Tin House Books, 2006
Reviewed by D. Antwan Stewart
Often I’ve found myself trudging through the regurgitated stylistics of a poet’s first book and thought to myself how terribly unmotivated, the lack of passion, both the poet (and the book) seems to feel about the subject matter. I cannot say the same for Alex Lemon’s powerfully explosive (if not implosive) verse in Mosquito. This poet renders the experience of the human body at its most physically and psychologically ravaging. These are poems that invoke the carnal with the sacred, the droll with the elegiac. And like the mosquito that portends the book’s title, these poems remain welts, stings, and constant scratchings at the surface to get to what lies beneath the skin. The opening poem, “Trembling,” begins: “Hello friend, beautiful face / in car fire. I, the flesh wish, / am sickly wrapped in light.” At the onset, we readers are invited into a personal space that leaves us unsettled: are we the beautiful face in car fire? And, at the poem’s end, when the speaker tells us “Tomorrow, I will be / afraid. I might never wake up,” we, too are afraid. Right? Or, at least our empathy for the speaker becomes more and more unsettling. Who is this poet—thrusting our faces into the muck of such sadness and quiet horror (remember: “beautiful face / in car fire). What poet dares to leaves us trembling (if for our worrying, then for our anticipation)?
In the four sections that comprise Mosquito, we readers will journey with Lemon through critical illness and the inevitable reconciliation one must find to cope. What we encounter are not poems rife with falsehoods, but poems that mine the many caves of emotional catastrophes, the worlds that exist after one has faced his own mortality. And what enlivens this remarkable book is the sum of these poems, as they become a whole that embodies a poet’s determination to find the perfect pitch and tenor to render language that shapes the work with passion and never with the sense the poet is self-elegizing. Lemon, in fact, achieves this with brilliant success. His poems range from the lyrically forthright, to the fractured experimental. One is never without having to investigate and reconsider, again and again, a poem’s intentions. Where one poem lingers with an acute sense of our own self-reflexivity, others compel us to tear off the scabs, allow the blood from those scars to render this experience anew, to find our place within the speaker (poet’s) world—and frequently, we may not always understand, as we feel neither has the speaker.
Furthermore, Lemon’s ordering of these poems exacts what I have aforementioned. Consider the poems “The Best Part” and “After.” The former poem begins:
The best part of brain surgery isn’t the shining
staples that keep it all in, the ways
fingers and tongues will find the scar.
It’s not wheelchair rides through maple leaves,
sunlight warming a bruise as I fumble
peeling an orange. Nor is it the gentle tug
of a nurse reminding muscles—bend, stretch
and flex. The sweetest ingredient—
the best part is the cutting.
Now, reading across the page, to the latter poem, Lemon writes:
Open my mouth & watch the mouse-trapped shake,
splayed before dogs—I am
peeled from the butcher’s midnight eyes.
Persistent scalpel—I will thorn soft
these ill-illuminated pleasures.
The mouth whips. The mouth
whips itself clean with wind.
What wonderful juxtapositions these poems make. Essentially, Lemon writes that the best part of brain surgery is in the cutting—the medicinal act, the thing that endeavors to make things better. Consider, also, the language. It is lyrical and images are detailed as they are needed. No superfluous rhapsodizing or romanticizing, but the poet’s deft hand at work. It is simple. It’s honest. Yet, once we move across the page, to “After,” the language implodes. “Open my mouth,” the speaker implores, and what we see within this dark, gaping maw, is a horrific scene reminiscent of death. The language turns suddenly symbolic. In fact, it is a barrage of symbols, the poet implicating that this experience is not easily rendered into a comprehensible or literal language. And much like the way the speaker might feel coming out of surgery, so must we make our way around the anesthesia of language. It is numbing, yes, but also a numbness we desperately try to return feeling to. In other words, the mosquito has bitten, and we scratch and scratch even when the act only exacerbates the itchiness. This is the feeling one feels struggling to ground himself in a world post-surgery, where haze and confusion becomes mimicked by our inarticulate-ness.
Readers will discover that the structure of Mosquito operates in much the same way as what I’ve described above. Of course, Lemon is too good a poet to allow the metronome to tick back and forth at the same regular pace. The book, also, is too intelligent for that. One will read poems of erotic love, of memories one has preserved post-op, of simply being alive when one certainly could have died from the experience, of the possibility that one very well might. And though these poems are either suggested or forthright, they are never pedestrian. Lemon’s passion and vulnerability will strip bare your conscience. There will be only scars remaining where doubt used to be—in places you never thought there would exist an experience so wrought yet so tenderly evoked that you’d be sure as hell it was yours.
Alex Lemon's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous magazines including Tin House, Denver Quarterly, AGNI, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Pleiades, Post Road, Swink, and Washington Square. His translations (with Wang Ping) of a number of contemporary Chinese poets are forthcoming in Tin House, New American Writing and other journals. Among his awards is a 2005 Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. Alex is a frequent contributor to the Bloomsbury Review. Currently, he teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
D. Antwan Stewart is a graduate of the M.F.A. in Writing Program at the Michener Center for Writers, where he was a James A. Michener Fellow in poetry. He is the author of a chapbook, The Terribly Beautiful (Main Street Rag Press, 2006), and has other poems and reviews appearing or forthcoming in Meridian, the Seattle Review, Bloom, Lodestar Quarterly, storySouth, Poet Lore, can we have our ball back?, New Millennium Writings, DIAGRAM, 42opus, CutBank Poetry, The Lambda Book Report, and others.