14ymedio, Ernesto Santana, Havana, 21 June 2018 — His voice amazed me the first time I heard it, when he had just turned 80. A voice grave and smooth at the same time, a voice I no longer remembered from his years on the radio. A mariner’s voice perhaps, someone who has traveled other worlds and has a lot to tell, but does not want to amaze anyone, much less overwhelm them with his stories. A voice from someone much younger and, at the same time, an old voice, coming from a mythical and remote era of certainties.
Although I had read his poetry and shared it with several friends, I never spoke with him. I admired him from afar and knew him to be a good man, what is called a man of integrity. What’s more, we lived relatively close for many decades. But it never happened, although I always had the vague certainty that one day I would meet him. That’s why, when I read the fatal words of the news, I could not help but feel that with his death, in some way, I had lost a friend.
I suppose that it is easy for those who have read him to feel that they have talked with him. Not because of his “colloquial” poetry, but because ultimately all poetry is conversation, although almost always with oneself or with the intimate demon. In Alcides’ poems one feels, in reality, a colloquium with the reader, as if each verse were written to be replicated in a long exchange of intuitions, fears and memories.
For nothing is further from him than the pose of an old teacher who knows some clues, who has learned to deal with short life and endless art. “Life has taught me that suddenly the wave of the days changes your program,” he said ten years ago in an interview for Consenso magazine. “I limit myself to being ready for what may come,” he said, demonstrating that, in spite of himself, he was that: an old teacher who could give us, more than a poetic art, an art of living.
An art of living as poetry. The voice of his poems flows directly from the common man who hurts and dreams, from the untamed citizen who does not use words as a spell or as a subjective construction, but as a lever to move a truth, as a magnetic guide, as a bridge to reach what is farthest from here and now. And all with a breath more transparent than the air of his native Barrancas or a quiet Havana morning.
“From good seeds he made bad harvests, in the name of freedom he surrounded us with wire, and he added guards and bloodhounds. In everything, he was the same. With real words he composed a great lie,” Alcides tells us, alarmed by Fidel Castro’s support for the Soviet tanks in Prague, and who suffered – without being indirectly implicated – the effects of the Padilla case and could not publish anything between 1967 and 1984.
Finally, regardless of whether the commissars wanted to publish him or not, he decided to step away from the literary world, specifying that he would only be published in Cuba when his books could appear before the public along with the authors that the Castro regime has banned for more than half a century. But he kept writing, as if nothing was happening.
In 2013, at Estado de Sats, when he had just turned 80, I heard him read. Alcides had not offered a solo poetry recital for 20 years: “All of us here are exiled, all of us, those who left and those who stayed, and there are no words in the language or movies in the world, to make the accusation: millions of mutilated beings exchanging kisses, memories and sighs over the sea.”
“The future in Cuba is already passed. It is sad, a country where the future has already passed, the future of this Government, which we live under now, because life is now,” he said. But he was not pessimistic or cynical, because he saw that everything, before being real, has been a dream, because always “we let a dream fly and we chase it, that’s why we have to dream and then the realization of the dream comes,” but we can not lose the opportunity, because “there are trains that, if they go by, they are gone.”
Alcides did not have a mysterious creed. For him, the poet’s mission was obvious: “witness today and announce tomorrow.” So he did, assuming insilio* not as a title of nobility, but as a humble daily task, as his own choice and simple destination, but accompanied and loved by those who cared for him, and respected and admired even by those who did not know him.
It is better that the official press did not mention his death. That grave and slow voice did not cry out in the desert: “Where are we, Lord. Where in the world have we lost ourselves? Where do these boiling waters come from? What was made of that pair of incurable children who believed in the prophecies, who still believe, and who went out very proudly on the morning of their day to found the whitest city without knowing that they founded a prison?”
His ashes will be scattered in the river of his native Barrancas, there in Bayamo, where everything started. His voice will continue to sound, smooth and firm, long after the end of the long and dark chapter that tried to silence him, of this seemingly endless exile for all those from over there and those from over here. The empty and turbulent voices of today will be silent one day and we will continue to hear the fluvial and austere voice of Rafael Alcides, like an old sailor who does not want to overwhelm us with his certainties.
*Translator’s note: From ‘exilio’ (exile), Alcides chose to call himself an ‘insilio’, (‘insile’) – exiled from his country without having left it.
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