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 th