Review of Hoodwinked by David Hernandez

David Hernandez’s newest collection of poetry, Hoodwinked, is every bit the playful, conspiratorial romp the title suggests, snatching readers into a world of revolving interiors that waltzes among images as outwardly disconnected as insects at a picnic, the gap between David Letterman’s teeth, and soldiers at war. Underlying its seeming puckishness, however, readers find meditations on the nature of mortality—how some of the most significant moments in our lives can be rooted in the very things we consider the most ordinary. It is in the juxtaposition and interpolation of these commonplace moments, in fact, that Hernandez reveals a world that is anything but.

One of the greatest strengths of Hoodwinked is its speaker’s ability to navigate among different images and scenes while maintaining thematic consistency. In some cases, this is achieved through a sort of filmic chronology, as in “Moose in Snow,” in which a tight focus on the birth of a moose broadens into a more expansive perspective:

 Then the sky drops
 snow, a meadow
 fills with whiteness
 the moose trudges through,
 his breath in the Montana air
 cobwebbing. A man
 raises his camera
 and the moose materializes
 in the blood light of his darkroom.

As the poem nears its close, the image of the moose, originally detailed in a documentarian mode, veers sharply to the personal. A painter creates a painting out of the photograph, which is then reproduced and purchased by a man who “hangs it / with a frame in his sunny office” where the speaker has come to “explain to him this heaviness / pulling down the length” of his body, “scalp / to soles, cells and all.” In charting this ripple effect with imagistic specificity, Hernandez establishes a poetic arena within which he can attempt to recapture and replicate the spontaneity of the world from which it springs.

In other poems, the leaps employ associative rather than literal linkage, as in, “At the Post Office.” The speaker, observing the “processional, glacial” line, parallels the attendant with “a giant stone”:

 The stone asks if anything inside the package
 is perishable. When I say no the stone
 laughs, muted thunderclap, meaning
 everything decays, not just fruit
 or cut flowers, but paper, ink, the CD
 I burned with music, and my friend
 waiting to hear songs, some little joy
 after chemo eroded the tumor. I know flesh
 is temporary, and memory a tilting barn

Again, in the space of a few lines, readers find a shuffling of parts that points toward the larger whole—a more serious exploration of the human condition.

As isolated units, each poem feels fresh and surprising in the leaps it makes, but the obvious danger in using this (or any) technique so frequently in the broader scope of a collection is that the cumulative effect will be inferior to what one would otherwise anticipate; that each successive surprise becomes less surprising. In some regards, Hernandez sidesteps this pitfall by effectively staggering the poems based on their thematic and emotional content, as well as employing a voice that builds upon itself as readers delve deeper into the book. Still, there are moments when the quality of the language and attention to brevity seem to flag in service to technique—a choice that, in spots, seems to cast the collection as just that: an assemblage of good poems.

What ultimately unites them, though, is Hernandez’s curiosity for the world and his willingness to engage with it. Rather than carving out definite didactic spaces, the speaker probes with a childlike curiosity and invites readers to take part. His humor is sharp and insightful, the kind that, when the topmost layer is peeled back, reveals an honest survey of its environs.

Yet these observations are not simplistic representations; rather, they are predicated on subtle epiphany, inducing readers to examine their preexisting notions of the surrounding world. In “Everything I’m About to Tell You Actually Happened,” the speaker establishes what appears to be a normal holiday gathering, until the poem swerves in a different direction:

 Doorbell rings. It’s Jesus. Drops of blood
 fall from his body like a torn bag of rubies.
 Together we take him apart and seal him
 inside a box labeled MR. KILL JOY.
 All night I hear him pounding the cardboard
 like distant thunder. Next morning
 I ride my new bicycle, crash it full-speed
 into an actual tree. Let me tell you
 what it’s like to be unconscious.

Thankfully, Hernandez only uses “the big topics” to examine rather than criticize. Judgment is withheld, and readers are forced to follow their own thought processes long after leaving the realm of the poem.

Hoodwinked is a book that uses the trivial as a springboard to the significant. The way ants deconstruct food at a picnic is every bit as relevant here as the dust that settles after a bomb detonates in Iraq. We live in a world where change can mean both improvement and deterioration. Every day, things are shifting outside of our control, and within that, we can never quite do everything we want, which is exactly what makes our time (and how we choose to spend it) so valuable. In this collection, Hernandez isn’t saying, “Don’t blink or you’ll miss something,” but rather, “You’ve already missed something even if you didn’t blink.” The focus here isn’t on what’s missed, though, but what we are lucky enough to notice when we choose to look.

Jesse Damiani is an MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is the Reviews Editor and Outreach Coordinator for Devil’s Lake. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Ninth Letter, and Pleiades, among others.