‘The Wish Book’ by Alex Lemon

Alex Lemon
  • PUBLISHED BY: Milkweed Editions
  • REVIEW BY: John Gibbs


“step right up my little fearfuls”

Wish book cover

The Wish Book has a death wish. So many poems in this collection, Lemon’s fourth, confront death full on by sliding into the bag head first, arms outstretched, waiting for the umpire’s call—safe or out, in this case the same thing. Lemon holds real estate in this world and the next, it seems, speaking at will from a place of triumph and resolution in one poem, despair and darkness the next. Take the opening of “Volant,” a poem built in couplets, a go-to form throughout his collection:




Alive in the ghost
Park, I am this

Darkness. The horizon
Is a boil of halved

Strawberries shining
& illness stitches me

To the glittery


We see unlike pairings in just these four, wonderfully compressed couplets. We begin in a purgatorial park where our speaker literally becomes his surroundings, claiming the darkness as his own. We don’t know if his aliveness contradicts the setting’s ghostness, but we pay out a bit of rope, give the poem some slack— we are getting acquainted, so to speak. Then, on top of that, we receive the image of shining strawberries and illness, the rich texture of glitter and dirt, complexity. Suggestively contradictory images rub against one another, sizing each other up, side by side in a single line of verse. This, in a nutshell, is Lemon’s urge: to grapple with life and death in a lone breath.

Lemon has a way with beginnings—“Like a vulture, I piss / Down my leg so I don’t / Overheat” (“Let Us Get Our Gifting On”), “It’s hard to imagine a day / When I’m not scratching / My nuts right at God” (“The Blowdown”), “I’m a big jellyfish / All grown-assed” (“After the World Did Not End”)—still, it’s easy to overlook humor as a poetic device. There are camps of poets who may argue against its role in poetry at all, but there are also poets who successfully demonstrate a gift for hilarity and should be celebrated as such. Lemon exemplifies the latter in his best moments, deploying humor as the hinge on the door to the seraphic and the grotesque. Further, these two realities don’t sleep in separate dormitories; he makes it difficult to discern which is which sometimes, as in the opening of “Still Life with Birthday Cake and Dynamite,” its title a heavy-handed play upon the very topic of concern:


I was alive when this started
But now, well, who knows

What you’d call this pretty
Little place now? Even after all

That E. coli, I’ve still got one
Leg that kicks. I’ve never been

To Waco.


As with “Volant,” we start from a familiar place, a barely conscious state of existence—the absurd. The poem then makes a right turn in its second line with a subtle, almost dejected interjection: “well,” a melodic sigh of defeat. Lemon gives it space and time; the concept of a dead speaker is one thing, but to have him question his own state of non-being is another one entirely. It’s a moment pulled off with such expertise, we’re not sure how to feel, as with the subsequent line. The poem switches gears so quickly that we hardly notice the presence of illness. It’s orchestrated to a T. The speaker won’t let us consider the emotion of a moment until it’s passed—it happened three lines ago and we’re still moving forward, because a Lemon poem assumes a certain momentum that won’t release us prematurely. Only at the end can we revisit, with pleasure, those moments buried within that seemed to jump and vie for our attention, if only for an instant.

His organization of the collection itself should be noted. The book is a beastly 112 pages, divided into four sections, the third of which comprises a single, 18-page poem (“Real-Live Bleeding”). It’s a full-blown exercise in sustainment. So surreal are its images and emotions that, at times, the reader’s attention struggles to keep up; on the heels of an epigraph by W.C. Williams, this P.T. Barnum-esque opening couldn’t feel more out of left field: “Step right up my little fearfuls / Bellow blue in this pornography // Heaven.” It’s immediately evident that the speaker comes from a different sphere of being.

Images parade one after the other through the poem like an old-timey vaudeville: “punk faces in the wetgrooved / Shapes of freshly skinned knees,” “Elephant ears pocketed silent / In sleepless cheeks,” “The baby wrapped / In trash beneath July stars.” Lemon chisels out a delightfully inventive, intriguing landscape, but there is also an accompanying terror to his verse—some shadowy suggestion lying in wait just beyond the next line break. We’re apt to be ejected from the book entirely by his sudden links and turns, confronted with realities beyond those of our normal, waking lives.

I suppose I cannot slink my way out of this review without a word or two on the titular poem. “The Wish Book” closes the collection, a soft encore to the noisy concert preceding it: “The moon croons ghost / & curtains lift,” it begins, “Into the magic & shine / The moon sings,” and later, “whispers pretty pretty / Pleads for you.” Lemon cycles through the moon’s four actions—crooning, singing, whispering, pleading —like the phases of a moon, a nuanced form-fits-function approach. Interestingly, we don’t encounter the expected resolution as the poem draws to a close; swerving from the most Eros of the four, plead, Lemon instead closes with “the moon whispers // Did you hear / Something out there out // There what will you say to them / When I’m gone?” It is no longer the moon that pleads, but the speaker himself, wondering into the void how he himself will be remembered. His final wish.

The takeaway: don’t merely live inside Lemon’s calamitous, caterwauling universe for an afternoon of light verse, but seek rather to uncover how that world bleeds into our own, muddling the space separating the two. We all live inside separate moments of anguish. We brood over them, we discuss them over cocktails, we go to therapy, we pay for therapy. This is the human condition. We find solace in our universal commiseration because, as Lemon reminds us in his opener (“Boundless”), “It is such a pleasure to be // Not dead & walking through / This place with you.” I will be happy to walk through this world tomorrow with a copy of The Wish Book tucked securely under my arm.