terrifically soft”. And in the long poem “Abracadaver” he balances affection with pain: “in a knifing away / of the skin / your kisses appear—”
So much unapologetic ecstasy (“Come with me tonight, my chocolate- / Smelling love. Let’s whip white-hot coat hangers around // Until someone loses an eye”) can be overwhelming in such a long book. Lemon is unrelenting. At a whopping 144 pages, over twice as long as most poetry books recently published, he’s worked a strange, energetic balance between two sequential longer poems and three sections (30 pages each) of more “standard-sized” poems. Readers might wonder if a book so large might be better focused, if as a collection this might be pared down to a more direct and forceful grouping of poems. If perhaps either long poem might itself be developed into a book length work. But they will find themselves grateful too, for what Lemon excitedly delivers in lines both memorable and meant to be savored.
Ultimately, the size of this book is indicative of Lemon’s project, which seems to insist that experience itself is big, extravagant, unbearable, amazing. “I cannot get my head around this impossible light” he writes. One has to admire this author’s restlessness. Lemon struggles to face each moment as it might reveal something transcendent, as if through so much bodily suffering we might achieve joy, and thereby justification for our troublesome fates. (“So let’s elasticate!” he shouts in mad reverie at a scorched marshmallow.) This is a small bible of torture by orgasm and readers will surely find themselves numbed fantastic, forced to stop in the middle of their lives and breathe quick, having known the repeated momentary disasters of a life they still don’t want to escape.