José Miguel Herbozo. Las ilusiones. Lima: Alastor Editores, 2019. 61 pages.
I met José Miguel Herbozo several years back through his books, and more precisely, through Los ríos en invierno (2007). This collection of poems introduced me to a careful author, one who first explored poetic tradition and its established forms before creating the poetry he was destined to make. Herbozo has a privileged ear, an acuity that fosters music and an alternation of accents that is difficult to achieve and that keeps the reader within the poem’s current. The author’s skills make reading Los ríos en invierno a series of moments to be enjoyed: “Memory is transparent / morning / splits in the sky, winter’s / entrails untie, separating / memory from bodies, seasons / bearing resplendent illusion / obeying the red circle of fire.”
The themes showcased in Los ríos en invierno betray the author’s maturity. Their apparent gravity transports us into different states ranging from love to existential despair. The poems continually call on solitude, which itself represents the double solitude of the writer and, subsequently, that of the reader. Similar themes inspire the verses in El fin de todas las cosas (2014). In addition to the above themes, Herbozo finds opportunity in the concept of movement, and not only in terms of moving bodies, but also in the movements of nature, seasons, states of inspiration or blockage, and even words themselves. Within movement lies a vitality that imbues the poem’s center, modifying it with respect to its prior state of being. Therefore, the stanzas become solid cathedrals of ideas and the music remains tied to those ideas. Further, islands emerge that appear to have detached from his prior book: “a day that condenses confusion, hate, / music turns ardent and bitter, the fog / the flame, the foolish burning, the haze of plans, the sun of promises overwhelming the sky.”
Reading his latest collection of poems, Las ilusiones, is akin to a pleasant, meaningful walk, like those Stevenson describes in his famous essay on walking tours. Let us first consider the title, taking into account two meanings. First, it suggests that an illusion is a false image born of our imagination or our senses deceiving us; second, illusion transforms into hope calling us with its siren song, as Ulysses experienced. We cannot help but recall the classic Balzac novel, Lost Illusions, and particularly the first part, “The Two Poets,” which narrates Lucien Chardon’s ascent into French society, as well as Lucien’s sister and her husband’s work. His sister and her husband boldly manage to run a small-town publishing house despite endless hardships. If the novel were to end there, we might feel as if we had been privy to a movement tracing an ascent and a fall. Why is the cycle of poems in Spoon River by Edgar Lee Masters so addictive, or any other story indebted to the parable of Job? Precisely because they allow us to access the arc describing the characters’ movements between joy and misfortune, in which we all recognize ourselves. In Las ilusiones, Herbozo brings us this type of movement, but not by presenting evidence in a narrative poem. Rather, he sees the space of the poem as revealing what we intuit, however briefly, in the ellipses, in the margins.
In one poem, we notice that beyond disillusionment, signs of beauty remain along with everything else that helps us survive loss in moments of resignation: “Under leaved umbra the eye rests / for the blackbird’s song, / even as the blackbird has left for another river / to ease his pain.” In the defense that Valéry makes of his Cimetière marin, he states: “In the lyrical universe, every moment should be committed to an indefinable alliance between that which is sensed and that which signifies.” In the aforementioned fragment, Herbozo fosters this communion between the senses and the text’s proposed unit of signification; it calls to mind, in part, Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which appears as a set of instructions guiding our senses as we carry out a trivial activity—an activity which, in all appearances, supposes an instinctive or mechanical action. In reality, however, poetry assumes the role of teacher to our emotions, our weaknesses, our free time. This is one of Herbozo’s accomplishments in Las ilusiones.
If in El fin de todas las cosas, we see the order of the poems corresponding to a type of hegemony of ideas, in this latest book, we encounter a new state. This new state may be a synthesis of all his prior explorations, in which image and rhythm have united; and although the ideas remain, they have gained meaning, as they no longer surprise us with their depth, but rather with their depth and their easy access. The poems are full of notable examples: “You hope to imitate the sand’s dampness / next to the river, and distance for all purposes / the voice cannot.” Or: “A finch sits under the pepper tree / after dreaming of crossing the wide river.” I find here an undeniable talent for filling verses with feeling and image, and they don’t appear to be lost opportunities or akin to segments of desolate land where there is nothing to see before we arrive at our destination.
Additionally, we encounter the feeling of illusion as mirrored images, because dreaming is named throughout the collection of poems; it becomes a state of twilight sleep and generates a range of meanings. Once again, we feel the tension between calm and nightmare, between ideal and real or, as Cernuda would say, between reality and desire. This is also one of Quevedo’s motifs in Discursos, which is replete with characters who accept dreams as the only possible setting where transcendence may occur, despite the presence of despair and suffering. In Las ilusiones, the answer seems to lie in those pieces in which Herbozo moves us toward the solace of writing: “I will say that the sun resists / while music clears the face’s emotion, / although music alone sets the spirit straight / and helps match the night, the curve of the light.” Similar ideas are found in Dante’s Comedia, specifically in the famous verse in Canto V of Inferno: “There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in the midst of misery.” But in Herbozo’s case, it would be poetry’s consolation—a doctor who alleviates our sorrows given the illusions that seem to appear every day, only to be razed, over and over again, before our eyes.
Cristhian Briceño Ángeles
Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos
Translated by Amy Olen
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee