Poem of the Week | January 22, 2013

This week we’re kicking off the new semester with a new doozy by Alex Lemon. Lemon is the author of Happy: A Memoir and three collections of poetry: Mosquito, Hallelujah Blackout, and Fancy Beasts. A fourth collection is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. He lives in Ft. Worth, Texas, and teaches at TCU.

Author’s Note:

“I Knew You Before You Were” is one of the cornucopia of poems I’ve written in the months leading up to, and following, the birth of my son—poems that will appear in my fourth collection of poems: The Wish Book (forthcoming from Milkweed Editions). The poem does a better job of articulating what it’s about than I can possible replicate here—but its focus is on an exploding-moment. A bit of time in which thought expands and worm-holes, where grace and fear weave, where worry and beauty live in the same cardboard moment, where anticipation and dread and gratitude can completely unmoor a person from the mundaneness of the day, and in that breaking-loose, that drifting normalness, become something extraordinary, something utterly heart-swelling.

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 is falling off & is yours
Under it & or is someone’s I don’t


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


Of gravel & then I’m thinking this other thing—
There’s a snake in the 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.