The Fire Eater by Jose Hernandez Diaz / Texas Review Press / 978-1-68003-208-6 / February 14, 2020
Jose Hernandez Diaz’s debut chapbook of prose poems is a delightful exploration of the possibilities of repetition, a stabilizing force in a world designed to disorient, and a reminder of the power of a persistent goodwill. Titled after the first prose poem that appears in the collection, The Fire Eater is bursting with Southern Californian and Mexican culture. Citing writers such as Franz Kafka and James Tate as his inspirations, Hernandez-Diaz authors vignettes that move between whimsicality and existentialism. He makes sure to immediately orient his readers towards the surprising clarity that emerges from his poems’ sometimes contradictory absurdity: within the first three pages of the collection, the image of fire moves from a mode of labor to an urgent prison, eventually becoming a sentient skateboard-rider, with its own desires, pastimes, and philosophies.
The poet’s use of absurdity is far from directionless—by crafting fictional circumstances that range between the overly formal and the explicitly nonsensical, Hernandez-Diaz draws our attention to the strangeness of our own mundane, everyday lives and the customs by which they are comprised. In one prose poem, appropriately titled, “The Mime and the Music,” a mime brings a boombox to a city park. He plays music from the boombox and then proceeds to do as mimes do, using the space between his hands to suggest the possibility of manifesting sounds out of thin air. Hernandez-Diaz makes this at once a spectacle and an ordinary occurrence. The sentences that form this poem are musically rhythmic; the syntax’s short, quick bursts and the anaphora centering the mime (“He pressed play…He pretended to open…He mimed…He closed his eyes…He nodded”) serve to augment the peculiarity of the mime’s actions, lulling the reader into a complacent witnessing of the mime’s performance. Despite all this, the poet makes sure to end the poem emphasizing the narrator’s own genuineness and the moral fortitude of the communities watching the mime: “The crowd was very pleased with all of his performances. Plenty of people tipped money into his top hat. It was a matter of respect.” The abandonment of anaphora serves to augment the turn of the poem—a rejection of the power imbalance that so often accompanies the duality of the watcher and the performer. Not once is the mime laughed at, belittled, or made an object of some witness’ gaze; rather, he is celebrated (“The small crowd cheered.”), his dedication is recognized (“…he pretended to play on his knee, very passionately.”), and an ordinary street performer is given the respect of an established, celebrated artist.
The turn is so well-executed that one has to wonder why they might consider it to be a turn at all. What, truly, is the difference between three young men, playing horn, drum, and guitar in a park, and members of an awarded band playing an ornate concert hall? If both create beautiful music—what is differentiating these performers, and why? The prose poems in The Fire Eater are free of these restrictive social inhibitions. They approach every event as a marvel, each task and responsibility with joy.
This is the earnest feeling that comes to define the poems of Jose Hernandez-Diaz; the proceeding poem ends with a refrain in a similar mode. Titled, “The Moon,” the poem features a man who “woke up on the surface of the moon,” remembering “his childhood in California. How he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up.” The poem’s final line, “Nothing could stop him now,” harkens back to the ninth poem in the collection, featuring a man riding a longboard throughout Downtown Los Angeles. He feels “as if he were flying and everything were okay. Nothing could stop him now.” There is a distance between these two poems—physical in the context of the contents of the chapbook, but also one that is chronologically suggestive enough to allow speculations of connectivity. Are these the same person? The second section of the chapbook features nine individual prose poems that all introduce their central character as “a/the man in a Pink Floyd shirt.” Are these the same person? In the world of The Fire Eater, the answer to that question is not regarded as productive, but as irrelevant altogether—what is far more interesting to the poet is the possibility the question itself poses.
In my personal favorite poem in the collection, titled, “The Astronaut,” Hernandez-Diaz flexes the techniques that define his poetry in this collection: the poem is a masterclass in finding peace among disorientation, all the while referencing so many other poems in The Fire Eater altogether. Featuring the aforementioned man in a Pink Floyd shirt, the poem watches him awaken on his couch, mid-party, one at which, he shortly discovers, he is hosting, although he is unable to recognize any of his guests. He soon discovers that he is the party’s subject, that his achievements are the ones being praised:
“We are celebrating your graduation from Astronaut training, of course,” the man in the green sweater said. “Of course,” the man in a Pink Floyd shirt said. He didn’t actually recall being an Astronaut. In fact, he hated math and science. Was more of an arts and crafts guy. Besides, he had an incredible fear of heights.
When the man in the Pink Floyd shirt is compelled to deliver a toast, Hernandez-Diaz once again demonstrates his ability to orient his characters towards a sort of moral purity that is endearing and inspiring all at once. The man in the Pink Floyd clears his throat, saying
“I’d like to thank you all for coming tonight. I’m honored by your presence. I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since I was a little boy growing up in the mountains of Arizona. I used to dream about existence beyond the clouds. Now my dreams are coming true. Reach for the stars, friends. Never let fear defeat you. Cheers to space! Cheers to all of you!”
The poet sets up an expectation of hostility—there are strangers in a man’s house, and although it is his house, he is somehow simultaneously in an unrecognizable environment. Instead of succumbing to the bitter aggression accompanies individualism, the man in the Pink Floyd shirt realizes that this house is still his, and he is a host. He therefore responds with generosity and takes the opportunity to celebrate those around him, believing in their sincerity, that they are all here for his achievements.
The man in the Pink Floyd shirt’s fluidity in this scene is a continual reminder of the chapbook’s emphasis on possibility. When he falls asleep and dreams of “Another galaxy, even,” it demonstrates the lack of barriers between two locations, or people. A boy can be a street performer and a concert hall pianist; a fire eater can be a skateboarder and an astronaut. The President of Mars can offer hats in exchange for votes; a saint can be bad at poker among the stars. I adore the possibility of Jose Hernandez-Diaz’s poems. I want to see the world as he sees it, to manifest his poems’ delightful absurdity in my own everyday.