Emergency Hallelujah (Jason Heroux)

For pseudo-surrealism at its elegant best, see Emergency Hallelujah. Jason Heroux’s second collection is less raw and vivid than his first (Memoirs of an Alias, also published by Mansfield), but more accomplished and assured.

Heroux does not always work in a pseudo- or quasi-surrealistic mode, but is best when he does, with a knack for gorgeous, moving, lush, and dark imagery:

A small forest
walking through us
has lost its way.
. . . 
We should find the leaves before they forget about us.
Every evening in the city, clocks eat from their troughs
and our shadows lengthen in the street
like dark receipts from a concrete cash register. 
As if this life can be returned to the store for another.
But there is no other life. There is barely this one.
We feel the lost forest inside us closing its eyes. 

(“Lost Forest” 42)

The conceit is established with bold declaration, and exhilarating turns (“We should find the leaves before they forget about us”). Heroux masterfully develops the poem’s strange conceit and takes it into bizarre places while still maintaining a poetic logic (notice how adeptly Heroux moves us from shadows as “dark receipts” to the to the sidewalk as a “concrete cash register” and then develops this into an epiphanic insight). 

Heroux even manages to revitalize the soap opera cliché of us having only “one life to live” by noting that we “barely” have this. To some degree he can accomplish these resuscitations because his images, like that of the “lost forest,” are struck through with a melancholy that can combat cliché.

Many poems forgo the richness of somewhat surreal metaphor for simpler imagery, but retain a certain pathos. It’s worth quoting a short poem in full to illuminate this:

There is a sorrow in the world no one owns.
It is dark and early, a quiet Sunday morning.
The snow has fallen where it doesn’t belong. 
And a heavy snowplow is clearing the roads.

(“A Heavy Snowplow Is Clearing the Roads” 11)

What this poem lacks in richness it makes up for in brevity. Should we thus chide Heroux for a lack of ambition? Some poets manage more than Heroux but Heroux’s effects are more consistent, even if his range within this book is broad.

Heroux often makes strong use of repetition, as in “Next Door,” where he writes:

My next-door neighbour is dying next door
… It saddens me
four times a month to see how little garbage the dying have (16)

Again, Heroux heightens a simple image (like that of the snowplow) through careful presentation and well-chosen repetitions. At times, Heroux also marries this penchant for repetition and minimalist-leaning precision to his powerful imagery. Although heavy-handed, the poem “I Desire a Normal World” packs a punch:

I desire a normal world
full of normal 
atomic bombs
to make us feel safe
at night when we’re dead. (39)

Heroux knows when to end a poem, and is more content to let an idea sit on the page without forcing its elevation. In his prose poems, Heroux attempts more fruitful complications. One of his best poems presents a playful, twisted, and disturbing metafictional nightmare:

The dog woke up and stretched his legs. But I’m not a dog, the dog said. I’m a human being. The dog took a shower, ate some breakfast, and drove to work. Please stop calling me a dog, the dog said. You’re giving people the wrong impression — it’s not fair. After work the dog drove home, watched some television, and then prepared dinner. Listen, whoever you are, for the last time, I’m not a dog, the dog said, and looked a little sad. The dog started to cry. But I’m not even crying. This is ridiculous, the dog said, with tears in his eyes. 

(“The Dog Woke Up” 18)

Although funny, the poem contains a real sense of terror — the frustration of this “dog” borders on panic. While meditating on our daily dehumanizations, the poet dehumanizes his (lyrical) subject — a clever and complicated approach to both the material itself and the problem of treating these very questions as material.

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