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When Life Gives You Lemon(s), Write a Memoir: A Conversation with Alex Lemon

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“We do not want to hurt anyone else no matter what.”

This is Alex Lemon to his young son in FEVERLAND: A MEMOIR IN SHARDS, which tracks Lemon’s career as a medical patient: strokes, brain bleeds, nystagmus. The book starts with an EKG and a quick string of “I hearts.” “I heart the heaving,” writes Lemon. “I heart banging my head when I fall in the shower, banging my head on the curb. I heart making out in the ghosting cold. I heart the lips warm. I heart shame on me.” The book also traces Lemon’s trauma of childhood sexual abuse, years spent as a practicing addict doped up and screwed up, and his unexpected landing into fatherhood after an adolescence where he says he only cared about himself.

FEVERLAND is Lemon’s second memoir. HAPPY (his nickname in college) was his first, a work documenting the relationship with his mother in the turmoil of his medical unraveling. Yet the bulk of Lemon’s work is poetry. “I’m a poet at my core,” he tells me. His poems are intense, immediate, all the revving engines of a biker rally at once. His “poet-at-my-core” attitude sets FEVERLAND apart; he’s aware of form, of language’s progression and mailability. He’s not interested in a narrative but an experience.

Feverland: A Memoir in Shards Cover Image
ISBN: 9781571313362
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Milkweed Editions - September 19th, 2017

Lemon invited me to his home on a recent Friday afternoon to talk. From the outside, it’s a typical suburban home: cars in the driveway, a covered front porch. As I approach, Lemon greets me like I’ve known him for years, like I’ve finally made it back to Texas for a visit, his tattoo-sleeved arm extending a Southern-man handshake and eventual introduction to his toddler, Alma (who’s just woken from a nap). The front room is a mixture of books, abstract paintings and Legos (a castle constructed for a toy dinosaur). I get the tour. Every room is tinged with a child’s curiosity: a sculpted life-size R2D2, a clothesline of monster drawings, a traffic jam of matchbox cars. As I watch Lemon and Alma, all the questions I had about the book no longer matter. He hugs and kisses her as she laughs and asks for various things: cheese, the blue car, help putting on cowgirl boots which she’s outgrown and is seemingly upset over until Lemon offers something better: gummies. I tell him I’m taking in his dad techniques.

The three of us sit at the kitchen table. Lemon and Alma each have their own water, but she wants his so they share. His “Resist” t-shirt becomes her napkin and they’re unbelievably happy. In FEVERLAND, Alex writes, “I do not want to remember that man, the person I was…I want him to stay in the past tense. But always I think of him. There is too much failure inside me still…I try to love him, forgive, but it’s impossible.” What feels impossible is to trace where this Alex is right in front of me; his past-tense-self feels absent alongside his role as a father, but surely it still persists, maybe at the moment out of reach. We talk about recovery (he’s been clean since he was 27) and the process of loving yourself. I ask him if he does love himself. He pauses, tells me I’ve gone right to the big one and then mentions how difficult the mirror can be for a man in conflict with himself. I tell him I’m skeptical of anyone who says, “I love who I am,” and he laughs.

FEVERLAND is a collage of memory and philosophy. Lemon artfully weaves ideas in and out of each other, placing anecdotes and vignettes side by side to create the “third thing,” an unforeseen experience through the friction of disparate parts. Images resurface, but far enough apart from their original placement for the reader to discover a new context for their being. We learn of his incestuous sexual abuse and how he processes writing about it, “As I write this today, my hands tremble. My chest feels filled with wasps.” With Alma in his arms trying to feed him cheese (he fakes taking a bite and tells her it’s good, another dad technique I’ve spotted), I can’t help but mention a line from the book where he’s afraid he’ll end up on an episode of To Catch a Predator. I ask him about that fear and he tells me it’s how he used to make sense of and understand victims of molestation, that they’d go on to do the same. It was a time when he felt he was not allowed to talk about how he felt so his worldview was narrow, guessing at how things were: “You are expected to be a man…and never tell anyone how you really feel.”

But Alex has changed. His ability to capture and preserve exactly how he feels through his prose and poetry is blatant. He tells me with the news of DACA and the hurricanes that at some point this week, he’ll cry; he knows it and isn’t ashamed to say it. That’s what FEVERLAND is, an arc of a boy “trapped in the air by pain and anger” that has found in himself the desire to keep living in spite of suffering and stumbles upon an “unquenchable love.” He tells me his kids know he loves them unconditionally, Alma handing him a GOOSEBUMPS book to read.

We end the visit recording Lemon sitting in an armchair in the front room, Alma in his lap, Lemon reading his poem “Mosquito,” his precise recitation mixed with Alma’s babble. And surely this is what FEVERLAND is at its most pure: childhood and adulthood face-to-face, their arms wrapped around each other. “The heart, I heart. I heart.”

Alex Lemon signs FEVERLAND on Tuesday, September 19 at 7PM