BY DEVON BALWIT
Inviting in the Stranger
When you find yourself outside in the dark breaking bottles against the side of the house (or wanting to), then you are ready for James Diaz’ fine first collection "This Someone I Call Stranger" (Indolent Books 2018). His poems both arise from and lift one out of pain, exploring "the trembling and the fault line of the trembling" within each of us. They do so in a language that is both straightforward and conversational, seeking to be understood. Reading through these brave poems, you feel as if you are sitting knee to knee with a close friend, engaged in uncensored revelation and mutual consolation.
While voicing anguish, Diaz’ narrators are never pitiable, nor does he allow the suffering self to wallow. "Once you’ve suffered/like this," he writes, "you don’t want to bring that storm to another town— / you want to lay that thunder down." The poems in his collection celebrate the many ways one deflects this hunger to self-destruct. In fact, they are part of the work of metamorphosis and transmutation, answering a question Diaz, himself, poses: "Where does it all go / the necessary-unnecessary losses?"
Many of the poems feel elegiac, perhaps honoring those unable to lift themselves from addiction, mental illness, or self-harm. Diaz goes out of his way to approach and spend time with each sufferer. He doesn’t expect people to put on a brave face. Or if they do, he witnesses what’s beneath it: "the secret is, no one is human, / but they know how to do human so well."
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Another artful thing Diaz does throughout the collection is title his poems without drawing from any line within them. This heightens the sense that we are witnessing an artful transformation of pain. "To touch the membrane of lingering you need light," Diaz says. But the light must come from within the sufferer, and not from another. "You are more blessed than you can possibly know," he encourages. "I cannot hold this light for you." The will to survive and overcome serves in each of us as a power-source for this shining.
Finally, the healing process captured here isn’t complete, but rather on-going. "After numb / there is more skin / waiting / its turn." One witnesses insomniac pacing, nightmares under the bed, an undercurrent of magma prone to erupt. "How do you know when it is enough? / You never know when it is enough." You must stand ready to talk down your demons and embrace yourself as many times as you are called to.
"I was a prime candidate / for the end of a movie," Diaz marvels, and yet he managed to walk out of the theater on his own two feet. "If you are reading this tonight," Diaz exults, “it means that I exceeded / more than a few low expectations." Later in the same poem, he marvels: "I stood the test, / not of time, / but of the emptiness that sits between time." The reader is glad that he did.
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Devon Balwit teaches in Portland, OR. She has six chapbooks and three collections out or forthcoming, among them: We are Procession, Seismograph (Nixes Mate Books), Risk Being/Complicated (A collaboration with Canadian artist Lorette C. Luzajic); Where You Were Going Never Was (Grey Borders Books); and Motes at Play in the Halls of Light (Kelsay Books). Her individual poems can be found in The Cincinnati Review, The Carolina Quarterly, The Aeolian Harp Folio, Eclectica, Taplit Mag, Virga, and more.
James Diaz lived most of his life in the South. He now lives in the North. His debut book, This Someone I Call Stranger is a reflection of those two worlds-apart. North-South, like dissociation itself, struggle in the poems to find their relationship to one another in light of much sorrow, hardship and loss. His most recent publications have appeared in Blanket Sea Magazine, Bone & Ink Press, Occulum, and Blognostics. He is founding editor of Anti-Heroin Chic.