Two Poems by José Martí

BOMB 74 Winter 2001
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Waking Dream

I dream with my eyes
open and always, by day
and night, I dream.
And over the foam
of the wide and restless sea,
and through the spiraling
sands of the desert,
upon a mighty lion,
the monarch of my breast,
blithely astride
its docile neck,
always I see, floating,
a boy, who calls to me!
—From Ismaëlillo, 1882


Fragrant Arms

I know arms that are strong,
soft and fragrant;
I know when they encircle
my fragile neck,
my body, like a kissed
rose, opens,
and breathes in its own
languid perfume.
Rich in new blood
the temples throb;
and the red plumage of
internal birds begins to stir;
across skin weathered
by human winds
restless butterflies
beat their wings;
elixir of rose ignites
dead flesh!—
And I give up those rounded
fragrant arms,
for two small arms
that know how to tug at me,
and cling tightly
to my pale neck
and of mystic lilies
weave me a chain!
Away from me forever,
fragrant arms!

—From Ismaëlillo 1882.


Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen.

Esther Allen is currently editing and translating an anthology on José Martí, forthcoming from Penguin Classics.


—One thing Cubans everywhere agree on is that José Martí (1853-1895) is their national religion. The central intellectual and political leader in Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain, Martí was also an influential poet. His first book, Ismaëlillo (Little Ishmael), was published in 1882 in New York City, where Martí spent most of his adult life, and consists entirely of passionate poems addressed to his absent three-year-old son, who was in Cuba, separated from his father by politics and exile, and by his mother’s will. The reader who comes to these 19th-century poems in the year 2000 may experience a vertiginous feeling that they were inspired by recent headlines. Earlier this year, as crowds were gathering daily in José Martí Park in Miami’s Little Havana to shout that Elián González had to stay in the United States, Fidel Castro hastily erected in a Havana waterfront square (now known as Plaza Elián) a massive socialist realist sculpture of José Martí, carrying a small boy in one arm.

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Originally published in

BOMB 74, Winter 2001

Featuring interviews with Damiela Eltit, Alavaro Musis, Carmen Boullosa, Gioconda Belli, Sergio Vega, Gunther Gerzso, Valeska Soares, Pedro Meyer, Marisa Monte, Cubanismo!, and Ned Sublette.

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