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from the August 2012 issue

Funeral for Walt Whitman

"Funeral for Walt Whitman" speaks for itself, but it might be worth knowing that the poet, like many Egyptian artists and writers, has provided a prominent voice to the national dialogue in post-Mubarak Egypt. Ramadan has spoken against the notion of the poet as a spokesperson for others and argued that the individual body is the most authentic reference of poetry. Nonetheless, “Funeral for Walt Whitman” establishes a dialogue with its own historical tradition. Beyond the clear influence of Federico Garcia Lorca (especially his Poeta en Nueva York) and the prominent classical Arabic figures Ramadan cites by name (Abu Nuwas, al-Mutanabbi, Kahlil Gibran), the reader may not recognize the Iraqi poets Ma‘ruf al-Rusafi (18751945) and al-Jawahiri (18991997), as well as the early Iraqi modernists Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (192664) and Nazik al-Mala’ika (19232007).—The Translators
So finally, atop the fender of a tank,
lounges Walt Whitman.
Finally he observes the streets of Baghdad.
He sees above him birds of paper. 
He ponders how the caliph’s palace was constructed
and how airplanes destroyed it.
Walt Whitman is not afraid of rivers.
After all, he drowned there before.
Walt Whitman is not afraid of palm trees.
After all, he let a palm tree approach and enfold him.
Walt Whitman is not afraid of a woman’s abayas,
not afraid of perfume, rouge, or camisole     
because he never loved a woman.
Those who accompany Walt Whitman  
will disperse before sunset.
Those who make Walt Whitman’s dinner 
wish he were a vegetarian.
Those who dislike Walt Whitman’s poems
write secret poems
about what robots think
and what they like to do, 
and write more poems about how valleys breathe,
the songs of wood cutters,
the sweat of plants.
Walt Whitman met Lorca at the cathedral in New York.      
He met him near the casement  
and on the lake, in front of the altar.
He met him in the hallway.
He met Lorca before he ran away.
Walt Whitman met al-Mutanabbi behind the Statue of Liberty.
I met Walt Whitman as I was mixing 
charcoal, moss, fruits, grains and roots
to cook up something good to eat.
I met him as I lifted the translucent cover from my face.
Some wanted to kill Walt Whitman. 
Gibran stabbed him with the wooden cross.
Al-Hussein planted in his heart a wilted rose
seven thorns
and a tortoise.
Mahdiyya, daughter of the Mahdi, wore a white dress
and a headscarf.  
She danced on his grave.
After reading Leaves of Grass the Virgin Mother wiped her mouth. 
The Virgin Mother embraced her own image in the hand mirror.
and became aware of the fingers of sleep rubbing the little ponds
and black elder
and the grass.
The concubines are looking at the mute waiter.
The concubines are the lucky ones.
Yet despite glory,
despite the song of memory,
no one reads the Old Testament.
Walt Whitman spread out on his thighs the Song of Songs
and ordered the cardinals out of the graveyard.
Everything is futile, mere grasping at the wind.
Walt Whitman is no longer lonely.
Walt Whitman is still looking for a lover who resembles him.
Here’s what his lips should look like,
and his eyes
his eyes, his chest, his legs, his feet.  
The senator said to him Search among the pilots.
The pope said to him Search among the angels.
The police said to him Search for the Bedouins.
The novelists advised him to go back to the Mississippi
or travel to Tangiers.
The soldiers shouted in his face:
The boss‘s wife smiled and removed her mouth from the picture.
The minister of defense told him that the earth was spacious and black,
that the sky was spacious and blue. 
Walt Whitman was not surprised.
He knows that his abode is in the earth,
that his house is waiting in the sky.
Walt Whitman requested that a mulberry tree keep him company everywhere he goes.
So finally, atop the fender of a tank,
lounges Walt Whitman.
Finally he observes the streets of Baghdad.
When he rests, he looks at himself
and at that tree.
Sometimes he does not see himself.
Sometimes he sees that tree as a wild boy,
sometimes he sees it as his twin sister,
sometimes he sees it as a tall ship,
the tall tower
and the tall gallows.
Walt Whitman is still dreaming.
The tree is still a tree.
His fingers still avoid pressing the buttons of nightmares.
Walt Whitman frees himself from the months,
April, May, June, etc.
Walt Whitman squats in homage before Abu Nuwas, 
in front of al-Rusafi,
in front of al-Jawahiri. 
He never asks about Nazik al-Mala’ika.
He passes without stopping under the statue of Badr Shakir al-Sayyâb.
He strips himself of hours, of minutes of seconds.
He ends up naked.
He shivers.  He can’t find the pages he’s read all his life,
he shivers and can’t find the ceilings he slept under,
he shivers without a glance at the opposite shores,
he shivers.  He can’t find even one of his enemies.
Walt Whitman climbs the mulberry tree.
He puts his neck between its branches.
Walt Whitman dangles there.
He’s afraid his fingers will press the buttons of nightmares.
The carpenters are preparing a coffin for Walt Whitman.
The grave diggers are looking for an unused plot
suitable for Walt Whitman’s corpse.
The children are thinking up a game to quiet his soul.
Christ is composing desperate, unruly hymns.
The poets receive condolences.  They write elegies.
The sun grows sad and leaves.
And night with its heavy weight falls upon the earth
and strips itself of time,
plucks Baghdad up by the roots.
Walt Whitman’s corpse turns green and then it rots.
It rots while the songs from virgins’ mouths sing
“Rise from the grave Whitman,
rise from the grave Walt.”
Walt Whitman died.
He turned into the fender of the tank where he was sitting.
The streets of Baghdad rose into view.
The paper birds reappeared
as black shoes.
smaller than the soldiers’ feet,
smaller than the cold. 
And the air can hardly disturb them.
The air is thin like sewer lines,
like gas lines,
like chemical fertilizer.
And Walt Whitman stretches out on red earth.
He looks at his own corpse with its soiled hair.
He looks for a long time.
He notices the place the gun fell,
the corner where the camera appeared,
and he notices what’s left of the desert.
He finishes dying 
without taking in it the slightest pleasure.

© Abdel-Moneim Ramadan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar. All rights reserved.

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