Last Wednesday the Butte College Reading Series welcomed poet Gary Lemons, who is touring California promoting his new collection of poetry titled Snake (Red Hen Press). Despite having less than favorable weather conditions and this reading overlapping with Game 1 of the World Series, we had quite a turnout.
Gary started by talking about his background and the different jobs he’s held throughout his life. At one point he was working on a fishing boat as a slimer in hopes of becoming a welder. This particular ship was originally used by the Navy during World War II to transport the bodies of dead American soldiers. Now, the three-floor freezer that once kept the bodies of fallen soldiers from rotting was used to store fish. Working in this haunted place inspired the 25-page Homer-esque poem that is the centerpiece of Lemons’ collection Bristol Bay. Gary read several sections from this poem, which recounted feeling the souls of those men and how eerie, quiet, and still it was.
Lemons read two other poems from Bristol Bay, “Voodoo Economics” and “In Memory of Nadia Anjuman, 1980-2005.” The first Gary wrote as a cautionary reminder to himself to not become the thing he is fighting against. The second honors a 20-year-old Afghan woman who was stoned to death for writing poetry. Both were beautiful and the left the room in silent contemplation.
Then Gary shifted into poems from his new book, Snake. If you were unable to attend Wednesday’s reading, I would recommend trying to catch Lemons reading at some other location. Snake is a collection whose poems need to heard, not read. The only creature left on earth, Snake, who is the speaker throughout the book, is a minimalist and speaks in a way that expresses this. The poems have a certain tempo that makes them an absolute delight to hear.
For me what made Gary’s poems so fascinating was the stories behind them. Take Snake for example; Gary explained that the entire book just flowed out of him. He let it go, he did not try to inhibit the process. Some poems were dreams and others just gushed like open wounds. He did not edit or revise until after all the poems were out of him. As he described this process, he gave some of the best advice I have heard in a long while, “Don’t ever get in the way of yourself.”
As he read poems from Snake, some attendees who were following along with the book noticed he was editing as he read, leaving out a line or word here, adding something there. He said he does this because poetry is alive, always changing and developing. The poems from Snake deal with the issues we are currently facing in politics, consumerism, and the natural world around us. Gary said he is still trying to find all the meaning in each of them. Because they just came to him, he still isn’t conscious of all the messages being transmitted, he just knew they had to be written down.
Gary read five or six poems from Snake, but the last one was by far my favorite. It is titled “Voices,” and once again the story behind it is just unreal. He had a 16-year-old dog named Lila, to whom the poem is dedicated. Towards the end of her life, when she was blind and could no longer walk, Gary would sleep with her so that he could take her out during the night. One night, Lila woke him from a dream where a message was being repeated. He grabbed the book by his bedside and wrote down the words that were repeated in his dream on the inside cover. He wrote them down phonetically because the language was one that doesn’t exist; it is perhaps a mixture of German, Spanish, and Latin. He said he stared at it for weeks before he finally saw a poem in English embedded in this bizarre message. He described that moment as finally seeing Waldo after staring at a page of nonsense for a long period of time. The poem that was hidden in that dream reads:
In the dust in the wind
In the tide in the hearts
No longer visible
We are alive please hear us
And though he never cries
He never forgets
Intense. Gary read the full poem in the language in which he originally heard it and then read the English poem. The audience was absolutely blown away and requested an encore reading, which did not disappoint.
This was by far one of the best readings I have been to; Gary is amazing man, and it was a honor to hear him read his work. I highly recommend purchasing one of his books of poetry, and if you ever have the chance to hear him read do not let his words pass you up.
For more information on Gary or to purchase his work, please visit the following: