Issue 16 – Summer 2009 – Jon Thompson on Alex Lemon (Review)

Goodbye to All That

Alex Lemon, Hallelujah Blackout (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2008)


How to write poetry about the body in pain? This is the question Alex Lemon has taken on for himself. Most people, most writers, do not have to confront serious physical malfunction until later in life. Alex Lemon, who has been forced to deal with what the bookflap refers to as ‘slow recovery from brain surgery as a young man” and apparently, other related maladies, offers us a vision of the body in pain and the mind in distress from the viewpoint a man who is still young.

In this sense, Hallelujah Blackout continues exploring the ground he first covered in his first collection, Mosquito (2006). One of the preoccupations in Hallelujah Blackout is the body’s rich capacity for betrayal. The collection’s title signals this in its reference to blackouts. But while the title points to physical malady, it chooses to avoid the usual ways of responding to physical challenge ubiquitous in American culture–revulsion, self-pity, anger, denial, emotionless clinical detachment, morbid curiosity or the melodramatic self-canonization of the survivor.

Alex Lemon’s poetry veers away from these predictable responses and comes to regard the body in pain with a passionate and complex combination of acceptance and defiance. Acceptance is rooted in a recognition of what is simply the case; defiance is rooted in the refusal to allow physical distress to control the writer’s responses, especially his emotional and intellectual life.  So the title is Hallelujah Blackout and the collection moves towards a celebration of the body being in the world even as it explores the difficulties of being in the world whilst inhabiting a body prone to pain and malfunction.

Yet describing Alex Lemon’s poetry in this abstract way does it an injustice inasmuch as his poetry is not a poetry of plain statement:  it does not pride itself on using the plain style that is such a notable feature of American poetry in the last half century or so; it does not usher the reader quickly to a referenced world, but instead it makes the dramatization of language as much its subject as anything else. Indeed, this dramatization of language is quickly becoming his signature style. Witness the casual aplomb with which Lemon refashions language having a vaudevillean or canivalesque air into, unexpectedly, epiphaniac ends–

O hallelujah of cityglow waving        & ghosts’ hands
                    Gagging with sackcloth each night

                                      That ala kazam     Heavybright

                     Finely split bones & bleeding faces
                                               Streaking the streets on fire

                                      For our disaster’s brilliant purls
                                      For the down and sweet rolling


                                Let us sing that dark

The same style, the same trajectory, is evident in “Abracadaver”:

what I give will determine
           what blessing

I might receive so it’s two
           for one at the midway

& I will go on forever doing
           incomprehensible things—

the horseflies ladder up
           the ferris wheel

O cardinal-lit moon        we’re all going 
          to be right there—
                  that whispering dirt–

In anatomizing the losses that come with physicality, paradoxically, Lemon employs a semi-comic language, which treats pain with a distance achieved by a highly inventive use of metaphor. In a world full of outsize carnival threats, which prove to be not so imaginary after all, metaphor turns out to be Lemon’s modus vivendi:

 Each morning, I am swollen-tongued–throat tight
With the hocus-pocus of chainsaws ripping

Through the birch. It wants to bury me deep—that breeze
Waiting like a knife fight in my driveway. All night I plan

How best to sell myself at the pawnshop—my basket of 
Of gold teeth. That fish-bellied smell. But I’m so afraid

Of paradise I only sit in my room, vibrating
At the speed of light—exploding and reknotting[…]

In his ability to explore, mock and laugh at the vulnerabilities of being human in a world that can come out “carving/with Bowie knives,” the American poet who most comes to mind to me when reading Lemon is John Berryman. There are echoes of others—for example, George Oppen—but like the Berryman of the Dream Songs, Lemon distanciates pain by making it a subject for wry reflection on the indignities of physicality and the imminence of death in life. And like Berryman, Lemon’s language is often comic, acrobatic, dazzling and poignant all at once. This is most evident in the “Abracadaver” and the “Hallelujah Blackout” sequences that are at the core of this collection. Many of the longer poems have a similar self-possession, wit and formal achievement (some to my eye and ear, however, don’t quite live up to the high bar set by the best poems in the collection and could’ve been culled out). That said, I think Lemon has earned the comparison to Berryman. He has yet to produce the substantial body of work that Berryman did, but the same daring and flair for shaping popular idiom into poetry is there. He’s one of the great performers—one of the great jugglers– in the circus tent right now.



Jon Thompson edits Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics.