Ángel Escobar, born in 1957 and deceased in 1997, has earned extraordinary respect in Cuba. This is coupled with virtual invisibility outside it, except for a few critics and poets with connections to Cuban literature. The contrast may be explained in part because Escobar lived a highly marginalized life. But I suspect another complication: the abjection of his late work is threatening. As a translator I have been thinking about how to address abjection in a highly polarized transnational context, where the US/Cuba political divide encourages the flattening of expression.
President Obama’s December 2014 announcement about a set of policy shifts in governmental relations between our nations might, someday, change the stakes of this standoff and its cultural ramifications. But it’s not even clear, as I write this piece, when or how or even if the economic embargo might end. Perhaps it will come to a close suddenly. What does seem new so far is the way in which pro-embargo politicians have been put on the defensive, which might do something to reveal the gap between their positions and the actual opinions of Cuban Americans, the majority of whom don’t support the embargo. And the theme of potential change is once again inspiring writers to try to map and remap relations between hemispheric lefts and rights, as well as middled and muddled spaces in the US, middled and muddled spaces in Cuba. This activity seems to raise the stakes around questions of dissent in Escobar’s poetry.
Escobar’s best-known book, Abuso de confianza or Breach of Trust (first published in 1991 in Chile) opens with a prologue. His strange torrent of language hints at the power of his late writing, as a whole, by opening glimpses into the depth and range of his thought. The prologue incorporates references to the island’s colonial past and a diasporic Caribbean discourse, and it signals the scope of this book’s battle against thingification. In the poems to come, Escobar pushes back against voices of modern authority that promote rational and advisable behavior. Breach of Trust offers a poetry of dissent, the crafting of a NO writ large. He modulates it against a fragile but essential “yes” at the close of the prologue, crafting a manifesto for abjection.
By contrast, the undying machine of political standoff presupposes that writing will be useful. I speculate that many people who want to encourage respect toward Cuban culture will find literature most useful where it advances more of a YES while adopting stances both rational and advisable.
And what is not politically useful? Poetry insisting that the reader experience – and god forbid accept – abjection in all its resistance to the staples of political discourse, utility and argument. This caliber of discursive resistance is what Breach of Trust puts at stake, and as Escobar becomes better known in the future, it will emerge as a key manifestation across his poetic career. To let readers in on why I’m making this claim, I need to rewind to 1959. Resistance to politics is borne precisely of politics. Ergo it is aggravatingly indebted to politics, something that I suspect must have been at once tiresome and invigorating to Escobar, mostly because it is at once tiresome and invigorating to me as I work with his poems now.
His will to create a multidirectional poetics emerges out of historical clashes. In 1959, dramatic events of the Cuban Revolution changed the potential trajectory of his life. Its leaders sought to restructure Cuban society to create a more equitable world; their visions were utopian, and so was much of the language used to motivate citizens to participate in the social programs they created. Ángel Escobar’s career makes sense largely in relation to particular times and places in post-1959 island history.
Seeking to reach families long marginalized in island life, the government led by Fidel Castro designed initiatives intended to remedy the long history of rural poverty on the island and reduce some forms of discrimination against black Cubans, goals affecting Escobar and his family. A famous literacy campaign, new educational access, and publishing organizations affected a whole generation’s experience of writing and supported the emergence of local writers. As a young man Escobar benefited from these efforts. He received scholarships supporting his education, earned two degrees in the theater arts, and took an early interest in poetry. In 1977 he made his appearance on the national literary scene by winning the David Prize for emerging writers, awarded by Cuba’s National Union of Artists and Writers (UNEAC) for his poetry collection Viejas palabras de uso. His 1985 collection, Epílogo famoso, then garnered another UNEAC prize, securing his place on the literary map.
Escobar’s generation was taught throughout childhood to imagine itself working toward a utopian future. Critics Victor Fowler and Efraín Rodríguez Santana emphasize that many of Escobar’s poems embrace the discourses of island leaders and identify with the revolutionary project, particularly in his early work, where the lyric is less troubled. Fowler cites the historic vision in this poem from Escobar’s first book:
. . . So okay, I’m on this side.
If some scaffold collapses
and I’m falling
downward from my individual
skeleton . . .
. . . you can be sure that I’m falling from this side.
[. . . Y bien, soy de este lado. / Si falla algún andamio / y caigo / de mi osamenta individual / abajo . . . / . . . sépase bien que caigo de este lado. (“XXVIII”, de Viejas palabras de uso, 1978)]
The coherent identification with a particular “side” of history is reminiscent of Roberto Fernández Retamar’s famous post-1959 call, in the essay “Caliban,” to identify with an other side of history. It gives the speaker in this poem a community with which to identify. It also provides a vocabulary for speaking about history through the perspectives of the downtrodden, who face hostility from forces both outside and inside themselves.
Fowler similarly highlights the following excerpt from “Affabile,” the opening poem of Escobar’s 1984 book Allegro de sonata (1984):
consequence of the sea,
tendon, talon of sea,
Though the rooster may not sing
the barking of the dogs may throw me off.
Exceeding any return or prayer.
[Cuba sí, / resultado de mar, / tendón, talón de mar, / filo / de / sueño. / Aunque no cante el gallo / y / me sacuda el ladrido de los perros. / Cuba sí. / Más que cualquier regreso o cualquier ruego.]
The hope and affirmation in this poem complement other features of his early poetry establishing an ethics that links the region’s present to its past: speakers claim ancestry among slaves, identification with fighters for Cuban national independence, and express concerns about a history of objectification and marginalization of peoples. These traits suggest that Escobar should be placed next to poets already established in the international scene, such as Nicolás Guillén and Nancy Morejón.
As his writing developed further, however, Escobar heightened tensions around nation and writing. Critics have now situated him alongside Raúl Hernández Novas and Carlos Alfonso, as the island´s poets who most explore dramatic conflicts involving nation and self. Fowler asserts that by the late 1980s a significant shift complicated the identity and discourses of the speaking selves in Escobar’s poetry – a hallmark of the second stage of his career, more recently reaffirmed by the attentive critic María Luisa Puppo. This is when Escobar writes Breach of Trust, where alienation balloons. Horror and irony saturate the poems. Escobar’s hope and dream, the fragile “yes,” survive in small and grant greater power to his abject lyric. However, they do not cohere into a larger trajectory of social progress.
Some of the factors driving this shift are seen by Cuban critics to be collective, representative of Escobar’s generation, a greater vision of violence in the modern world, and/or a philosophical position. Other factors were personal (family trauma and illness) yet are difficult or impossible to disentangle from the articulation of social experience.
Here I reflect on the collective side. Questions about the sufficiency of state discourses had begun to arise earlier in the 1980s, as the generation of children educated to live out the revolutionary future came of age. Many sought to push the island’s leaders further toward affirming and achieving their stated revolutionary goals, as well as additional visions that could be implied in a liberatory mission, such as a fuller address to discrimination based on race, gender, or sexuality. Regardless of their affiliations in earlier decades or during the evolutions of the ‘80s, by 1989 Cubans had realized that they were all facing a strange new world.
The dismantling of the Soviet Union and its strategic alliances led to shattering changes to daily life. The island plunged into economic crisis as the support system of the Soviet Union fell away, while the US embargo continued to limit the development of alternative affiliations and resources. This climate of change led to a new stage of debate in island society, one in which islanders were increasingly unable to link their austere daily lives to utopian language earlier established to guide Cuban society.
Escobar’s poetry became a site of testimony to pain, loss, and disaster. Puppo identifies this stage with the preeminence of his lyric abjection, accompanying an outlook “now in clear dissidence with official voices” (226). One of the longer poems in Breach of Trust, “Punishment,” similarly reads to Victor Fowler as “a powerful goodbye to the utopian thought that animated his first creations” (“un poderoso adiós al pensamiento utópico que animaba sus primeras creaciones,” 123). The violence articulated in this poem “does not refer to an individual situation of a devastated self, but to a we. Its great shadow, its concern, is that of conserving ethical coherence to the end” (“no habla de la situación individual de un Yo desastrado, sino del nosotros. Su gran sombra, su preocupación, es la de conservar la coherencia ética hasta el fin,” Fowler 123-124). Loudspeakers, pamphlets, and masks appear throughout the poem. They’re accompanied by language that fails to signify reality for the speaker, so he experiences their theatricality as irony and violence.
Come. I’ll tell you all: “You don’t have to laugh.”
You don’t have to. I who know the noise
foretelling the fate behind reflections will
tell you: “I’m not here to make you happy.”
(They put out all this furniture. They brought
garlands. And the lights are so pretty.
Ah, and these streets that give thanks for stage curtains.
The fiasco, the noise, the solitude. The streets
were nothing but the splendor of facades.
We’ve crossed above those girders
that sometimes open to the sea. Sea and city lie.
And those solicitous loudspeakers lie
that said at one time: “Yes. You shall all be Princes.”
No. We’ve already paid rent on the number
and the name. For the plagiarism committed by
History between loudspeakers and epiphanies
with her ridiculous modern religions.
Oh, only love for her was going to save us.
[Vengan. Les diré: “No es necesario reír.” / No es necesario. Yo que conozco el ruido / que prefigura el azar tras los espejos / les diré: “No estoy aquí para alegrarlos.” / (Pusieron todos estos muebles. Trajeron / guirnaldas. Y qué bonitas son las luces. / Ah, y estas calles que agradecen los telones. / El fiasco, el ruido, la soledad. Las calles / no eran sólo el resplandor de las fachadas. / Hemos cruzado por sobre esos cuchillos / que a veces dan al mar. Mar y ciudad mienten. / Y mienten esos altavoces solícitos / que alguna vez dijeron: “Si. Seréis Príncipes.” No. Ya hemos pagado el alquiler del número / y del nombre. Y hasta el plagio que comete / la Historia entre altavoces y epifanías / con sus modernas religiones ridículas. / Ay, sólo el amor por ella iba a salvarnos.]
Escobar’s ability to capture social crisis, a tear in the fabric through which expressions of alienation from the state escape, becomes one of the most compelling elements of Breach of Trust. He warns of looming dystopia, a reversal of tendencies to link islands – and Cuba after 1959 – to utopia. Need the articulations of crisis and endangerment in Breach of Trust be understood primarily as a critique of Cuban leadership, then?
Not if his poems express varieties of alienation from the twentieth century as such, and thus from every society or state. This is how I understand the need for Escobar to open the books with his manifesto, the prologue “Broken mind.” Francisco Morán has similarly complicated the matter, stating, “Escobar’s writing places itself in the tradition of the ‘No,’ but I hasten to add, in a sense that exceeds the Cuban political frame. Escobar’s ‘No’ [. . .] would have been produced regardless of the Cuban Revolution, and in its most profound sense, it will endure in the Cuba to come after the Revolution” (“La escritura de Escobar se inserta en esa tradición del ‘No,’ pero – me apresuro a añadir – en un sentido que va más allá del marco politico cubano. El ‘No’ de Escobar [. . .] se habría producido igual sin la Revolución cubana, y en su significado más profundo, persistirá en ‘la Cuba del día después’” ).
Expansions of time and space in Breach of Trust support this perspective. A critique of the atom bomb in Escobar’s prologue indicts the bomb’s maker and by implication any state willing to adopt it as a tool of war. Poems such as “Punishment” and “Two chapters” would be hard to read in terms consenting any government, any military, any surveillance system worldwide. Escobar’s hemispheric frame is similarly illuminating. Turning to the south, the book includes a rich and horrifying poem that he wrote for his second wife, Ana María Jiménez. They met after she was granted refuge in Cuba, fleeing Chile, where as a former member of MIR (the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria) she was imprisoned and tortured at Villa Grimaldi after Augusto Pinochet’s government came to power. Escobar’s poem foregrounds the experience of torture and names a key figure who carried it out, Arturo Romo.
The critique of states de-legitimates right-wing governance, rather than turning to the right for a new (or old) vision. As for transnational connections with the north, Breach of Trust makes no gesture toward recuperating some nostalgic or recast bond with the United States, the neocolonial condition preceding 1959. In other words, it does not pursue the re-affiliation that some commentators imagine to be either Cuba’s socioeconomic future or its primary axis of dissidence (in which dissenters on the island are examined for ties to the CIA – or those ties are just presumed to exist).
Instead Escobar rails, in his wonderfully bumpy and deeply painful manifesto, against rational thought that serves to rationalize rational creativity, the force that creates the putatively rational atom bomb. Rather than conjuring salvation through progress in time, he rewinds to identify with the Taíno cacique Hatuey, calling him “our incinerated brother”: a chieftain burned at the stake by Spaniards in the early 16th century, and later thingified all over again when turned into a brand of beer. Escobar’s language of thingification also suggests an affiliation with Aimé Césaire, a recourse to African diasporic knowledge that cuts across borders and time.
Morán argues that Escobar’s “No” places him alongside César Vallejo:
For both of them writing registers the cuts, wounds, failures to meet, chills, and solitudes that exceed any gesture of restoration or generosity, sincere as those may be. And it’s not about a merely ontological anguish – for there is indeed something of that – but instead about something that is also testimony, in both cases, to the marks left by history on indigenous and black skin.
[En uno y otro, la escritura registra cortes, heridas, desencuentros, escalofríos, soledades que están más allá de cualquier gesto reparador o de generosidad por sinceros que éstos sean. Y no se trata de una angustia meramente ontológica – si bien hay algo de esto – sino que es el testimonio también, en ambos casos, de las marcas dejadas por la historia en la piel del indígena y del negro. (384-385)]
History cannot save us. Escobar’s lyric abjection evokes the way in which race remains a fraught subject in Cuba. Jafiri Allen observes, “The revolution inarguably improved the relative position of black Cubans. [. . .] Also inarguable, however, is that even a revolution has yet to undo the centuries of racist and sexist hegemony that have shaped the nation” (61-62). The weight of history acts on language to further trauma even when speakers hope their society has overcome it: “Still unacknowledged [. . .] are the ways in which racism and sexism undergird rhetorics and policies of racelessness” (Allen 62).
During my translation process I found that many poets who knew Escobar and read his poems as they first emerged take pains to put his critiques and aesthetics of abjection into a particular context. So far everyone who has brought up the topic with me – and they do bring it up – has stated that had he lived into the new century, Escobar would never have left Cuba. These affirmations do not depend on whether the people telling the tales remain in Cuba today or have left to build a life elsewhere. They say that Escobar spoke of a lingering sense of loyalty to the revolutionary project, and he felt committed to participation in his community.
Despite the marked abject stance of Escobar’s poetry and its profound commitment to dissent, then, I choose not to describe him as a “dissident” writer in blurbs and bio notes. It will be more useful for future studies of Escobar’s literary legacy to explore contexts like “re-globalization,” as briefly sketched by Allen: “The vexed homecoming of global capital to Cuba—which I want to call re-globalization—has brought material hardship and existential quandary to the country. For blacks, and non-heteronormative individuals, ‘deviant’ and political possibilities expanded during Cuba’s Special Period in Time of Peace” (3-4). Escobar’s poetic abjection, voiced by self-identified scapegoats, unfurls under these conditions.
Escobar’s book stages a monumental act of dissent from governance by modern states. It resists all who buy into reason, demanding compliance from others and offering twisted rationales to justify incomprehensible acts of violence.
Casting Escobar’s poetry in these terms may, at first, seem like a depoliticizing action on my part – a diminishment of his power, because it takes the immediate heat off leaders and places it on abstract frameworks of state and century.
Yet I imagine that a loss of faith in states, and a loss of faith in history should be actively threatening to all of us. At times we rely on the redemptive possibilities of statehood, one zone of contemporary, collective human experience. And perhaps the abject refusal is most threatening, coming into English from a Cuban, because Cuba is the neighbor to whom US citizens have spent half a century looking when we need images bombastically other to our own state.
This essay includes material on which I expand more in the introduction to the bilingual edition, forthcoming from the University of Alabama Press in 2015. I’d also like to thank Anastasia Kozak, Hai-Dang Phan, and Daniel Borzutzky for their contemporary thoughts regarding dissidence on a panel at the American Literary Translators Association.
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Allen, Jafari S. ¡Venceremos? The Erotics of Black Self-Making in Cuba. Durham: Duke UP, 2011.
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism (Discours sur le colonialisme, 1950). Revised and expanded. Tr. Joan Pinkham. NY: Monthly Review Press, 1972, 2000.
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---. Ángel Escobar: Poesía completa. Ed. Jesús David Curbelo and Misael Verdazco. Havana: Ediciones UNIÓN, 2006.
Esteban, Angel, and Álvaro Salvador. Antología de la poesía cubana. IV: 20th Century. Madrid: Editorial Verbum, 2002.
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Lynd, Juliet. “Reflections on a Conversation with Ana María Jiménez, Wife of Ángel Escobar.” Sirena: Poesía, arte y crítica (2010.2): 126-136.
Marqués de Armas, Pedro. “Gran salto hacia fuera.” In Rodríguez Santana 2001, 139-144.
Morán, Francisco. “Ángel Escobar: La luz sobre el asfalto.” Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas / Nueva escritura de las Américas 11 (2008): 382 – 398.
Puppo, María Lucía. “Apuntes de ‘La ciudad podrida’: la configuración distópica de La Habana en la poesía de Ángel Escobar.” Estudios Caribeños / Caribbean Studies 39.1-2 (Jan-Dec 2011): 223-239.
Rodríguez Santana, Efraín, ed. Ángel Escobar: El escogido. Havana: Ediciones UNIÓN, 2001.