Poems by Ángel Escobar

Notes toward a biography of Helene Zarour

She used to believe in her hands and in her mouth, in the events
they transfer to the mirror and crosscut
before they smash her skull against the wall.
She believed only in the skull inside the mirror; the wall—
the inaugural uncertainty, the end, the soot—
that renders the aphonous Janusface reflections
of obreptitious surfaces unintelligible with a single crack.
Glassy, they were no more than an extension of the noise.
She was born in the century whose nature moves from blind noise
to noise. (Oh who can bear it. Oh what identifies you.)
In this century she died. Less would suffice for Callimachus.
Died is an error. Because evenings still return to the evenings.
And that subtle defect in my voicing
differentiates the omens. She has not gone out to sea.
Now we hear a song in which the sea
is not sea, but a Southamerican oblivion.
Now she is twenty. She believes in the Great Bear
twinkling above; in a pair of jeans, Saturdays and Diego;
in Epictetus remarking Sartre.
She believes in tea and furtive cigarettes—
between them she saw Milton—doesn’t know that she doesn’t know
about the doubled fireflies among Caribbean rocks,
or the triple exaltation of western waters
at an illusory sundown. She believes she believes she heard
she would have been a queen. (Democracy, scathing,
bestows a vice on every one.) Coronated—
she recites the fine frill of legend—
she used to believe in the eudaimonic powers of the word scimitar.
Uncoronated, in Spanish dictionaries she forgot
the simultaneous names of God, and the high plain
and the day on which a death and a Zarour coincide in
impenetrable frost that murders the whole expanse.
At her back: an ambush cuts through the batiste today. A knife.
For this queen, the hooves of sweatsoaked horses.
The rest is lost in the police records.
I don’t go there: I’m inclined to follow fear, not sun.
(My voice alone, neither front nor flipside, can unwind Schelling’s mind.)
Today there’s a straw mattress a cellar with screams.
From the ceiling spurious
cartographies of sky fade the nightmares and horror
that awakening does not dispel, instead provokes.
A sticky bolt would squeal. Yes. Romo
who arrives for interrogations. Yes. But where are
her hands and mouth, the events
that judgment needs when justice resumes.
Where did that bird end up. Toward which
unnamed roses, luckless, without a cause,
did the concept rose crawl. No one can answer now.
Nothing resumes her talent. And even the nonmilitary count—
figures escorting light today, no ceremony—
falls out of its public animal state, snakes along lazily.
It grinds the faithful: against the wall, against acts of reason, against noise—
I don’t know: I’m already forgetting those times when evenings
were interlaced with language, not by an ending—
against exile in France, utter collapse, against the sea lacking in jewels—
though it irritate Valéry. O and me for I once read diamond—.
Mark, instant, the nothingelse in which she drowned tomorrow.
You can hear her: she’ll be chanting a song that wasn’t even
like her. You see her: for what greater punishment.
To the letter; her flaccid hands; into water up to her chest.
And she chants. The water. The water. She chants. The rumbling—
shreds of world—a faint claim on affection.
There is another Elena, another was, another out there, another beginning.
On a diagonal angle we look at each other, illustrious heads.
With the gendarme we exit the cell.
Walk along. All as one. Walk. Walk. Walk.
Your hominid state walks too. There is no dispensation,
meddler, you, you pig brushing the soot off doctrines.

A little bit of antipoetry

Who was this Bob Marley
to be so attractive to Violeta,
the daughter of Lucrecia Brito
who according to Juan looks like Michelle Pfeiffer–
attractive, even though Bob Marley is black and dead,
and here, like anywhere,
it may be more convenient to be white and alive.

Another little bit of antipoetry, in two parts


Because I come from other homes–
and am ugly as a command–
the Chileans say all kinds of things to me.
Chilean women don’t offer their mouths in greeting;
of The Beauties I’ve had not a mouthful–
of course I’m not Gonzalo Rojas;
but they could very well give me a little something–
even if I’m uglier than a command.
Or what happened to all that business about:
“And you’ll see how much in Chile they love the friend
who comes from a distant land.”
Friend from distant land does not specify goodlooking or ugly.
And I come, I swear, from very far away.


Of all my many options
I want to take a taxi:
that one, please, that one;
but the driver is dozing, is fat, wakes up,
looks at me with eyes out of a different world, stretches
and doesn’t even respond.
What’s going on in this democracy–
I’m prompted to say–
if one can’t choose even a decent taxi:
that one, please, that one.

Drowned man’s plank

The craft that goes down always
leaves survivors;
and all survivors are orphans
who believe in omens–
the desirous hold onto superstitions
that can get them all the way to the coast,
to whatever coast:
can get them to caulk another ship and set out
to sea all over again, in search
of another port, and so: from port to port:
until the craft they presently
maintain without a frown
goes back down.
Survivors are, furthermore, stubborn.
They’ll rebuild all over again–
one craft is the same as another–
because they have patience and pride,
and they know they were always survivors,
were always orphans–
they protect their omens very well,
and their superstitions–:
and the desire doesn’t kill them,
or the snow or the wind or the rain:
and they themselves compose their songs,
and sing them,
even while the craft is actually sinking–
and still they will sing
when it’s sunk,
that is to say, in the deep.
One can be like that, and can be a creature
always of the deep: not a pistol, not a text.
In every wreck there is a vestige of something.
But I am no survivor.

Crossing a countryside

The thing that goes under can be
the bucket, dropping to the bottom
of the well:
and it will come back with fresh water–
which we can drink
with happiness or sadness–
sometimes they are, the one and the other, the same—:
one can die of laughter or wailing:
so say the ones who aren’t frenzied—
but we will drink water from the bucket
that dropped to the bottom of the well;
then we’ll think about death,
blessings, sadness—:
now, let’s drink.


Ángel Escobar

Ángel Escobar Varela was born in 1957 in Sitiocampo, located in Cuba’s rural eastern province of Guantánamo. As an adult he spent many years on the western side of the island in and around the city of Havana. The publication of a posthumous anthology in 2006 (Ángel Escobar: Poesía completa, Ediciones UNIÓN) symbolizes rising acclaim for his work. Escobar generated the complex field of his poetics out of numerous influences–his training in theater, wide readings in international literature, his autobiography, family trauma, and philosophical reflections on modern life, among other strands. Those who knew him late in his life also see the influence of his worsening battle with schizophrenia: many poems make reference to illness and endurance. They also challenge prevailing notions of rational conduct, and some commentators argue that the spatialization of the late poetry itself performs “schizophrenic” moves. Over the course of his career, Escobar’s articulations of suffering opened some of the richest veins in his poetry. He took his own life in Havana in 1997.

In 1983 Escobar met Ana María Jiménez, who would become his wife. She had been a political prisoner in Chile, and their difficult conversations about surviving violence led Escobar to explore trauma in a series of poems that he wrote in the mid-1980s. These were eventually published as Abuso de confianza (1992). The couple traveled to Chile when Jiménez was permitted to reenter the country, and Escobar eventually connected with Chile’s national writers’ society, receiving a professional invitation to Chile in 1991.

Jiménez recently shared her memories about the composition of “Notes toward a biography of Helene Zarour” with translator Kristin Dykstra. A member of the Revolutionary Leftist Movement (MIR), Helene Zarour was taken prisoner in the mid-1970s, held first at Chile’s infamous secret prison, Villa Grimaldi, then at Tres Alamos. Osvaldo Romo Mena, named in Escobar’s poem, was a civilian who worked with military police at Villa Grimaldi. (An additional note from Dykstra: although public confessions of state violence in Chile were rare because Pinochet remained very powerful after he stepped out of the presidency in 1990, Romo made a bizarre individual appearance on Univisión’s salacious TV news show Primer Impacto in 1995, describing, with openly sadistic pleasure, the torture to which he and others had subjected their female prisoners.) Escobar’s poem derives from the fact that Jiménez knew Helene Zarour and her pain intimately: they were held together at “la Grimaldi.” The song to which Escobar refers is “Alfonsina and the Sea,” a famous piece about the death of poet Alfonsina Storni, who walked out into the ocean. After her release from prison Zarour, who used to sing this song, killed herself in the same manner.

Other very different poems inspired by Escobar’s Chilean travels show his enjoyment of Nicanor Parra’s leveling and humorous antipoetry; his occasional attention to race as an Afro-Cuban writer conscious of his displacement from the Caribbean, and to political systems as a Cuban displaced from the revolutionary society in which he had been raised; and his readings of poems such as Gonzalo Rojas’s “Las hermosas” (“The beauties,” about local women).

Kristin Dykstra

Kristin Dykstra’s current translation projects include poetry collections by Ángel Escobar and Omar Pérez, as well as poetic prose and essays by various writers. She recently completed a version of ¿Oiste hablar del gato de pelea?, a 1998 book in which Pérez blends his explorations of Zen Buddhism with a poetics already informed by the experimental social and cultural contexts of late twentieth-century Cuba. Dykstra’s translations and commentary are featured in bilingual editions of poetry by Reina María Rodríguez and Pérez, including Something of the Sacred/Algo de lo sagrado (Factory School, 2007). Dykstra’s work has appeared in Jacket, Circumference, Origin ~ Longhouse, and many other journals; more is forthcoming in The Havana Reader (Duke UP), The Whole Island (U. of CA), and The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry. She teaches at Illinois State University.

Copyright (c) Heirs of Ángel Escobar, 2006. (The date and copyright refer to the anthology Ángel Escobar: Poesía Completa, Havana: Ediciones UNIÓN, 2006.) English translation copyright (c) Kristin Dykstra, 2009. Printed with the permission of Ana María Jiménez.