Joseph Rios Shadowboxes with Himself

In Shadowboxing: Poems and Impersonations, Joseph Rios evokes the image of an imposing Rocky Balboa as he opens with a quote from the 1976 film Rocky: “You gotta be a moron…you know what I mean? It’s a racket where you’re almost guaranteed to end up a bum.”

This is Rios using impersonation as metaphor. We all know Rocky as the iconic boxer, the hero, but Rios is using the Rocky quote as a metaphor for poetry itself. It’s an ironic statement, but for the book it rings true, as Rios constantly battles that other part of himself, the darker shadow that dwells within. The book, through dramatic monologue, stage directions, line breaks, dedications, elegies, and impersonations becomes a metaphor for the duality we come to face within our own selves. Rios uses shadowboxing as a tool for coming to grips with his own darkness.

​“Josefo,” Rios’s presumed alter ego, is a vehicle Rios uses to access the battles he has within as he impersonates himself. As he says in the prologue, “Every word is an impersonation of the signified, a metaphor…This book? Well, it’s just an attempt to impersonate myself.” The poems in Shadowboxing constantly deal with that battle, the duality of self. Take the poem “Two Josefos,” which says:

One Nene doesn’t have to deal with this shit

Two Josefos are ridiculous

Two Josefos should get some fuckin help

One Nene left two Josefos at the bus stop

Two Josefos went Nay Nay Nay

all the way home

This poem speaks to the duality and difference within our own selves. There are times that as writers and poets we see our writing self and our poet self as different people. In this poem, Rios is alluding to the Whitmanian principle of containing multitudes, as he is examining the parts of himself. This is also done in “Shadowboxing” where Josefo’s significant other, Nene, asks, “Who are you?/Who are you when you go to sleep?/ Who are you when you lay down in that dark? When the shadows creep over…” To me, this is a search into the poet/Josefo’s own psyche, as he deals with issues of darkness and possibly drug and alcohol addiction. More importantly, it is a way for the poet to indict himself, a way for the poet to access that part of himself that is in all of us, the darkness that we constantly battle.

Shadowboxing is one of those collections that makes you work, that makes you listen to the voices, to the sounds, to the emotions. It’s a strikingly new and experimental book that borrows drunken metaphors spoken while grilling the carne asada and squeezing the limon on the rim of a cold Tecate, all while navigating the farming cities of the Central Valley—Fresno, Clovis, Sanger, Fowler, Madera, and more. Rios is a poet of place, as much as a poet of the voices; he writes for his cousins, his uncles, the mechanic we all know, so it’s no surprise that he pays homage and honors those in his life. The final poem, “Eye of the Tiger” is a scripted conversation between the Puerto Rican poet Willie Perdomo and Joe (presumably the author) about bullfighting and Garcia Lorca’s Duende. The final question:

WILLIE: Which one are you? The bullfighter or the bull?

JOE: [Pause] Well…I dunno.

WILLIE: You better know.

JOE: I don’t know, Willie.

WILLIE: Which one is Josefo?

This is a fitting ending. There is no resolution, just the journey, just Rios shadowboxing.

J.J. Hernandez is a poet in Fresno, California, holds an MFA in Creative Writing, has served as Senior Associate Poetry Editor for The Normal School, and was an inaugural fellow for The Laureate Lab: Visual Words Studio under former Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. Some of his work has appeared in Tinderbox, Flies Cockroaches and Poets, San Joaquin Review, and is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review