The Wish Book by Alex Lemon
Milkweed Editions, 2014; 113 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn Young
“Elegance, knowledge, violence!” exclaims the speaker in Rimbaud’s poem, “Morning of Drunkenness.” This battle cry is enthusiastically met in the pages of Alex Lemon’s fourth book of poems, a joyful engagement with self-awareness and oblivion. Among other topics, the thematic terrain of The Wish Book covers parenthood, illness, and the modern desecration of the environment, “A land/Where no one repents. A land where no one should be/Unrepentant.” Lyrically driven, the voice marries a variety of minds: madman, pit preacher, survivor. Underneath them all is an empathetic, buoyant spirit that cannot be sunk.
Here, the new parent transforms not only into a sentry at the nursery door, but also into a corporeal shield, hoping to repel any dangers fate may hold. The primal, feral need to destroy oneself out of self-involved compulsion or fear suddenly meets it match when faced with the reality of protecting a child, as in “After The World Did Not End”:
I want to
Rip deep holes
In my body & umbrella
His shallow breaths
Into me as he rocks
A clockwise circle,
With white-hot dreams.
While the book begins in fatherhood, it soon blasts its way in a variety of other directions, following conjoined trails of creation and destruction. Impressively jubilant, even when foreboding (“Your dreams will shatter/& turn on you.”), and fully engaged with the contemporary American landscape, the boundaries of the poems are permeable, uninterested in quarantine and obsessed with watching the cracks widen in the walls. Often, these walls are not the familiar ones found in buildings, but the diaphanous boundaries between dream states and waking.
Lacking brothers, as a teenager my introduction to the boy-world was through dating boys, usually the ones who did not have football practice after school but instead drove up into the mountains to, shall we say, stretch out on the forest floor and recreationally alter their realities. These poems embody that same wild, unstructured drive of young men, mapping how the spirit, batting against the cage of the body, turns against that very body with drugs, alcohol, and risk-taking. Though there are temporal signposts—now that he’s a father, the speaker promises his days of throwing himself off buildings of a certain height are firmly in the past—the book’s overwhelming power is that of simultaneity. By purposefully dismissing conventional linearity, it creates an inclusive space where all versions of the self may exist: not only “I was,” “I am,” and “I will be,” but a series of explosive echoes—Before, before, before. Now, now, now. After, after, after—reaching in all directions. Lines, tense with manic propulsion, have a singularly expansive energy all their own that shifts into compression when nothing else will do: “You’ll be glowing no/Sleep the whole paradise tomb.” Music can willfully overpower meaning, carrying the reader right along on a wave of mosh pit exuberance.
Influences abound, but are always secondary to the individuality of the book. The heightened, ecstatic energies of Rumi and Coleridge merge with the angularity of Dickinson (“The rapturous buzzing in my head”; “certain/slant”), a vocabulary recollecting Whitman’s (graves, grass, hair, compost), the inventive compounds of Hopkins (“Marrowsong” and “Dreamwonder”) and the plainer language of William Carlos Williams (especially in parts of “Volant.”). Leaps from high to common diction occur with dizzying speed in the series, “Real-Live Bleeding”:
Trebles of birds plushed above
In the thresholding dark—
There is a grappling at the freak show door—
Just for the hipped-glow
Of pretty pretty girls
The beauty of the natural environment, overlooked or ignored, drifts above the lusty concerns of the human ground-dwellers as they fight to get a look at the ladies. Yet that ideal beauty is made delightfully strange by Lemon’s embroidery of the language—that “plushed” and “thresholding.” It’s as if Hopkins were cross-stitching a scene from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights on Emily Dickinson’s linen handkerchief.
It takes dedication to be positive in the face of environmental devastation, to remain upright once you learn your body will fail around your soul. Lemon’s own health challenges and struggles with addiction and depression are well-documented in his non-fiction book, Happy: A Memoir. While The Wish Book avoids a full-blown medical narrative, there are allusions to hospital stays and recuperations. But the voice never ventures into self-pity or unproductive lines of rumination. Perhaps because, as Rumi wrote, “The mystery does not get clearer by repeating the question.” As the speaker mud-wrestles the sublime, fathers and populates a world of pole-dancers, night-clubbers, tanks and gorillas, it seems he knows that while he is a force of nature, nature is a force of its own. Rushing through surreal landscapes born both of fantasy and experience, The Wish Book creates a world where the true mystery unfolds in the time between birth and death.