Always Danger
David Hernandez
Southern Illinois University Press, $14.95 (paper)

In his second collection of poems, David Hernandez offers a guided tour of the dangers lurking around every corner—from the bully who “pummeled the school mascot” to the “fallen / dominoes of a derailed train”—while also keeping watch over what’s already been damaged. The book opens with a one-armed man, about whom “we wonder / which war, what factory machine.” “Damage makes a notch on us all,” Hernandez writes, but his people are fighters; they keep going. The amputee re-learns how to button his shirt, “his hand a swan pecking / down his chest.” Like the rest of us, the poet is also a kind of survivor. In “The Taxicab Incident,” a boy is nearly hit by a cab. We learn that he is Hernandez’s future father, the narrow miss a lucky break without which the poet would not be here to describe it. Hernandez’s accomplishment is to take sad but common experiences—the onset of a disease, say—and make them strange again, somehow beautiful: in “Alzheimer’s,” for example, a woman knits a sweater even as a crow unravels it. And he knows when to keep his cards close to his vest. Describing a high-schooler “lean / as a sunflower stalk,” he shades in the picture for sixteen lines before coming clean: “Only one finger’s / needed to empty her stomach.” But the book falters, at times, when a poem centers on a startling image without doing anything startling with it. In “The Soldier Inside the Horse,” the image of the soldier crouched inside a disemboweled horse contrasts predictably with his childhood innocence as “a boy who wanted / a pony.” What follows never quite lives up to the absurd horror of that opening image. But Hernandez is usually a compelling cartographer of survivors’ wonder in “a world that kicked / our hearts so hard with its beauty / it always left a bruise.”