By Stephen Scott Whitaker
The Fire Eater, Jose Hernandez Diaz’s debut chapbook from Texas Review Press delights, and surprises. The collection is joyous, full of everyday struggle, and gratitude, and woven with a kind of relaxed surrealism that mostly manifests via the speaker and narrative as the poems deconstruct 21st-century life.
Throughout The Fire Eater, a warm, grateful ethos rises up in the California sunshine. A life creating art is far from perfect, and The Fire Eater reminds, that each day ends, and in ending, offers up a wheel of hope for the next day, and the next, and the next. Simple living, the satisfaction in paying the bills, playing a new composition, or painting a new painting, or cooking a meal is celebrated. Diaz’s use of character, skeleton, mime, man, etc both deconstruct and create a California, an America, full of hope. In “Skeleton at Bat”, from later in the collection, Diaz writes:
“ When the man in a Pink Floyd shirt woke up the next day, he rode his longboard to the Venice Boardwalk. He sold his painting for $150. He considered it a successful day. He went home and ate and then watched the Dodger game. Later, when he finished watching the game, he decided to paint a skeleton with a Dodgers jersey, swinging a bat at Dodger Stadium under the lights.”
This poem epitomizes The Fire Eater’s quotidian magic, one that hums with “I do this, I do that” energy. Much of the spark of The Fire Eater is ignited by motion, action, absurd at times, the speaker en route, as if on an adventure.
The Fire Eater also exudes solitude, and at times feels almost lonely. The poems predominantly feature a single “protagonist”, from the everyday “man” to the slightly surreal “mime”, or the fabulous “skeleton” or the eponymous “Fire Eater” and even the “Man in a Pink Floyd Shirt”. His characters are solitary, not quite monkish, and their collective weight lends The Fire Eater its romantic artist trope. Diaz even sends his speakers to the moon, more than once, with three different subjects; contemplation from the heavens looking down in The Fire Eater highlight humanity’s spiritual condition, sometimes we all are as emotionally distant as the heavens, sometimes it’s necessary for creation, sometimes it’s necessary for survival.
Contextually, Diaz draws on his neighborhood, his Los Angeles, and subcultures of writers and artists and craftspeople, not to mention pop culture, which gives The Fire Eater its simmering surrealism. American readers will likely be reminded of Russell Edson, but Diaz’s surrealism is far less savage. This is in part due to Diaz’s celebration of creation rather than destruction. Diaz doesn’t accelerate the emotional tone through elevated diction, instead, he uses sparse prose, such as “They begin to build a civilization of skeletons. They elected officials. They danced in nightclubs,” from section three’s The Skeleton and the Book”, or “The skeleton walked in a park in spring...It sat down at a bush and started to draw what it saw,” from “The Skeleton in the Park”. These aren’t your comic book nerd skeletons, these are stand-ins for humanity, an analogy, or just as easily a person wearing a skeleton t-shirt, as easily as it is simply a funny image, or an even a cool in-joke, or sly commentary on starving artists, not to mention a literal skeleton making art in sunny Los Angeles. The image resonates. The collection’s early absurdism features a man growing antlers and another eating leaves, one is empowered by his transfiguration, the other survives on nature, or possibly a muse, and while both are absurd, the tone remains warm, loving, amused, even. I’m not sure it even matters if readers make meaning of surrealism or absurdity. After all, the medium is self-diagnostic; the reader constructs their own meaning to The Fire Eater’s imagery. What burns through is Diaz’s warmth for artists and the larger community, not to mention humanity as a whole. The artists in these poems experience the world in the same way the non-artists do, one struggle at a time, one day at a time. He strips the romance from the lifestyle. Diaz knows that the culture grinds people into a red paste between its fingers, but instead celebrates small victories, offers hope.
Made up of prose poems, The Fire Eater wields telegraphic, short bursts of energy, data, and varying speed. These are poems that often tell who, what, when, where, and why, and in short order. Diaz refrains from rhyme, relying on simple sentences and brevity to flex against complex sentences for rhythm and surprise. Consider these lines from “The Balloon and the Helicopter” where Diaz begins with short bursts and then after the beat, or when the emotion changes, Diaz begins adding clauses to the sentence stem, before slipping back into a simple sentence rhythm:
“A man in a Pink Floyd shirt sat by a window. He saw a balloon rise and rise. The balloon crashed into a helicopter. The helicopter sliced the balloon into countless pieces. The man in a Pink Floyd shirt laughed and laughed. It began to rain. The man in a Pink Floyd shirt pulled a book from the shelf. The book was called, The Balloon and the Helicopter. He opened the book, closed it, and went to the kitchen to make coffee. He couldn’t find coffee, so he decided to go to the store. When he opened the door, he found hundreds if not thousands of pieces of balloon on the front porch. The man in a Pink Floyd shirt laughed and laughed. What a day, he said to himself. What a day?”
Like a trombone player, he offers up short notes before a long sliding note towards a crescendo. The Fire Eater’s verse functions well as prose, the strange or the novel knock elbows with the not-so-strange, one flowing into the next, though readers will bring their own expectations with regards to prose poems, and function.
The Fire Eater is also funny. Satirical at times, and at times tragically funny, The Fire Eater juggles comedy, loss, and gratitude. It’s a sweet book, even. In “The Mountain Man” the main character has decided to climb a mountain, later when he reaches the top, victorious, Diaz undercuts the triumph with a bit of humor and a bit of love:
“Then he started to build a fire. He roasted some chicken and vegetables. When he finished eating, he started to write a letter to his 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Cranford. The letter began: Dear Mrs. Cranford, Thank you for all your kindness and support.”
The character later sends his book of photography to his teacher. The Fire Eater opens its heart and arms to the world, while at the same time laughing in the face of everyday awfulness.
Diaz crafts poems from simple language about humanity’s complex routines, humanity’s love of creating art, not to mention humanity’s quiet struggles in a culture loud with noise. Instead of a fire that rages and suffers, Diaz gives us a warm loving embrace, a fire that revives.
Stephen Scott Whitaker is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His poems have appeared in The Crab Creek Review, The Scores, Oxford Poetry, Third Wednesday, and other journals. His fiction has appeared in Helios Quarterly, The Dime Show Review, and Common Oddities Slideshow, and other journals. Mulch, his novel of weird fiction is forthcoming from Montag Press.