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   Jacket 33 — July 2007        link Jacket 33 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Mark Weiss: José Martí

This piece is about 11 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Mark Weiss and Jacket magazine 2007.

Everything has already been said; but all authentic things are new. To confirm is to create. What gives birth to the world isn’t the discovery of how it’s made, but the effort of each to discover it. ...Emotion is the motive force in poetry, a sign of the passion that moves it, and it doesn’t have to be reheated in memory, it’s the trembling of the moment, an internal wind or earthquake. What remains afterwards is lost to poetry, since it’s neither understanding nor memory that matter most in the poetic, but a confused and tempestuous spiritual state, in which mind is only an aide, taken up and abandoned, until it becomes at last music, which enters it from without.

“Letter to José Joaquín Palma,” in Obras Completas, vol. 5 (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1975), p. 93

José Julián Martí y Pérez (1853–1895) may not be unique as a political poet-martyr (one thinks of Byron and Lorca), but he must have been one of the most politically involved. The very model of the committed artist, he was 42 when he died in one of the first engagements of the second Cuban War of Independence, of which he had been chief propagandist and one of the principal planners. He had spent his entire adult life in exile, chiefly in Mexico City and New York.
    Martí’s popular sobriquet in Cuba, Apostle of the Revolution, could obscure for non-Spanish readers the revolutionary quality of his verse. He was perhaps the first practitioner of what came to be called modernismo, the Latin American adaptation of French Symbolism that was to come to full flower in the work of Rubén Darío. Characteristic is his use of symbols and similes — not just the eagles and doves that in places stand in for valor or war and love or peace, but more extended symbols and similes that take on lives of their own — the grieving king, the heroic light, and the strange image of the six eyes of the children in “The Swiss Father,” for instance, or the widow in “Two Homelands,” or virtually all of “Not Rhetoric or Ornament... .” One can sense Baudelaire lurking behind the scenes. Even the “Simple Verses,” built on a series of stark contrasts — flowers and betrayal, night and splendor, butterflies and rubble, diamond and coal, an extinguished star, the cemetery’s fecundity — are far from being as simple as they first appear.
    Martí’s densely figured, learned, syntactically-convoluted verse gave back to Spanish poetry the muscular intensity of the Baroque, anticipating in this regard not so much the modernismo that was to follow him as the poetry of Lezama Lima, Cuba’s greatest 20th Century poet and fountainhead of the neobarroco, which remains a dominant force in Latin America. Paradoxically, he also introduced, in “Simple Verses,” a seemingly naive form reminiscent of South American coplas, the folk practice of constructing songs out of spontaneously composed quatrains, each participant in turn presenting his own variations on the theme, usually, of love or loss, and one thinks as well of the gypsy ballads of Lorca that were to come 25 years later.
    Martí was wildly prolific — his complete works come to 27 thick volumes of essays, journalism, fiction, correspondence, criticism, political writing, children’s literature and verse. He was constantly traveling, rallying the troops for the impending battle, and he was notorious as well for his many affairs. It’s difficult to imagine when he slept, let alone wrote. Everything he wrote, in fact, was written at white heat. In the letter quoted above he makes of this a virtue, clearly contrasting his practice to Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and in so doing anticipating Allen Ginsberg’s “first thought best thought.” And like Ginsberg and a great many of his confreres, what he’s finally interested in, what emotion stimulates, and what the poem reveals to us, is process, rather than product, not what’s discovered, but “the effort of each to discover it.”
    Martí’s poetry, spectacularly energetic as it is, is suffused with a sharp personal and political bitterness which he associates with exile. The Swiss father’s crime, in his monstrous despair at his displacement, becomes an act of self-sacrifice — suicide and the sublime become one. Lines like “With one beat of his wing he sweeps the world aside/ And rises through the fiery air,/ Dead, like a man and like the serene sun” (“Not Rhetoric...) or “I hide within my rugged breast/ The sorrow that tears at me:/ Son of an enslaved people/ For which he lives, falls silent and dies” and a great deal besides begin to sound like a suicide note. Breaking orders, Martí rode on horseback into a fusillade of bullets, becoming, as if by plan, a symbol of his own devising.

 — Mark Weiss


Little Rock, Arkansas, September 1. On Wednesday night, near Paris, in Logan County, a Swiss named Edward Schwerzmann carried his three sons, one 18 months, the others 4 and 5 years old, to the edge of a well, and threw them in, and himself afterwards. He is said to have been overcome by a fit of madness.
                               — News bulletin published in New York

They say that a blond Swiss,
With dry, hollow eyes, overwhelmed
By desolate love for his three sons,
Kissed their feet, their hands, their thin,
Dry, flaccid, sallow hands, and suddenly,
Filled with enormous rage, like an angry
Tiger carrying away the hunter’s children,
Threw all three, and himself after,
Into a deep well — and robbed them of their lives!
They say that the forest was lit
With a reddish glow, and that at the mouth
Of the dark well — his hair loose, like a crown of flames
That the grieving king, become human,
Only loosens from his brow as he enters the tomb —
His calloused hand clutching a dry stump —
His silent children, their nails digging
Into his stony breast, held fast by his arm, like birds
In the nest clustered together on a stormy night —
His soul given over to God and his eye to the waste,
That Swiss raised his fist to the heavens, and a hero’s light
Appeared to illumine the earth around him,
And the realm of shadows was shaken
By the death of a giant!

Sublime father, incomparable spirit,
Who to spare the delicate shoulders of his sons
The heavy burden of a life
Without faith, without country, a joyless life
Without clear course or certain goal,
On his own colossal shoulders took
The terrible burden of his savage crime!
The trees quaked, and on his stony breast
The six frightened eyes
Of his pallid sons were like six
Bright stars guiding their father’s pathway
Through the dominion of crime!
Hero, giant, loving
Madman, go! and trample
The venomous brambles whose poison
Torments the feet of criminals in the dark kingdom
Where murderers pace without end!

Go — that the six bright stars
May follow, and guide you, and that those
Who have drunk of the bitter wine of life
May ease your burden!


Not rhetoric or ornament
But a natural verse. Here a torrent
Here a dry stone. There a gilded bird
Shining in green branches,
Like a nasturtium among emeralds.
Here the fetid, viscous trace
Of a slug: its eyes mud-blisters, its belly
drab, greasy, foul.
In the treetop, higher still, alone
In the steel sky a constant
Star; and here, below, the oven
The oven that cooks the earth.
Flames, struggling flames, with
eye-like sockets, arm-like tongues,
A man’s fury, sword-sharp: the sword of life
That blaze upon blaze conquers the earth at last!
It climbs, roaring from within, destroying:
Man begins in flame and finishes in flight.
At his triumphal passage the dirty
The vile, the cowardly, the defeated,
Like snakes, like lap dogs, like
Crocodiles with their double rows of teeth,
From here, from there, from the tree that shelters him
From the soil that holds him, from the stream
Where he slakes his thirst, from the very anvil
Where bread is shaped, they howl and toss him,
Bite at his foot, cover his face with dust and mud,
Enough to blind a man on his path.
With one beat of his wing he sweeps the world aside
And rises through the fiery air,
Dead, like a man and like the serene sun.
Thus must noble poetry be:
Thus, as life is: star and lap dog;
The cave bitten by flame,
The pine in whose fragrant branches
A nest sings by moonlight,
A nest sings to the splendor of moonlight.


Two homelands have I, Cuba and the night.
Or are they one? The sun’s
majesty but now withdrawn,
trailing long veils she comes
to me, Cuba, in the guise
of a grieving widow, holding
a carnation. That blood-stained flower
is my shattered breast, the hollow
that held my heart. Now is the hour come
to die. The night is made for parting, light and speech
a barrier, the universe more eloquent than man.
The red flame of the candle flutters
like a flag summoning to battle.
Clutching it to me I open the window.
Mute as a cloud that hides the sky
the widow passes, scattering flowers.


Tell those who are silent,
Those who laugh not,
Those who are sad,
Tell them that she I love is far away!


The sun is burning, the grass is dying, the plain’s on fire,
The sea glitters.
Why in the midst of this fevered summer
Do I shiver with cold?


It’s good to suffer; when in the left side
Of my broken breast a cancer burns,
Over the feverish wound a sweet-smelling iris,
White and blue, spreads its wings.


May my verses fly
Like small, nervous
Ah, stay, and you shall see
The wonder of a butterfly
Covering the Earth
With its wings.


Oh come to me, oh come:
You will leave in my life
An alabaster whiteness
And that lost, melancholy light
That a silent star casts in the night.


As from a fire my verses leap
Like sparks of ash;
Just so the bright blue shards of waters
Break on the rocks.

Cheerful shepherds,
Fragrant mornings,
Sleeping doves,
And there on the regal crowns of the mountains
Magnificent eagles:
Come then, my friends, celebrate with me
The arrival of joy to my soul.
Knock at her door,
Summon her softly:
If she sleeps, let her sleep!
For alive or asleep, or even dead,
I carry her forever in my soul!
Leave for her, doves,
Those drops of dew
That glitter on your wings:
And you, my ferocious eagles,
Stay at rest on your perches!
If she awakes, oh shepherds, bring to her
The whitest of doves in baskets of flowers!
My God, what joy,
My soul is as bright as the sky!
Spread for her, shepherds,
A bed of white garlands!


Muttering verses
I walk the earth
Like the passing breeze
complaining among the honeysuckle.


I can’t say when
Verse will come:
You pass by and verse
Passes by as well.


In the newspapers I read,
In the passing clouds,
In the invisible air, my wandering,
Disconsolate eyes sketch your likeness.
And I cover my eyes
As a salve for anguish —
And you come from the depths of my soul,
Weeping, inconsolable, eternal, proud.


Go then, leave. As a lovely boat
Leaves its broad wake on the sea,
So your image marks my strange life.
Go, and my grief will curdle the foam.


The sky has its Milky Way,
But I have more:
I have the memory of that evening
When I saw you gaze at me on the verge of tears.




I am an honest man
From the land of palm trees
And I wish before I meet my death
To cast these verses from my soul.

I come from everywhere,
Towards everywhere I go:
I am art among arts
And in the peaks I am a peak.

I know the exotic names
Of herbs and flowers,
And of deadly betrayals
And sublime sorrows.

In the dark night I have seen
Rays of the pure splendor
Of divine beauty raining down
Upon my head.

I have seen the sprouting of wings
From the shoulders of beautiful women
And the coming forth of butterflies
From piles of rubble.

I have seen a man who lives
With a dagger in his side,
Who never uttered the name
Of the woman who killed him.

Briefly, twice, I have seen the soul
Like a reflection, when the poor
Old man died, and
When she said goodbye.

I trembled once —
At the vineyard’s gate —
When the savage bee
Stung my beloved’s brow.

I rejoiced once, in my destiny,
As I’d never rejoiced before,
When the warden read
My condemnation, and wept.

I hear a sigh that’s traveled
across lands and seas,
And it’s not a sigh — it’s my son

If asked to choose the jeweler’s
brightest gem,
I would choose an honest friend
And put love aside.

I have seen the wounded eagle
Soar through the serene sky
And the viper in its den
Die of its own poison.

Well do I know that when the world,
Pale with exhaustion, gives over
To rest, the murmur of a tranquil brook
Floats above the deep silence.

I have dared to stretch my hand,
Stiff with horror and joy,
To the extinguished star
That fell at my door.

I hide within my rugged breast
The sorrow that tears at me:
Son of an enslaved people
For which he lives, falls silent and dies.

Everything is beautiful and steadfast,
Everything is music and reason,
And, like a diamond, everything
Is coal before it’s light.

I know that the foolish are buried
With great pomp and great lamentation,
And that no soil bears fruit
Like the soil of the cemetery.

I fall silent, I understand, and I remove
My rhymster’s finery:
I hang my scholar’s robes
From a withered tree.

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss’s poetry and translations have appeared in numerous anthologies, and journals, and on line (see Jacket 12, 14, 18 and 21). He is currently editing the bilingual anthology The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry (due from University of California Press in 2009). He edited, with Harry Polkinhorn, the bilingual anthology Across the Line / Al otro lado: The Poetry of Baja California (San Diego: Junction Press, 2002). Among his translations are Javier Manríquez, Cuaderno de San Antonio / The San Antonio Notebook (La Paz, Mexico: Universidad de Baja California Sur, 2005, bilingual), and José Kozer, Stet: Selected Poems , which he also edited.(New York: Junction Press, 2006). Five collections of his poems have been published.

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