A book of poems with bite

Alex Lemon draws upon the pain of brain surgery in his first book, “Mosquito”

by Matt Graham

Most people don’t have to deal with their body’s betrayal until well into old age. But for Alex Lemon, a creative writing instructor at Macalester College and a University Master of Fine Arts grad, old age came early.

Lemon had his first stroke at age 18, during his first year of undergraduate study in political science at Macalester, and suffered two more by the end of his junior year.

He was a victim of an arteriovenous malformation, a mass of abnormal blood vessels in the brain that tends to hemorrhage (think Nathan Fisher from HBO’s “Six Feet Under”), and went from being “somebody who’d only had chicken pox to being somebody who couldn’t move” – quite the devastating change for a person who played four sports in high school and baseball in college.

But an interesting thing happened to Lemon during his years of surgery (surgeries which haven’t quite ended). After spending so much time staring death in the face, Lemon learned to appreciate life.

“Being alive is really cool,” he said.

His arms are covered with tattoos of fire and water, art which he said helped him to reclaim his body. But aside from allowing his body to be the canvas for ink-wielding tattoo artists, going through his ordeal allowed Lemon to find his own muse.

“Mosquito,” which will be released Aug. 28, is the product of Lemon’s harrowing ordeal. The powerful book of poems that came largely out of his master’s work at the University describes in visceral detail the 28-year-old’s bout with the Reaper.

“That book is really invested in the body,” he said.

Lemon’s body forces him to inhabit a strange world. Alhough he no longer needs a wheelchair to get around, he is very sensitive to stimuli, and has a left eye that won’t quite focus right.

“The world I live in is not very normal, because of the way I perceive it,” he said. “Everything is really kind of loud.

“My normal is not.

After some encouragement from his creative writing teachers at Macalester, Lemon enrolled in the University’s Master of Fine Arts program, an experience which he said was intimidating.

Because Lemon was a political science student in his undergraduate years, he came to the program ignorant of a lot of the literature his peers were reading. Although it made him feel out of place, adversity was nothing new for Lemon, and he said it lit a fire under him to outwork everybody.

“I was reading a book of poems a day during my graduate years,” he said. “I force myself to work.”

“Mosquito” is the result of that work. The poems in the book range from jagged experiments in free verse to more straightforward pieces, but there is a constant skill with rhythm and a knack for powerful, painful imagery.

Poems like “After” display his skills with image, such as “the maggot-house-meat / splayed before dogs – I am / that scab / peeled from the butcher’s midnight eyes.” Another standout is the more subtle but equally skillful “Cocoon,” which opens, “No matter how well we live, there will be mornings/when 3,000 pounds of jet fuel spill from an airplane / racing across the sky. Every Tuesday a farmer falls / against a pitchfork in the barn.”

The pieces tend to be on the dark side, although Lemon insists he’s a positive guy who’s not as scary as he comes off. Still, this is a person who is capable of saying with a smile, “We’re all going to have pain, and we’re all going to die.”

But before Lemon rides off into that dark night, he still has work to do. Aside from his teaching duties at Macalester, he is hard at work on another book of poems and what he says is a more humorous collection of fiction – this in addition to his coming memoir.

Lemon counts himself lucky for being able to get published at such a young age, when most writers are still struggling to get deals, but he makes clear that what he does is a labor of love.

“You can’t make a living as a poet,” he said. “You might be able to have a nice dinner every now and then, and buy a new pair of shoes, but that’s about it.”

Still, he does what he must. “(Not publishing) would be being dishonest to myself,” he said. “Too many people are just kind of apprehensive about being alive in a full way.

“You have to find what works for you and ride that horse until it dies.”