Jose Hernandez Diaz’s debut chapbook The Fire Eater (Texas Review Press, 2020) is a subtle and endearing surrealist love letter to the life of the everyday artist. A dedicated student of the American prose poetry tradition, Hernandez Diaz writes with the absurdist flair of Russell Edson while staying true to Ray Gonzalez’s assertion that prose poems “condense the world into a tiny paragraph [containing] huge worlds trying to get out.” Hernandez Diaz’s worlds are populated by a litany of playfully juxtaposing characters, their stories full of a pure, yet quiet momentum for living. Yet like his talented and extraordinary ensemble, Hernandez Diaz subtly ties all of these narratives together with a parable-like prose, a deep regard for respect, and a commentary on time that quietly asks us, what is a life fully lived?
Across 40 pages, these poems feature an array of voices – a man playing guitar on the moon, a mime performing with an imaginary saxophone, a man in a Pink Floyd t-shirt digging a hole to hell, a skeleton reading a book – and these voices build in reverberation. Each character’s story is written in a sparse, deft style that covers a quiet, yet endearing, heartbeat. In “How Far Is the Moon?” we see Hernandez Diaz’s craft most clearly:
“A man played an acoustic guitar on the surface of the moon. He didn’t float away. He
looked at the earth in the distance. It reminded him of his family in California: nostalgia. Then he looked at the stars.
Next, he played a song he’d written. It was called, ‘How Far Is the Moon?’ It was about
his experience on the moon but also autumn. When he finished playing, he took out a cigarette and took a drag. Only one thought remained: none of the stars are the same.”
The absurdity of this story is delivered with a matter-of-fact tone. In doing so Hernandez Diaz mines this impossible experience for the very human emotions of nostalgia and familial connection. Music becomes the vehicle to document these emotions as the man writes a song, yet surprisingly the song’s title is also the title of the poem. A feedback loop is created, where the man in the poem is both the poet himself and a commentary on the process of finding the inspiration to create art.
We find this same feedback loop occurring in numerous poems as Hernandez Diaz repeatedly offers origin stories for his titles within the poems themselves. Artists then occupy a tender space for Hernandez Diaz as he recounts the hustle of trying to pursue such a lifestyle. There is a fire eater who dreams of being discovered, a starving artist who survives by eating leaves, a saxophonist playing for tips, and a mime miming a music concert. While a handful of these characters name their hardships, it is only in passing as Hernandez Diaz chooses to highlight the mundane yet magical aspects of people creating and enjoying art.
“Sunflowers in the City” showcases this delicate balance of the mundane and magical. The poem reads,
“A man fell asleep on the subway. He woke up in another city. When he got off the train,
it began to rain sunflowers. It was the middle of winter. He lit a cigarette and walked to a
park. He sat on a graffitied bench and wrote a poem. The poem was about sunflowers, winter, and the city. He went to the library and submitted the poem to various literary magazines. He titled it, ‘Sunflowers in the City.’”
This is Hernandez Diaz at his best, as he showcases both the mundane grind of submitting to publications as a writer as well as the experience of seeing something, impossible or not, and being inspired. Similarly, we see another artist’s slice of life in “The Mime and the Music” where a mime plays an imaginary saxophone so well a crowd gathers and cheers him on. The poem ends with the lines “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.” This idea of “respect” features prominently in this collection as Hernandez Diaz returns to it again and again, most often to comment on how the public engages with artists. Hernandez Diaz sets a clear example of respect through his presentation of his characters. Buried just below the surface of surrealism are real people, living real lives, and Hernandez Diaz respects their stories enough to not interfere with sentiment or judgement. Except to say, use your time to the fullest.
Throughout these poems, Hernandez Diaz charts the strange looping of time itself. In a handful of poems, he marks the changing of the seasons, often out of order. Characters passively mention “It was the middle of winter”, “It was autumn, in fact”, or “It was just turning into spring.” This reoccurring trope betrays a concern with how time functions, not in a linear sense, but as a parable-like commentary on life itself.
As we saw in “How Far Is the Moon?” above, time away from family invokes nostalgia, inspiring the title of the song. In “Sunflowers in the City”, the man falls asleep and wakes up in a completely new place, with no description of how he got there or how much time has passed. In both these poems and many more, there is a commentary on time as an exchange, an interaction with the world and the people, animals, and nature that we find within it.
Hernandez Diaz, through his deft style and deep respect for his characters, offers a way of looking at time as cyclical and communal, just like art itself. As the skeleton of his last poem, “The Skeleton and the Piano”, ponders time in relation to his mother, we see both the weight of the past and the possibilities for the future:
“The skeleton sat deep in thought. His mother had taught him how to play [piano] when
he was a young skeleton. She’d been deceased for a century. A crow landed on the piano
as he played. The skeleton smiled at it. [ ] He wondered where the time had gone.”
In a recent interview with Poet Kind Podcast, Hernandez Diaz spoke on the concept of the skeleton, saying “it has lived an entire life, so it wears it’s heart on its sleeve.” The passage of time itself invokes reflection, and in doing so offers the possibility of shifting the way we live from that point forward. Just as autumn is a transitional marker, Hernandez Diaz unveils his own “autumnal heart”, one deeply concerned with the everyday magic and mundanity of human interaction and artistic creation as well as its ability to offer new avenues for living.
- Live like the Skeleton: A Review of The Fire Eater by Jose Hernandez Diaz - December 15, 2021