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The Wish Book

The Wish Book

by Alex Lemon

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In his first collection since Fancy Beasts, a book that "slice[d] straight through nerve and marrow on its way to the heart and mind of the matter" (Tracy K. Smith), Alex Lemon dazzles us again with his exuberance and candor. Whether in unrestrained descriptions of sensory overload or tender meditations on fatherhood and mortality, Lemon blurs that nebulous


In his first collection since Fancy Beasts, a book that "slice[d] straight through nerve and marrow on its way to the heart and mind of the matter" (Tracy K. Smith), Alex Lemon dazzles us again with his exuberance and candor. Whether in unrestrained descriptions of sensory overload or tender meditations on fatherhood and mortality, Lemon blurs that nebulous line between the personal and the pop-cultural. These poems are full of frenetic energy and images pleasantly, strangely colliding: jigsaws and bathtubs and kung-fu and X-rays. It's a distinct brand of edginess that readers of Lemon will once again applaud. A lean and muscular collection, The Wish Book marks a new high in this poet's unstoppable career.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"Human dynamo: you must/ Have a good time," Lemon (Fancy Beasts) exhorts in his explosive fourth collection of verse; his agitated, discombobulated alter egos both shock and entertain. Lemon's exclamations, free associations, and volatile images showcase extreme highs and lows as well as constant attraction to the wild life, or to the wildly inappropriate: "It's hard to imagine a day/ when I'm not scratching/ My nuts right at God." But Lemon is no light comedian: his party persona, extroversion, and fragmentary style all look like defenses against Lemon's mortal fears. Those fears, in turn, speak to the medical history—brain surgery, tough recovery—detailed in his 2010 memoir, Happy. In a poem that reads like a nightmare about his hospital stay, "It felt/ Like a vibrating halo had been screwed/ Into my head... a double-decker toy racetrack/ Had been drilled into my skull." Lemon may disorient, or exhaust, readers who want poems with more coherence; his speakers do not develop or change very much, neither within the poems, nor between them. Yet Lemon's enthusiasms, with their "hip tosses & heavy metal"—part sarcastic, part macho, part tender, and always extreme—have found, and deserve to find, serious sympathies. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

Advance Praise for The Wish Book

"Lemon...writes tough, visceral poetry with broad appeal. In this new collection, the author, winner of a literature fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, energetically examines the self in a pop-cultural world."
Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Pre-Pub Alert, "Ten Essential Poetry Titles for Winter 2014"

"This book arrived like a storm, with an almost physical sense of Alex Lemon as a doom-tinged ecstasy engine. He's so aware of death and so eager to refuse its dominion that the breath of his poems drives a blade into the reader's mind that cuts a new window to both see and feel through. 'We feed ourselves to the fire/One inch at a time to prove it--//Everything here is a gift we can't/figure out how to open.' Maybe we can't, but these poems know how to lift the lid and show us what we have and how briefly we have it. The great rhythmic vitality of his work is surpassed only by the pulse of Lemon's need to convey his love for the world and our place in it. To read this book is to meet a man who would climb the sky."
Bob Hicok

"The fourth installment in Alex Lemon's series of field guides to the new, weird normal, The Wish Book covers its lenses to neither birth nor death, which is to say that while it might not get you what you want, it offers up vivid wide shots of where you are, along with close-ups of your options therein, thereafter. Read it and look, leap."
Graham Foust

"The Wish Book is a glorious spectacle. Jazz and jibber-jabber collide. Ghosts, umbrellas, jellyfish, and 'glittery dirt' woo the eye. Kaleidoscopic phrasing underscores awe and dark humor. 'Everything tastes/electric' in one poem. The light waltzes in another, then is retooled as 'a sunset of painkillers.' At the heart of the spectacle lies an astonishing awareness of illness and death. Alex Lemon's imagination is dazzling and empathic. He's a ringmaster of the highest order."
Eduardo Corral

Praise for Alex Lemon

"Sometimes the poet seems like a descendant of Jeremiah and the speaker in Eliot's The Waste Land, a disgusted spectator of the dance of Eros and Thanatos in a contemporary culture that has become startlingly inane.... and a Swiftian proposal with its tongue tucked firmly in its cadaverous cheek."
—Kevin Nance, Poets & Writers (from an author profile)

"In the world of poetry, as hermetic as it is elusive, Lemon, thirty-one, is already a star."
—Nick Flynn, Esquire (from the introduction to an excerpt of Lemon's memoir)

Winner of The Literary Review's 2011 Charles Angoff Award for Poetry

Praise for Fancy Beasts

Recipient of a 2011 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence for Previous Finalists of the Paterson Poetry Prize

"A master of negative empathy, Lemon spelunks through the brain's darker convolutions and clearly enjoys testing the reader's limits. This book will likely appeal mostly to twenty-somethings with an emo/hipster bent, but even older readers will be impressed by Lemon's calculated audacity."
Library Journal (starred review)

"Once again, Alex Lemon dazzles us with his ability to slice straight through nerve and marrow on his way to the heart and mind of the matter."
—Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars

"Full of raw energy, up-to-date in its slang and its jump cuts, effervescent with the playfulness and sometimes the angers of youth, [Fancy Beasts] conveys a likeable, outsized personality."
Publishers Weekly

"Reading Alex Lemon's poems is like listening in on the thoughts of one of the most imaginative minds you've ever encountered . . . Fancy Beasts is a terrific book by one of the best younger poets at work today."
—Kevin Prufer

"Life cleverly and joyfully rages in Alex Lemon’s poems because everywhere in his explosive stanzas is the dry-boned conviction that we are more than a collection of lonely selves seeking aesthetic relief from the great bewilderment of existence—that occasionally that utter silence on the inside is really a dance party, operation: get down."
—Major Jackson

Praise for Hallelujah Blackout


“[A] sprawling, varied, and ambitious second collection. Thoughts of joy and pain, eros and death, not to mention references from Van Gogh to 'half-scratched lotto tickets' collide in these unclassifiable, rapid fire poems.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Alex Lemon’s Hallelujah Blackout is a blowback fireball of a book. Think Ezra Pound’s inscrutable 'Cantos' lightning-charged with a twisted wick. Experimental but rigorous, an incantatory frenzy spirals around the freewheeling narrator. . . The title poem pounds us with relentless invention peeling off in blazing lumps . . . echoes of Keats, Lorca, Crane, Ginsberg, and the Dylans (Bob and Thomas) . . ."
The Brooklyn Rail

"Alex Lemon’s poetry veers away from . . . predictable responses and comes to regard the body in pain with a passionate and complex combination of acceptance and defiance. . . . Witness the casual aplomb with which Lemon refashions language having a vaudevillian or carnivalesque air into, unexpectedly, epiphanic ends. . . . Lemon's language is often comic, acrobatic, dazzling, and poignant all at once. . . . 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."
Free Verse

Imagine Hart Crane in the mosh pit or William Blake singing in the psych ward, and the reader will get a sense of the visionary, pantheistic, blackly humorous, and guardedly hopeful speakers in Hallelujah Blackout. Negative epiphanies abound; they bleed, flower, and implode with violent beauty at every trapdoor, house of cards, box-squatted city corner, and cornered shadow of the mind.”
Virginia Quarterly Review

“Each moment is sheer and yet vaulting to the next; almost simultaneously occur the philosophical, visceral, violent, self-destructive, ambivalent, quotidian, alienated, gorgeous and over-blown. In this apocalyptic wonderland engendered by ‘the violation of identity,’ it seems simple acknowledgement is the only consolation to be had.”

“What makes Hallelujah Blackout such a fun read is Lemon’s way of winking over his shoulder just at the moment a poem veers into pompous-land. Like John Lennon’s sing-song wit or Lewis Carroll’s dreamy silliness, Hallelujah Blackout illustrates a modern, aggressive poet who knows how to have fun.
Hippo Press

“The energetic journey in this book refuses to let the dust settle and the reader is constantly on the go, stimulated by the persistent use of surprising language, syntax and imagery. Indeed, there is little respite for either speaker or listener—it’s the furious music that keeps everyone awake.”
Critical Mass, (National Book Critics Circle blog)

Alex Lemon is an unstoppable phenom. He gets so much into a poem: so much world, such rich human voice, and he gets so terrifyingly close to both the self and the overwhelming Everything Else. He does this while making us look at the smallest, loveliest, worst, or plainest details at the oddest moments . . . Lemon’s art is transformative, staggering, and in the end, compassionate.
—Brenda Shaughnessy

The only thing more remarkable than Lemon’s linguistic muscle is the blood singing up from his gut.
—Terrance Hayes

“A Chaplinesque vaudeville, both mirthful and moving; a pure-gospel shout to the vaulted heavens; a hatful of abracadabras with a wink and a smile: Hallelujah Blackout is a muscular, vibrant book. Painful without being pitying, inventive without being showy, this is an astonishing, masterful collection of poems.”
—D. A. Powell

Praise for Mosquito

“Broken and brilliant, protean and written in blood, these poems are missives from the other side, the should-have-almost-died side, the burning-but-not-consumed side, and all Alex Lemon offers to console us are ‘the nails on [his] tongue.’ Mosquito introduces a thrilling new voice in American poetry.
—Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

“‘When I say hello, it means bite my heart,’ begins one of the poems in Alex Lemon’s startlingly raw and raucous first book. Speakers declare, ‘I am Hi-Fi, all of me is surround / sound,’ and describe a painting of the self as having ‘eyes like megaphones.’ Reading these poems is like having your five senses turned up to an almost unbearable volume. Sight: ‘I could see the patch of hair you’d missed shaving / glow on your calf like a gold brick in an Iowa cornfield.’ Sound: 'What named me, the moth pleads, banging jazz from light bulbs.’ Taste: ‘I eat fr’zen strawberries.’ Touch: ‘Maybe, the surgeon said, / caressing my head like a hurricane.’ Lemon’s ardent search for beauty and mercy in Mosquito is transformative and true.”
—Matthea Harvey, author of Sad Little Breathing Machine: Poems

“In these days of vast changes in American poetry, it is a joy to read the work of Alex Lemon. His poems pull the reader into a world of familiarities, while they confront daily experience in totally surprising ways. Mosquito means there is something there, so you better grab it before it disappears or becomes something else. It also means the vibrancy of these poems comes from the union between the microscopic and the panoramic—that focus of vision most poets spend a lifetime exploring. To show this kind of confidence and sense of direction means we have a major young poet on our hands. And, for poetry, that is the most vital gift it can receive.”
—Ray Gonzalez, author of Consideration of the Guitar: New and Selected Poems

"In this edgy, energetic, even frenetic debut from a rising star of the Midwest, Lemon's jagged, commanding voice both charms and shocks: 'Voice, be amazing/ circling the river bottom,' his leadoff poem instructs. The first section (of four) stuns with accessible yet intense language, and also with the events it appears to describe: brain surgery and the poet's slow recovery from it. 'Tomorrow my head opens,' he says; 'If I am still/ here, someone let me know what I am.' Subsequent poems steer clear of medical topics in favor of sparkling, slightly diffuse cascades of images: 'It is the year of the dismembered horse/ Bury me with bones instead of eyes.' Crackling extremes court melodrama knowingly, challenging readers to say when enough is enough. Lemon's rawness and intelligence have a fine, in-your-face excess. Physical violence—'chipped-teeth,' 'kicked-heart,/ dried blood'—recurs as experience and symbol, as do a series of crime novel and film noir backdrops: 'always, I’m decapitated,' Lemon claims, '& feel as though someone is tracing/ The zippers of my self-inflicted bites.' Above all, these poems make strong impressions, using their verbal surprises as confrontational flirtations, or else tiny explosives."
Publishers Weekly

"The poems in Alex Lemon’s striking first book document the experience of undergoing brain surgery, an agonizing recovery, and the sudden discovery of Eros, who finally emerges as the ultimate emblem of survival. Careful yet raw, the fresh sutures that comprise the lines in many of these poems sing of pain so sharply as to verge on ethereal. Yet, in other poems, Lemon approaches recollection as a butcher does a carcass, bludgeoning necessarily harsh and decisive strikes in order to determine the boundaries of his experience. Here, we have the body as poem: as Lemon so beautifully describes, 'Melodies drill deep wells in the chest.'”
—Cate Marvin, Ploughshares

Library Journal
Although I'm not much of one myself, I've always had a soft spot for talkers. It's ironic that some of the biggest talkers are also given to solitude, with their desire to unburden themselves a reflection of a life spent mostly alone and in silence. Lemon (Fancy Beasts) is a poet who jam-packs his work with living speech that embraces the globalized world's curious mixture of physical and virtual particulars. His latest volume demonstrates some of the electric loneliness that permeates the repertoire of big talkers, but the voice that propels it is intelligent and self-deprecating, both angry at the world and in love with it, too. Lemon's landscape allows for no passive objects: all possess emotional agency and glow with its potential. But exuberant speech is constantly in danger of becoming a monolog, an exercise in self-regard that threatens to exclude the audience altogether. While the poems here largely avoid that pratfall, it will be interesting to see how Lemon negotiates this issue going forward. VERDICT A lyrical book with plenty of jagged virtuosity; for those who like theater with their poetry.—Chris Pusateri, Jefferson Cty. P.L., Lakewood, CO

Product Details

Milkweed Editions
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Wish Book


By Alex Lemon

Milkweed Editions

Copyright © 2014 Alex Lemon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57131-450-5


    I Knew You Before You Were

    Rusty chains coiled in the cardboard box
    I carry to the dumpster & all I am

    Thinking is my face falling off & is yours
    Under it & or is someone's I don't

    Even know—further down, a stranger,
    A dead man, a saint, or just a sprawl

    Of gravel & then I'm thinking this other thing—
    There's a snake in this box, blacktailed

    & then more: there's a bottomless immensity
    Beneath my feet & what a sacrifice

    It is each day just to get by, this alchemy,
    This fevered life: illness & love,

    Lockjaw & slow-motion kidnappings—it is what
    It always is—chronic dying, shivering with

    Unbelievable joy & not knowing a damn thing
    About anything as lightning

    Jigsaws the horizon. At the garbage pile, I pause—
    Take a deep breath & sit on the curb.

    Like they're being sucked into the sky,
    The trees' limbs lift. No cars on

    The street—so quiet. So hushed I can
    Hardly breathe. Thousands of lives

    Are piled into all this dirt we walk
    On & I'm waiting, saving it all for you.

    After The World Did Not End

    I'm a big jellyfish,
    All grown-assed—I can

    Admit it now: I am
    A gelatinous head

    Inside of a head
    That smells of spit-

    Up diamonds that's
    Been jammed inside

    Another head that,
    Most certainly,

    In oftentimes slats
    Of moonlight, looks

    As if a mustache
    Has been Sharpied

    Above its lip.
    So what if the years

    Haven't taught me
    How to hold

    Another's hand,
    Tenderly, or drink

    Orange smoothies
    From the skull

    Of my enemies?
    My ribs don't cradle

    Me right & maybe
    I like feeling as if

    I'm slipping out
    Of the enormous hand

    That's puppeting me.
    But when the baby

    Cries & tears jewel
    His cheek's fat

    Ledges, I fit into
    Myself with the burn

    Of a dislocated
    Elbow being reset.

    Watching him
    Sleep today I'm on

    Fire. I want to
    Rip deep holes

    In my body & umbrella
    Over him—welcome

    His shallow breaths
    Into me as he rocks

    A clockwise circle,
    Eyelids tremoring

    With white-hot dreams.

    Ghost Rock

    O there are so many
    Mixed signals in this life—
    This way, highway, that
    Half, no way, not even

    Halfway. The next day
    Is all Beep. Bop. Boop.
    Can you hear me
    Now, motherfucker?

    But you & I are both lost,
    O so lost. At night, God,
    Or some other blowhard,
    Whispered in my dreams,

    If you love danger you'll die
    By it,
so I stopped playing tag
    With bottle rockets & Roman
    Candles. The fourth-story

    Window was no longer an option
    On the list of things I want
    To leap out of before I die.
    But I can't help it—I had to

    Smash through the sliding
    Door & pose like the Heisman
    Trophy to show all the people
    At my birthday party that glass

    & I are pretty much the same
    Thing. It's made me think
    About it a bit more. Both
    Billy Joel & Iron Maiden—
    Even that one-armed drummer

    From Def Leppard—say only
    The good die young, right?
    So, what about being a bit
    Of both? Containing more

    Than they want me to?
    I know, I know, who do I
    Think I am? I can hardly
    Fathom the one thing I want

    To know: when I flatten a hand
    Against my sleeping boy's belly
    Why do I feel a tiny paradise howling
    Through my ribs? The way we fawn over

    The untarnished beauty of skin
    Is precious & cancerous, I suppose.
    What is he, but a pulsing sack
    Of wheeze? Help me, please.

    Tell me, please. I will beg.
    What is this rough magic
    That fills me, this blaze
    That keeps pushing us on?

    Still Life With Birthday Cake
    & Dynamite

    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. I've never been
    To Baton Rouge. But I've lived

    In an apartment where something
    The realtor wouldn't speak

    About happened. It was amazing,
    How life was altered as I sat

    In the living room eating a bowl
    Of rice, imagining what kind of

    Butchery happened—the stained
    Hardwood beneath my coffee

    Table. Just like today's clouds.
    Plumes of acrid smoke are

    Wafting above the city & somehow,
    I woke with good vibes, thinking

    Today was still going to be
    A good day. All of the ghosts

    Were creep-crawling around
    The sugar bowl, right where

    I can keep an eye on them.
    & that rusty spoon, that bent

    Up piece of scrap? Hold the warm
    Metal to your lips, my little man.

    It's been burning, buried
    In my chest for years.


Excerpted from The Wish Book by Alex Lemon. Copyright © 2014 Alex Lemon. Excerpted by permission of Milkweed Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alex Lemon is the author of Happy: A Memoir (Scribner), the poetry collections Fancy Beasts (Milkweed Editions), Hallelujah Blackout (Milkweed Editions), and Mosquito (Tin House Books). His writing has appeared in Esquire, Best American Poetry 2008, AGNI, BOMB, Gulf Coast, jubilat, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Open City, Pleiades and Tin House, among others. He was awarded a 2005 Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and a 2006 Minnesota Arts Board Grant. He co-edits LUNA: A Journal of Poetry and Translation with Ray Gonzalez and frequently writes book reviews. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas and teaches at Texas Christian University.

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