Primero Sueño, First Dream: On Crossing, A Whitmanesque

Desirée Alvarez

What is it then between us?¿Qué es entonces entre nosotros?My horse is afraid of you and both of us are thirsty.Stone face, we crossed the seas from Spain,I've been riding for days past pyramids in Mexico.Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not,and place avails not. My horse and I are tiredof the blistering desert. Who is your family,crowd of great heads in a field?Who has conquered you and whom will I now conquer?Big rock, your lips look like ancient waves.Your mouth reminds me of my wife's kisses goodbye.I am lonely as the moon. Por favor, speak to me,face in the grass. I remember the first timeI put my fingers inside a woman, and the first timeshe put her fingers inside herself.I too had receiv'd identity by my body,my body the body uncertain, my body mixed,dreaming of being a Spanish conquistador,dreaming of being an Olmec head, carved and mouth sealedforever. Keep your places, objects than which none elseis more lasting. We plant you permanently within us.Being what— an across, a Zarathustra, a spanof scarf woven of seventeen colors from what roams,what flies, what swims and what sings.Being a woman and a man, stone-crafted and aqueous,being brown, being tree and flood-tide,being free citizen of the body earth, electing in revoltto expand and bring down whatever rises between us.

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Desirée Alvarez is a poet and painter living in New York City. Her second book, Raft of Flame, was selected by Hoa Nguyen to win the Lake Merritt Poetry Prize and was published by Omnidawn in April 2020. Her first book, Devil’s Paintbrush, received the 2015 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize. Her poetry is anthologized in Other Musics: New Latina Poetry (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019) and What Nature (MIT Press, 2018).

She has published poems in Poetry, Lit Hub, Massachusetts Review, Boston Review, Fence, and The Iowa Review, and received the Glenna Luschei Poetry Award from Prairie Schooner.

Alvarez’s paintings are currently on view at Brooklyn Botanic Garden Conservatory Gallery through November 2020. Celebrating magical connections between animals, plants and humans, her work has received three fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and European Capital of Culture. Alvarez teaches at City Tech, CUNY, The Juilliard School and Poets House.

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"The poems in Raft of Flame address inheritance haunted by colonial violence and genocide. The ghosts in the archives speak inside the poems, addressing heritage next to loss. 'I don’t see my face, owl says before soaring, / as the future is born of slave and colonizer / on the ledge of the window.' Here we have the mysteries of mixed culture through the art made by the artists of the ancient Americas and Spain. Here a speaker asks, 'I’m here to see where / I come from to stop the din of not knowing.' The poems time-travel across regions, cultures, and centuries. Alvarez frets history, speaks to historical image-making, religion, and art. The poems invent new perspectives, speak in masks, present cinematic panoplies, are many-tongued, always clear-eyed. Richly they assemble, speak to story with mythic address as they sing and range. These poems are fire."
—Hoa Nguyen, author of Violet Energy Ingots and Judge of Omnidawn’s Lake Merritt Prize

"A blazing vessel of insight carries us through the lush, devastated world of Desirée Alvarez’s Raft of Flame. This book is propelled by questions—urgent questions that camouflage as ordinary ('And what time was dinner?' 'How would a family look?'), and those that immediately chill: 'Tell me why someone must always be sacrificed for the future to be assured?' Throughout, there is a dialectical heartbeat of desire and refusal. The gorgeous series of poems with 'cante' in their titles weave Spanish with English. Alvarez knows and sings how both lineage and etymology carry relationships tender as well as coerced. These poems revel in and expose our sonic becomings: 'Worship of ships now. Warship.' And though the book is populated by other artists (Velázquez, Kahlo, Goya), it is Alvarez, here, who expertly wields both brush and pen."
—Stefania Heim, author of Hour Book

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