The Fire Eater
by Jose Hernandez Diaz
Texas A&M University Press, 2020
Surrealism is a flight against Oblivion. Taking to the winds of Memory on the magical wings of the supra-real. Reality through an extraordinary idea of Reality. What creates memory and what creates forgetfulness, surrealism asks us to ask ourselves. How do you create forgetfulness? Is it natural or is there an engine to it, a stillness that leads to the atrophying of memory or is there some autonomous motion where events propel themselves into nothingness? Routine becomes reflexive, which is somewhere between each, a memorization that’s become so unconscious we forget. It’s that realm of mastery where articulation escapes us, so we need to act out the action to take ourselves through its motions. A dancer not being able to quite explain how to do a move, so they perform the move to both demonstrate how it’s done but also tutorial it for themselves. Routine: when a moment defies routine, we remember it; when a moment is too routine, we forget it. We forget much of the day, sometimes we can recall nothing of the entire day when asked by someone the next day or even that very night what we did. Nothing, we say, because everything was so mundane it all blurred together. To say, I ate, I took a walk, I did this or did that would be impossible, so amalgamated they all became in the mind that each distinct act is a single act. Through that whole day we did one thing, we lived- but barely. When blessed with a moment that lifts us above routine (or even beneath it, a tragic moment, say) we remember it. Its reality exceeds what we think of as Reality, which is but Routine, or nothingness, blankness. If much of life is blankness and life is Reality, then how can art create memory, thus defy its own death, which is its relegation to the catalogs of the unreferenced, unread?
All reality must become extraordinary; there must be something that eclipses routine, that gives magic to the mundane. A sylph flies by you when looking out the window; a satyr runs by you in the garden; a nightingale tells you her name is Philomel; you see a flower leaning off a riverbank to stare into the water and twirl around in human motion; you see a skeleton walking along the pier with a balloon; the rain turns to sunflowers; a man turns into a deer from eating berries. These last three examples are taken from The Fire Eater a book of prose-poems by Jose Hernandez Diaz published earlier this year (2020) by Texas Review Press.
There is a natural fear when writing a book that that book will disappear briefly after being published. The short shelf-life of many poetry collections is testament to that; not that any of those publications’ merits are based on how long they are preserved in memory or that they’re diminished pieces of art because collective memory hasn’t kept them in mind as long as Book A or Book B. Rather, Memory is a random competition. We, the memorizers, have little say in what we remember. In the great debate of canonization, we like to herald greatness, mastery of some such style, some such power, various other impressive words because we prefer to sponsor choice being somehow involved in the shape of our civilization, our minds. The canon has, of late, undergone much more scrutiny and enough has been put forward about the spuriousness of these ingredients. Instead, trying to find some true commonality among all the factors that lead to a work’s longevity, one element that stands out personally is the memorability of the work. Having mentioned earlier the randomness of memorability this element is no less vexing or ultimately less exclusionary than any other of the big-idea factors, but memory is exclusive. Imagine remembering all of life, eidetic totality- every detail as exulted as every other, lack of significance through no discernable specialness of any one thing over another: life with no negations would be unbearable. Oblivion lends livelihood to life. Tragic necessity. All of this gets back to: how does work survive? Styles are evolutionary as all life is; texts are as organic as any species. One style of poetic self-preservation is surrealism, that style of augmenting reality with an ‘impossible’ occurrence that’s unheralded as the miraculous omen it is to us readers.
The three poems of Hernandez Diaz’s that provided the examples for the above surreal litany, respectively, are “The Skeleton at the Pier”, “Sunflowers in the City”, and “The Man and the Antlers”. In “The Skeleton at the Pier” life is as we are accustomed, it is only the protagonist of the poem that creates the memorable strangeness. A skeleton enjoys a day at the pier. The skeleton has a balloon with them. All about them pier-life is as expected. “Some seagulls landed on the pier looking for food,” around the skeleton as they smoke a cigarette; their enjoyment of the day takes them into evening, so the sun, obeying familiar custom, begins to set, the skeleton “[takes] a photo of the sunset” to post “on Instagram,” and bicycles home in the moonlight. We imagine all this taking place on a busy pier, people on dates, out with family, buying souvenirs, all while a skeleton also pursues these pleasures free from the grave, but nothing about life notices this aberration of nature. In “Sunflowers in the City”, a poem about thresholds and the rewards of crossing them, a man falls asleep on a subway to wake up in a different city. “When he got off the train, it began to rain sunflowers,” we are told, “in the middle of winter.” Unalarmed, the man goes to the park to smoke and write a poem on a “graffitied bench.” This new city brings the man another aberration of nature- the fusion of elements, water with earth, the rain of soil. What happens when we cross the boundaries of reality? We awake in a realm where our recognition of Nature mutates; Life, then, is how we react to the distortions of Reality. The man in the poem finds beauty in the strangeness, turns his comfortable disorientation into art, and submits “the poem to various literary magazines.” Having eaten some wild berries, the man in “The Man and the Antlers” undergoes a metamorphosis, becoming a deer. In this poem, the strangeness is met with alarm, with a worried wonder, as the man is “shocked” and runs about in circles crying “Why? Why?” The beauty of the situation overcomes him, as he discovers the strength and virility of his new form in the reflection of a creek, the antlers being “strong and sharp.” While confronting his new nature, Nature confronts him: a bear approaches, and quickly assimilating to his new reality, he charges at the bear “with force.” My credo, if I were to put one forward, as a reviewer, which is to say as a reader, is to learn, to take instruction. To find the good and read as generously as possible. Matters of taste will always win out when it comes down to ‘would you rather read this or that’, but when approaching a text and engaging with it as openly as possible and a willingness to be taught by antitheses, then even authors that are distant from personal predilection become teachers. ‘Read everything’ Faulkner said, let the organizing daemon in you sort it out. Leaving the classroom of The Fire Eater, what is there to tell those about to enter? That Hernandez Diaz gives a memorable world, each prose-poem offering us a strange episode where life is as much about what happens as how we encounter it. Even if the rainfall doesn’t turn to sunflowers, why not write a poem about it? Why not title it “Rain in the Park” and send it to all the literary magazines? Why not enjoy a day at the pier where the strangest thing that happens is you, out of the blue, carry around a childish balloon with a picture of a “shark on a surfboard” despite feeling odd doing it? Why not rediscover the beauty of your physical form staring into a creek in the woods despite the tired sameness that you sometimes feel when you encounter yourself in the mirror? Hernandez Diaz teaches us to that to change our perspective sometimes is as simple as changing our setting. In “Sunflowers in the City” going to a new place, crossing that threshold of the unfamiliar, was enough to produce the surrealistic response from nature. He teaches us that when we challenge life to give us more by crossing those boundaries life will sometimes reward us with the most memorable events. It’s not the surrealism of The Fire Eater that will linger in the memory of the readers, though it certainly is a strong component, but it’s the lessons that Hernandez Diaz imparts to us about perspective, nature, and the way we can change ourselves by inviting strangeness into our lives that gives this book its memorable quality.
- Surrealism as a Mode of Memory and Instruction in THE FIRE EATER - September 1, 2020