Review by Alejandro Escude
by David Hernandez
2234 Dundee Road, Suite 200
Louisville, KY 40205
ISBN 13 978-1-932511-96-3
2011, 75 pp., $14.95
I first came across the work of David Hernandez when I read “Mosul” in The Kenyon Review. I got that weird pang of jealousy mixed with awe every poet gets whenever they come across an amazing poem they wished they’d written. This is a poet who’s actually capable of writing memorable signature poems. And I say that knowing full well there’s a lot of poetry published today that contains absolutely nothing “signature.”
Poems like “On Aggression” and “Everything I’m About to Tell You Actually Happened” are instant classics in my book. The description in “On Aggression” of the speaker fighting to retrieve a bird from a cat’s mouth is both comical and disturbing, rendered with a light touch reminiscent of William Carlos Williams. In the final lines, after the speaker successfully retrieves the dying bird from the cat, Hernandez writes, “The world slowed then, the blood cooled./Far off, wind jostled wind chimes—/the sound of a broom/endlessly sweeping broken glass.” That last metaphor is masterful. I love the sound of wind chimes, and I particularly admire how the poet manages to work the chimes into a metaphor that is at once appropriate to the subject (the mundane quality of death), and at the same time conveys, at least for me, an international or worldly poetic spirit, perhaps because the sound of a sweeping broom is more ubiquitous in other parts of the globe than it is here in Southern California.
In “Everything I’m About to Tell You Actually Happened,” Hernandez again employs that light touch but toward describing a family during Christmas. How many poets have wanted to capture the smorgasbord of emotions, images, exchanges, and issues that arise during this time of year? Hernandez actually accomplishes that task, utilizing snappy, clipped lines, humor, and precision: “Doorbell rings. It’s Jesus. Drops of blood/fall from his body like a torn rag of rubies./Together we take him apart and seal him/inside a box labeled MR. KILL JOY.” All at once, Hernandez hits us with subtle religious commentary, a humorous depiction of this particular family’s manner of celebrating the holiday, and expert use of figurative language. Describing the blood as “a torn rag of rubies” is both reverent and over the top, echoing most tawdry religious depictions. But labeling Jesus “MR. KILL JOY” is what really elevates this poem to a work of art. Who thinks of Jesus in this way? Is it the family, the speaker, the world? Perhaps, all of the above. Christmas is reduced to an event that can be boxed and labeled. It’s just fast food.
At the end of “Everything I’m About to Tell You Actually Happened,” Hernandez reveals his opinion on the matter in a subtle, yet convincing way, which is another thing I enjoy about this poet. Hernandez is not afraid to state opinions, but he does so while remaining aware of the strict requirements of the artful poem. He writes, “Picture a cardboard box at the bottom/of the well. Guess who’s inside it.” I like how the last line is missing a question mark. It’s a statement. The poet muses on the death of meaning. He’s not proud of the way the holiday is spent. He tells us so. The speaker in the poem is, in my opinion, a bit hard on the family. He comes across as slightly pompous, especially when he points out the brother’s error describing the taste of arsenic, which the speaker informs is tasteless. But there’s real emotion here, and one should admire a poet that doesn’t let all of their work drift into the miasma of Keats’ negative capability.
Some of Hernandez’ poems, however, approach the theme of death in a manner that is too simplistic. Poems like “Hornet’s Nest” and “The Body You’re Suited-up In” further illustrate the point of death being mundane, unavoidable and scary, but they aren’t as successful in my view as the same theme covered in “Mosul,” albeit with a political edge, or “Housefly,” which contains a wonderful concluding metaphor. These flaws, if you can call them that, are minor and point to a fearlessness in the work of Hernandez which I admire. “Hoodwinked” also includes the occasional gaudy metaphor–“the sun lays/its golden head on the horizon’s guillotine” in “Head Case,” for example, but that doesn’t deter from the strength of the collection in the least. You may come across a few of these and then suddenly be hit with the stunning description of God as “a silence/that was there from the beginning.” Hernandez takes on Bukowski-like subjects, especially in “Married And,” and “Hangover,” and at times reads like Rilke, Williams, Dickinson, and even Stevens. It’s all in there—-but in the final analysis, he’s a poet with a gutsy voice all his own.
Alejandro Escudé is a husband, father, and teacher. He lives in Los Angeles and has a master’s degree in creative writing from UC Davis, where he won the 2003 UC Poet Laureate Award. Among other journals, his work has appeared in California Quarterly, The Lilliput Review, Main Street Rag, Phoebe, and Rattle. A chapbook entitled Where Else But Here was published by March Street Press, December 2005. Another chapbook, Unknown Physics, was published in 2007, also by March Street Press. He is originally from Argentina. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org