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Pedro Marqués de Armas

The great leap outward

On the life and poetry of Ángel Escobar

Translated by Kristin Dykstra

[»»] Also see Ángel Escobar: Three Poems,
Translated by Kristin Dykstra, in this issue of Jacket.

Translated with the permission of the author. Kristin Dykstra thanks the Banff Centre (Alberta, Canada) for its support of her work on this and other translations.

Section 1

Marqués composed this brief reflection about his friend, fellow poet , and sometime patient Ángel Escobar on the occasion of a tribute held in Havana in 1998. Escobar had committed suicide in the previous year; friends and writers gathered to mourn his loss and recognize his literary accomplishments. Their contributions were subsequently published in a volume entitled Ángel Escobar: The Chosen One.[1]


Like others who wrote short statements for this occasion, Marqués borrows heavily from Escobar’s poetic language (without always marking the boundaries for the uninitiated) as a means of paying homage to his work. Poems such as “El escogido” (“The chosen one”), “Hospitales” (“Hospitals”), and “Haberes” (“Holdings”) are among the sources for this text. So too is Escobar’s biography: Marqués hints at the deep impression left on Escobar by the murder of his mother (Escobar was only a child at the time), and he acknowledges the schizophrenia that so affected Escobar’s adult life.

– KD



In the majority of Ángel Escobar’s poetry, the zone of climax centers on a play of identities. It’s a dramatic kind of play in which not only is literature at stake, but existence itself: an endgame… The game left us with those cartographies of the “I,” populations consisting of the Other and of the Self – “Well-being as literature, as writing, involves the invention of the missing community” – as well as those transitions from being to non-being through which the names-of-history flow. His poetry is play and delirium. Where the plane of his life intermingles with the rest, there is above all the drama of a person who saw his mind lashed by ghosts, “guests” and “aliens.” An illness spattered with blood sent them to him out of some dark place; his poetry allowed him to quash the ghosts, or halt their progress, many times.



I first came to know about him in 1985 by way of the photo that appears in Usted es la culpable.[2] In one of those poems Escobar threw down his “curse of a laborer’s son.” At the time his style wasn’t in keeping with my own pursuits, and because of that silly difference I lost sight of his trail for some time. Later came La vía pública (The Public Way), which awakened the admiration of poets in my circle, and we began to seek more contact with him. One day in 1987, at la Quinta de los Molinos, we gave a reading. On one side were Ismael, Juan Carlos, Almelio and I; and on the other – but here I mean to erase any distinction – he read with his good friend, Efraín Rodríguez Santana.[3] So began my friendship with Escobar.


Then followed the visits to his house in Alamar, the intellectual gatherings and other readings that opened a field of many influences, literary and extraliterary alike. In those days we witnessed the earliest emergence of the poems that now comprise Abuso de confianza (Breach of Trust), which I consider the best of his books. Later he sent a typewritten manuscript to me in the hills of eastern Cuba, where I had gone to work. At last I had the poems in my hands; I reread them over the course of an entire year, interspersed with readings from Rimbaud and Martí. Given that the same animism animated them all, it was a singular experience to read them together, amid the “strident noise” and the “fluid strains” of the jungles. I meant to write something about Breach of Trust – I had previously done so for The Public Way – but did not; I feel a debt to him for my discourtesy. Upon Escobar’s return from Chile I gave his introduction for a reading at the Azotea.[4] I wrote: “He for whom all archetypes exist in vain needs no justification in terms of symbols. If we were to approach real understanding, we would perceive only the echo of our delayed arrival. The Judgment would have concluded, as the century concludes, without the arrival of the Messiah. Wisdom born from delay, a form of knowledge he likes to explore. His poetry bears witness to the story of Nobody, of No One. Dionysis and the Crucified are the same. Moons, rocks and heads can be something other than consecutive sets, the facets of his face can repeat across the lake until they wear out. But the errancy of the Other will always be the knowledge of the Self, all the names of history and that noise it leaves behind… ”



On a certain occasion, Escobar now in the hospital, I recalled his “curse of a laborer’s son”: I asked whether he had done the cursing or had been cursed… Sometimes life and literature are deeply irreconcilable. If Ángel could not forget in daily life, he opened avenues for escape on the page. A lucid, scriptural way of escaping, which exceeded any lived or livable subject matter and nullified the answer to the question I had asked him. In some way Escobar did escape from Sitiocampo by transforming that tiny hamlet into the widest Oklahoma. [5] Certain places he imagined, certain strokes of writing made them real, habitable. Far from stalling out in his work, problems of identity found their own lines of flight in the end, whether those problems pertained to an economic, genetic, or racial origin. Another black poet, the West Indian Derek Walcott – I don’t know whether Ángel read his work – writes in “Forest of Europe,” a poem dedicated to Joseph Brodsky:


‘The rustling of rouble notes by the lemon Neva.’
Under your exile’s tongue, crisp under heel
the gutturals crackle like decaying leaves,
The phrase from Mandelstam circles with light
in a brown room, in barren Oklahoma.


Escobar wrote:


Something or someone ends up in Sitiocampo
or Oklahoma, under the moon in Siberia
in Piura or in Prague

[Algo o alguien termina en Sitiocampo
u Oklahoma, bajo la luna en Siberia
en Piura o Praga]


Intuiting a truth for modern writers, he merged his writing with that of others – other lives, other possible worlds – as one unfolds a map over the few real lands one possesses, the lands we already know, in another one of Escobar’s phrasings, to be “excessively arduous.” He too wrote with an exile’s tongue, at the margin of a history slipping away without constraints or seawalls of any kind – because in his populated solitude, he walked alone. Paradoxically, he would turn (now facing the final terror) toward many stable points of reference: childhood, homeland, the shadow of a kestrel…



Every poet drags around the burden of his manias and stereotypes. It’s true that Ángel Escobar repeats himself, but through that repetition he reveals his difference.[6] This is how I read poems like “La edad” (“The era”), in which he writes:


Blanca, Blanca Armenteros,
Alice took off too.
“Take your pill” – and get out
they tell me
—I took a step forward and now
it has been
           forward forward forward
           to the side to the side to the side

[Blanca, Blanca Armenteros,
Alicia te dejó
“Toma tu píldora – húyete
me dicen
—Di el paso al frente y ahora
ya está
           al frente al frente al frente
           al lado al lado al lado]


Or like “Hospitales” (“Hospitals”):


I saw Rimbaud roped to a bed
and the Paterprotagonist roping him down hard

[Yo vi a Rimbaud amarrado en una cama
Y al Papá Protagónico amarrándolo duro.]


Or like “El escogido”( “The Chosen One”). There are other poems. Each reader has his own list of the best. But these suffice to “choose him” as one of the best Cuban poets of this century, as that century is coming to its end…



During the last two years of his life, I had the difficult task of helping him as a doctor. I felt impotent in the fact of an illness that advanced continuously, devastating him. I felt obligated to confront it by making “pacts of life” in the name of a moral law in which neither one of us believed. As long as he could, he treated the idea of death satirically, adapting to it. Then he couldn’t do it anymore, and he took the great leap outward. And it was the experience of delayed understanding again, because in a certain way Ángel Escobar had already been there, and he was already familiar with that region…

– February 12-13, 1998


[1] [All footnotes added by Kristin Dykstra]. Ángel Escobar: El escogido. Textos del coloquio homenaje al poeta Ángel Escobar (1957–1997), compilación y prólogo de Efraín Rodríguez Santana. La Habana: Ediciones UNIÓN, 2001.

[2] An anthology of contemporary Cuban poetry published in Havana that year; it was edited by Victor Rodríguez Núñez. Escobar’s second poetry collection, Epílogo famoso, also appeared in 1985.

[3] Ismael González Castañer, Juan Carlos Flores, and Almelio Calderón Fornaris.

[4] Escobar presented poems from Breach of Trust at an alternative literary salon hosted by Reina María Rodríguez at her home, constructed on top of a building in Havana. Because of its location and importance as an alternative cultural site, the forum has come to be known as “la Azotea” amongst the city’s poets and critics. Azotea means the rooftop or terrace. This name for the salon does not connote luxurious accommodation (e.g. is not comparable to what is sometimes provided to tourists). The house is in a modestly sized place built by hand over time, its luxury consisting of the views from its patio out into the surrounding city and sky. In his quoted introduction, Marqués again uses many phrases from Escobar’s poems; see for example “The Chosen One” (“El escogido”).

[5] Sitiocampo is a tiny village in eastern Cuba where Escobar lived as a child. The region is mountainous and agricultural; historically, the agriculture had depended in part on slavery. Escobar’s family traces its ancestry to people who worked under that system. Over the course of his life Escobar made his way to the west side of the island and gained access to the cosmopolitan cultures of greater Havana – a trajectory running counter to the motion described in a upcoming poetry excerpt here, in which someone ends a journey at Sitiocampo.

[6] An argument that probably originated as a direct reply to a statement with which Carlos Aguilera opened his own reflections for the same event: “Ángel Escobar is a poet who repeats himself.” Aguilera also situates this dynamic of repetition and variation as a point of interest in Escobar’s poems, rather than a weakness.

Pedro Marqués de Armas

Pedro Marqués de Armas

Pedro Marqués de Armas was born in Havana in 1965. He is the author of the poetry collections Los altos manicomios (1993) and Cabezas (2001), as well as a book of essays, Fascículos sobre Lezama (1994). Marqués worked as an editor of the alternative magazine Diásporas, published in Cuba between 1997 and 2003. The Brazilian press Editora Edra published a collection of his work entitled Cabeças e outros poemas in 2008 (Sao Paulo). He presently lives in Barcelona, Spain. Poems by Marqués appear with English translation in The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry (University of California Press, 2009). Four others, translated by Kristin Dykstra and Roberto Tejada, can be seen online at Sibila:

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