Login   Sign Up 


Fire-eater, Mexico City

by James Graham 

Posted: 25 July 2013
Word Count: 165
Summary: See below.

Font Size

Printable Version
Print Double spaced

Fire-eater, Mexico City

Look, Jesus-Ernesto
is going to work.

His toolkit:
a straight hardwood stick,
rag-bound at one end;
a Ronson lighter; money-pail,
two cans of gasoline

which he carries
in two old side-panniers,
pail on handlebars
from 'Cartolandia'
(Cardboard Town)
to the old stone city heart.

His expertise: to know
where the traffic-lights
are red the longest, where
the shops are busiest, where
his audience has time
to watch and pay.

pour gasoline, just enough -
he knows how much will last
from morning rush till evening -
light the rag-head, hold the stick
with a performer’s gesture, high,
tilt the head back
and taste the flame.

Again, again.

A few coins rattle.

At twelve
a cafe-owner brings him ice.

At six or sooner
he packs his apparatus,
cycles home. His breath
is noisy, like a snore.

He saw a doctor once
who squinted at his throat.
After the tourist summer
he may afford
some medicine.

Look, his wife Alicia
is making tortas.

Favourite this work Favourite This Author

Comments by other Members

Midnight_Sun at 15:18 on 28 July 2013  Report this post
Hi James,

I wish I was able to give a more long-winded response but as usual I'm pushed for time so I hope what I say makes some sense!

It does come across as matter-of -fact and there is this voice I can hear rather like some stuffy narrator speaking over a black and white television programme. The objective viewpoint highlights the lack of empathy that the speaker has with the subject, but I also feel a lack of empathy for the subject. Even though I know he comes from a slum (Cardboard Town), and suffers through his daily fire-eating act for a pittance, I don’t feel sorry for him. I cannot connect with Jesus-Ernesto because I haven’t been given a chance to – as you have mentioned, his inner life is not there. It’s as if the narrator is saying: Look isn’t that an interesting job then swiftly turns the attention away before the reader is confronted by anything too uncomfortable. The last two lines almost end on a cheery note. Okay we’ve seen what Jesus-Ernesto does now let’s see what his wife is up to. Oh look, she’s making food – finally something we can relate to. Maybe that’s the point the poem is making. This objective peek into another culture is balanced in just a way that we can call ourselves cultured - but at a safe distance.


James Graham at 19:42 on 28 July 2013  Report this post
You've got it just about right, Patricia. It does sound like an old-fashioned voice-over. The man seems to be shown more as a curiosity than a human being we can connect with. Handled differently, the daily life of an individual or family in one of these urban slums might arouse sympathy and empathy. The book I got the idea, such as it is, from, is 'The Dispossessed' by Mark Kramer; the difference between his work and mine is that he stayed with people in Lomas de San Isidro (Cardboard Box Town), as well as in similar places in Cairo, Manila, Bangkok and elsewhere, for long periods, getting to know the people and their concerns.

I still think it should be possible to write poetry from a distance about this particular world issue - poverty - in such a way that readers can connect with people thousands of miles away. I think now that the fire-eater was the wrong choice of subject. I did find him interesting, but like you I don't think I really felt sorry for him, and my lack of feeling about him is evident in the poem.

I hope there will be more discussion on this theme of writing about world issues. Is it important to write poetry about them? If we don't, are we not shutting out some of the vital human concerns of our time? If we do, how should we approach the subject without being 'distant'?



But better than any discussion - new poems! On world issues or anything else!

TessaF at 00:30 on 29 July 2013  Report this post
Hi James

I just want to comment very quickly then come back to this when I have more time. I'm sure I won't be able to do it justice.

Jesus-Ernesto is literally playing with fire yet we don't really get a proper sense of the danger of this. Somehow there seems to be little drama other than that he has a sore throat and finds it hard to make ends meet - I know it's more than this, really I do, but it does come across as a bit muted. For instance, after we are told Jesus-Ernesto is going to work, we are given a list of what he takes with him and it's very factual. It doesn't really tell me anything about J-E, it just tells me what a fire-eater needs to carry out his work. Sometimes though the understatedness works -
At twelve
a cafe-owner brings him ice.

I wonder if he has any children and what he would think about them doing this kind of work? I have a feeling that might spark some sort of reaction from him - I think we need to know who he connects with and what fires his emotions (excuse the pun). He seems dampened down and he may well be depressed but as he is a fire-eater I want to see him blazing wih anger at his lot(okay I'll stop with the puns now, I'm embarassing myself!). I hope this doesn't sound too harsh because it is a really interesting idea.


Whoops - I really shouldn't post after midnight; I have a huge amount of typos!

Midnight_Sun at 20:55 on 29 July 2013  Report this post
Maybe he wasn't the wrong choice James,

The fact that you were writing about Jesus-Ernesto's job made me think about my own job, and how sometimes I wish I could have a day off. Maybe if you began the poem with him waking up with the sore throat, and lure the reader into that familiar scenario of ‘pulling a sickie’ only to pull the rug from under us so to speak?? Jesus-Ernesto doesn't have job security or the social security to fall back on (debatable these days) that we do. Might be a pretty feeble suggestion :D but I wanted to come back with something.

It is important to write about world issues, but maybe we should try to find some common ground between our own culture and the one we are writing about in order to create that emotional connection.

I've been thinking about writing a poem with reference to the Taliban's stance on women's education, but I'm trying to imagine what everyday life would be like if I could not read/write.


James Graham at 10:37 on 30 July 2013  Report this post
Yes,Patricia, that's a possible way of beginning the poem, and it reminds me there are ways of making a better connection between J-E's situation and our lives in the 'developed' world. I don't know if I'm going to revise this poem or move on to write something else on a similar theme, but if I do revise it I'll keep your suggestion in mind.

Your idea for a poem about the Taliban's treatment of women and girls is one that could make these connections very effectively. I'll get back to you on this.


James Graham at 10:42 on 30 July 2013  Report this post
Thanks for your comment, Tessa. You’re right too, it does come across as a bit muted. And you say ‘I want to see him blazing with anger at his lot’; there should be much more feeling in the poem, either as part of the character or expressed in the authorial voice.

But you know what, I’m going to defend the poem - up to a point. I still take the points that you and Patricia have made. But there’s meant to be a lot of irony. J-E ‘is going to work’ is meant to imply this isn’t real work, it’s what he does because he has no chance of proper work with some dignity.

‘His toolkit’ isn’t a proper toolkit such as would be used by a skilled worker, and it’s described in detail to contrast with, say, a gas engineer’s toolkit. ‘His expertise’ and ‘procedure’ are not those of skilled workers or professionals. All this is intended to be ironic.

Finally, I wanted to avoid pity and show the resourcefulness of J-E as well as, or more than, his poverty. Modern slums are appalling and should not exist - they’re ramshackle, dirty, smelly and unhealthy. There are usually no services and electricity for example has to be got illegally by tapping into the grid. There are mass evictions by armed police who drive the people away and burn the shacks. But the people who live in these places are wonderfully resourceful and courageous. Another example is the garbage collectors of Mokattam, a shanty suburb of Cairo, where refuse men bring loads of garbage from middle-class districts and dump them in a slum area, and people sift through it for things they can sell. J-E is meant to be like this, but I’m not sure he comes across in this way.

‘His wife is making tortas’ is meant to suggest that they try to live normal lives. People should be defeated by having to live in the kind of place I’ve described above, but they’re not defeated. They struggle and, to some extent, win.

All that said, I still agree that the poem is iffy. It lacks, as Tessa says, a depiction of the feelings - anger, depression, or both - of J-E, or else an expression of my feelings. It comes across as too detached.


plurabelle at 19:07 on 31 July 2013  Report this post
I'm rousing myself from my heat-induced passivity to speak up for Jesus-Ernesto. I'm sorry other people seem to be down on him - to me, your with-held tone comes over as an ironic anger so painful that you (or the narrator) can hardly speak - thus resonating with the poor man's damaged throat.

I would go further (if it were my poem, which of course it is not...) by tightening it up even more - e.g. I don't see the need for the suppleness/firmness of the stick, or for the line about San Isidro. "'Cartolandia' - (Cardboard Town)" would be sufficiently terse to point up "the stone heart of the city". In the penultimate stanza, it would be enough for the doctor to squint at J.E's throat and leave out the diagnosis.
However, I like the little touch of normality in the last couplet. To me it is delicately moving, not at all sentimental.


James Graham at 20:07 on 01 August 2013  Report this post
Thank you for your comment, Una. Yes, people have been critical of this poem, but I was critical of it myself - to begin with - and asked them to say what they thought was wrong with it. However, now I begin to think it will stand more or less as it is. Your suggestions for revision are good, and I've changed those lines. I've decided to let the poem speak, even if it doesn't speak to everyone; to let its matter-of-fact tone and its irony do the work. Then, if I can find a suitable subject, I'll try another poem on a similar theme, but make the 'authorial voice' - of protest - more explicit. Your response to the poem persuades me that it can be left alone, though perhaps it needs a companion poem.

It would be good to see a new poem of yours - maybe take up one of the current challenges in the group forum?


Bazz at 18:30 on 02 August 2013  Report this post
Hi James, not much to add except that I like the poem. I do think it lacks personal detail, but the strange thing about detail is (from a distance) you wouldn't know if it was accurate or truthful anyway. i think you tell ernesto's story, and it resonates.

To post comments you need to become a member. If you are already a member, please log in .