The Hours by Juan Carlos Villavicencio

The Hours. Juan Carlos Villavicencio. Santiago. Grillo, 2012. 40 pages.

Inspired by the work of Phillip Glass, each title of the verse collection The Hours (2012) corresponds to one of Glass’s musical works. If we add to this that, epigraphically, this crossover reminds us of the adaptation of Cunningham by Stephen Daldry (and this, likewise, of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf), a series of evocations tempts us to view the anthology as a referential accumulation that could distract us from that which finally prevails: a painfully uninterruptable contemplative absorption. No one and nothing knocks on the door while we read this poetry. Juan Carlos Villavicencio’s (1976) grand achievement is to displace the world full of sound and fury, the city and nature alike, even, at the same time, while we are forcing ourselves to reemerge—along with the poet—to look at ourselves in the mirror again through the work and artistry of his writing. This achievement is established in what Válery refers to as an ethics of the form, a way of resisting the silence in order to speak the unspeakable, despite that which is inscribed here not being scraps of a language, but rather a true piece of music, hence the true association with Glass. Because it cannot be said, simply, that the poet of The Hours carries out a commutative act in which he fills up a vacant space with words.

In reality, the poetic words are like a constellation of silence that must restore a lost state of affairs, “because nobody can stand off to the side to listen, because nobody understands the words / everything decanted for a misunderstanding that has repeated itself secretly before the moon.” What is it, then, this misunderstanding that puts the verse collection in motion? The word itself is the misunderstanding. As the popular saying goes, the signs we share when we relate to one another—in the case of love—are a common code that we inevitably pass around until its language is transformed into an overused currency.  For the poet of The Hours “a woman’s being afflicts his whole body,” as Borges wrote in The Threatened One, to be or not to be with her is the measure of his time. Even so, this is not said with sufficient intensity. Love and its disappearance, or rather living and dying, are the measures of silence in the work, as referred to in “Tearing Herself Away”: “You know nothing of the mirrors at night / You don’t rush out of this world believing the it’s the best you can do / it is the very same death in disguise that has brought and carried you away without you noticing the phalanges that hold you by the hand.”

What has been seized from the poet in the act of love is the privilege of not initiating contact, of living in solitude, that inalienable right that is always alienated; stripped from him is La dicha de enmudecer [The joy of saying nothing] (1998) as is referenced in the title of the work by another Chilean poet, Armando Roa. And it is in both Roa’s and Villavicencio’s poetry that the poet finally rubs elbows with death: “she [the woman] flees from the hours and believes that she has returned to the real world where she lives,” when in reality it seemed as if there is no living at all. But while in Roa’s work death is a metaphor of an untold space where, as is well observed by Marcelo Pellegrini, the poet decides to make his word “an agent of transformation in order to name his evasive identity”; in the case of the poet of The Hours, it is not a matter of trapping this elusive fish that is death, limiting its existence to new signs. Contrario sensu, he seeks to reclaim the absence, consubstantial with death as much as with the space of plentitude, always threatened by our immersion in time, in things, in life, and in human relationships.

The Hours is an attempt to return to the void, the poet has already chosen his standing in History, his relationship with the woman is a constant flirtation which inflicts him with a much more universal intuition. We do not find here a collection of poems like The Carmens by Catullus or Twenty Love Poems by Neruda, in the sense of how oblivion is defined therein. In both collections of poems, the absence of the woman creates a pleasing dysphoria. There is a certain pleasure in seeing the most objectified and cherished object, an aporia that symbolizes a sensitive absence, as a kind of not-speaking, not-touching, not-contemplating. The Nerudian speaker likes staying silent, because it is as if he is absent. This is because the entire universe of the poet of Residence on Earth is filled with her soul, and this is what makes poeticizing possible. But in Villavicencio’s work, poetry emerges long before the object of desire disappears. Temporal distance is not necessary in order to see the truth, and much less to be self-satisfied in an imaginary communication with that which has disappeared.  It’s not a matter of absence in opposition to the subsequent omnipresence of the poet: silence and ruin coexist in the inevitable present.

In the majority of modern poetry, silence represents an aspiration to the ideal, a temptation that has become inseparable from the poetic act. Letters to Milena by Kafka manages to change the act of writing into a scandalous miracle, according to Steiner. Kafka renames a world filled with cinders and doubts; finding the correct diction is his great work. In Villavicencio, in contrast, more than closing in on the flawless word of a new time, his work is about fleeing from words. The Hours is a Mallarmean act, a search for absolute Beauty, by means of the purification of human relations, in order to once again consider the world as inexistent silence. The poet knows that the lost object that causes pain is the fruit of necessary chance, “where the inevitable has been the violence of finding oneself and letting the air advance upon the tombs.” Chance and the contingently mundane must be abolished in order to house that which remains within oneself, knowing that “all that is left to do is to sit down and describe the dark memory that stalks above time.”

In the poem “The Hours (Epílogo de un pequeño Dios)” [“The Hours (epilogue of a little God)”] it seems that the poet is pleased to see his pain in a single piece, bordering on “an evil that has grown up abandoned”. The return of silence forces him to look at himself in the mirror, as if in the exercise of poetry he had found his own image once again. The poet has managed to distance himself from the hours. As Benjamin points to in Proust, with regards to the idea that the writer is a custodian of memory, it is better instead to think that what has been lived through is not of chief importance, rather “the tapestry of his memory, the labor of Penelope recalling.” To this effect, Proust embarks on an infinite writing endeavor, stirred by his nocturnal habits: awakening was, for Proust, a surrender within a world that asks to be newly recognized. Oblivion, sleeping, understood as death and not memory, are the key that puts into motion his recherché. Benjamin reinforces this idea, noting: “the cosmos has its sun in death, around which are placed in orbit the assembled things and the lived instants.” In Villavicencio there is an utter lack of this Proustian extension, but what is in line with the Frenchman is that, in both, death is the center around which a personal time (constructed around ruin) revolves. The universe of the poet is an allegory of absence that re-carves the world into a place in the process of disappearing, a kind of crypt in which the lost object is housed and from which the poet must never leave. In this sense, Villavicencio’s work opposes the accumulation of the past, the present in but a few pieces, like the music to which it pays tribute. This is the grand achievement of the poet. A work like The Hours necessarily understands poetry as a composition of the spirit in action, because it is in solitude and in silence where the poet can reclaim what he has lost in that trivial transaction in which we stop being human.

I like to think that this type of work is never finished but rather abandoned, as if that spirit could start up again. It is in the perfection of the poetic form and in the voice of the hours that substitute waiting not with yearning for a response, but rather with a void found behind a façade, where the poet begins to be a shadow that roams around the poem, perhaps willing to newly interpret this music. The reader, for their part, opens the book in his absence and presses play: one hears the silence once and forever, in a single piece.

Rodrigo Arriagada Zubieta

Translated by Matthew Carman

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LALT No. 7
Number 7

The seventh issue of Latin American Literature Today highlights indigenous voices with dossiers dedicated to three Wayuu writers from Colombia and Zapotec poetry and prose. We also pay homage to renowned Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo with a special dossier, as well as returning to the strange worlds of Latin American science fiction and opening a new space for Brazilian literature in Portuguese and English.

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