Taking Risks: Thursday Shout Out
It is the first day of spring. Renew. Read. Rev up.
In attempting to carry on some of Rigoberto’s wonderful work introducing new books and old favorites from his collection, I thought I’d start a Thursday shout out series. (Unlike Rigo, I may not be able to do it every Thursday, but I will do my honest best.)
Often, the poems that thrill me the most, the ones that make me ignore all the clutter on the table and commit myself to reading them, often memorizing them, are poems that take a stand, that have a strong sense of risk and urgency (I said NOW!). Add that to an individual voice that won’t quit and language that sandblasts the paint off all those ordinary houses we drive by, and you’ve got Alex Lemon.
In Alex Lemon’s shattering new book by Milkweed Editions, Hallelujah Blackout, the poems swing in that sweet spot that allows for both the energy of a hurried search for answers while still offering you a quiet place to stand and ask. That brave balance between utter despair and unending hope. In trying to find a language for something that seemingly cannot be said, Lemon molds poems out of sounds both ugly and sublime, creating gorgeous giants of whip-cracked words made from the local lost and found.
In Lemon’s poem, “Spotless,” he culls up the river to wind him homeward as the speaker searches to regain himself after injury.
I love the suds—how the duck-head peeks
Into the open-windowed sunlight through
The foamy bubble bath. But if you really must
Know, I wasn’t there—in my head
I was slamming a car door and walking
Along a wood-chipped footpath to the river.
Old shattered windows—some of the glass
Pink-edged—rose from the trees and brush,
Reflecting, for a moment as I passed,
Half-pictures of someone that pretty
Much looked like me except: no cuts
And bruises! From the sky fell
Hand-sized ceramic bats. So strange,
You said to me, to see the leaves
Still so green. I thought I might be
Able to love you forever. At the river
The same wanna-be was pretending
To be Jesus, tossing his wet hair back,
Raising his arms in the air. Touchdown!
Touchdown! you yelled stripping away
Clothes as you ran and dove in—
Outside a car door slammed. The
Cat jumped to swat the door
Knob. I called out the names of things
I hadn’t seen in a long time—Kim-Chee!
Syrup dripping from a smiling mouth!
A lipstick-kissed note that says Don’t
Let Me Go Out Like That—Shriveled, I coursed
With jubilance until the crisp shells of the beetles
That floated in my pink lake bobbed against
My thighs, and my riven toes brushed and tugged
The bandages that were clogging up the drain.
The rhythm of Lemon’s work moves like a current beginning with suds and ending with the unclogging of the drain. Able to cross time and location with a flip of the mind’s eye, the speaker glides easily from bath to broken glass to water to blood to healing. And the reader follows, being easily coaxed by the buoys of sound.
From beginning to end, Hallelujah Blackout is at once a cry of indignation and a piercing plea to keep “tangoing into the endless.” The power of the language is often tempered with the easy Midwestern colloquial. The soft welcoming voice of, “Anyone who wants to come over can,” melded with the hammer of, “This ash-hearted & stammering America/Happy asshole alleluia/chants the city’s wrecked neon,” makes the brain go dizzy with unusual comprehension.
The brutal and often beautiful place in which these poems reside creates a welcoming insight into healing, love, and the human need to be alive so fully that even the smallest experience is charged by sensual surges of terror. This is poetry that risks it all, puts the cards on the table and antes up.
Here is poetry that makes me pleased to be around to bear witness to its making. Welcome Hallelujah Blackout.
Ada Limón is the author of Lucky Wreck (2006), This Big Fake World (2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and Bright Dead Things (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award. She earned an MFA from New York University, and is the recipient of...