July fifth. My girlfriend and I are waiting on Chinese food to be delivered while the neighborhood kids work their way through buckets of excess firecrackers and I come across a book I thought I’d lost—Always Danger by David Hernandez, a slick little volume with combusting matches on the cover. Pretty much every other page is dog-eared (a bad, necessary habit I picked up in grad school) but I already know which poem I’ll turn to first.
In a book generously overflowing with dark humor and loss, made all the more poignant by Hernandez’s gutsy lyricism, there are plenty of poems I’ve kept paraphrased in the back of my mind over the years.
“The Taxicab Incident,” recounting an incident when, as a boy, the narrator’s father was nearly killed by a taxicab but collapsed on the road and it passed right over him, leaving him unharmed. Other poems about miscarriages, how easily things could have gone differently. “Disappearer,” a taut poem about a thirteen year old girl who wears “a black string of shark teeth” that leave “cheekmarks over her heart.” “Fontanelle,” about “the skull’s trapdoor” and, in a grander sense, the metaphysical opening that the narrator “cannot put [his] finger on.” Or “How to Commit Adultery” with its brilliant image of a frozen, thawing heart “shushing on the grill.”
But the one I love most has got to be, “So the Pilot Says Over the Intercom.” The poem posits a situation in which the smell of a forest fire bleeds into the cabin of an airplane passing high above the flames, compelling the pilot to get on the intercom and reassure the worried passengers that, no, the smoke is not coming from the airplane.
“Do not be alarmed if you smell smoke,” the pilot says. That’s good advice. If the poems in Always Danger illustrate anything, it’s that all of us exist in a world where wonder and horror are next door neighbors. But what especially draws me to this poem is not just its rugged philosophy but its elegant lyricism and dark humor. Granted, it’s hard to imagine your average airline pilot pointing out that if we turn on the television, we’ll see that “this corner of the planet/looks apocalyptic. The tidal wave of flames/and torched houses,” but that’s where Hernandez shines: he takes unlikely scenarios, presents them as plausible, throws in a dash of surrealism, and by the end, we feel like we’ve been transformed in some kind of deep, inexplicable way.
“So the Pilot Says Over the Intercom” also resonates with Hernandez’s gorgeous, deeply human sense of duality. For instance, the poem suggests that were “this plane an air tanker we would skim/the ocean and drape white veils of water/over the flames. As many roundtrips/as it takes…” Yet this sense of communal devotion is positioned right next to a chilling description of “someone else [walking] into the forest alone” with a heart like “the red tip of a matchstick/he strikes and strikes in his own darkness.”
Like many of Hernandez’s lines, that one hits me a bit like a Zen koan, pulling me in two different directions at the same time. I identify with the unnamed arsonist and feel the almost sexual glory of chasing away darkness with untamed fire, while simultaneously feeling frightened and horrified by the association.
Thus this smart poem (which also happens to be entertaining as hell) deftly illustrates both the danger and the glory of what it means to be alive, the result being a kind of reaffirming derision, a deeply human vulnerability paradoxically created by suffering. Not bad for twenty-seven lines.