From Pedro Mir's
Countersong to Walt Whitman
(Song of Ourselves)

Translated from the Spanish
by Jonathan Cohen

"Su traducción me ha fascinado. Sin ser literal, ni mucho menos, es tan fiel y conserva tanto el estilo mismo y en general el espíritu del poema, que a veces pienso que supera el original." [Your translation fascinates me. Without being literal, not in the least, it is so faithful and preserves the very style and overall the spirit of the poem so much, that at times I think it surpasses the original.] — Pedro Mir, letter to Jonathan Cohen (1986)

   a son of the Caribbean,
Antillean to be exact.
The raw product of a simple
Puerto Rican girl
                          and a Cuban worker,
born precisely, and poor,
on Quisqueyan soil.
Overflowing with voices,
full of eyes
wide open throughout the islands,
I have come to speak to Walt Whitman,
a kosmos,
                of Manhattan the son.
People will ask,
                         Who are you?
                                                I understand.
Nobody had better ask me
who Walt Whitman is.
I would go sob on his white beard.
And yet,
I am going to say again who Walt Whitman is,
a kosmos,
                of Manhattan the son.

*** Mir Reading in Spanish ***


There once was a virgin wilderness.
Trees and land without deeds or fences.
There once was a perfect wilderness.
Many years ago. Long before the ancestors of our ancestors.
The plains would play with galloping buffalo.
The endless coastlines would play with pearls.
The rocks let loose diamonds from their wombs.
And the hills played with goats and gazelles …

The breeze would swirl through clearings in the woods
heavy with the bold play of deer and birch trees
filling the pores of evening with seed.
And it was a virgin land filled with surprises.
Wherever a clump of earth touched a seed
all of a sudden there grew a sweet-smelling forest.
At times it was assaulted by a frenzy of pollen
squeezing out the poplars, the pines, the fir trees,
and pouring out the night and landscapes in clusters.
And there were caverns and woods and prairies
teeming with brooks and clouds and animals.


O Walt Whitman, your sensitive beard
was a net in the wind!
It throbbed and filled with ardent figures
of sweethearts and youths, of brave souls and farmers,
of country boys walking to creeks,
of rowdies wearing spurs and maidens wearing smiles,
of the hurried marches of numberless beings,
of tresses or hats …
And you went on listening
road after road,
striking their heartstrings
word after word.
O Walt Whitman of guileless beard,
I have come through the years to your red blaze of fire!


        what has a great undeniable poet been
              but a crystal-clear pool
                    where a people discover their perfect
What has he been
                              but a deep garden
                                    where all men recognize themselves
                                          through language?
And what
                  but the chord of a boundless guitar
                        where the fingers of the people play
                              their simple, their own, their strong and
                                    true, innumerable song?
For that's why you, numerous Walt Whitman, who saw and ranted
just the right word for singing your people,
who in the middle of the night said
and the fisherman understood himself in his slicker
and the hunter heard himself in the midst of his gunshot
and the woodcutter recognized himself in his axe
and the farmer in his freshly sown field and the gold
panner in his yellow reflection on the water
and the maiden in her future town
                                                   growing and maturing
under her skirt
and the prostitute in her fountain of gaiety
and the miner of darkness in his steps beneath his homeland …
When the tall preacher, bowing his head
between his two long hands, said
and found himself united with the foundryman and the salesman
with the obscure traveler in a soft cloud of dust
with the dreamer and the climber,
with the earthy mason resembling a stone slab,
with the farmer and the weaver,
with the sailor in white resembling a handkerchief …
And all the people saw themselves
when they heard the word
and all the people heard themselves in your song
when they heard the word
                                         I, Walt Whitman, a kosmos,
                                         of Manhattan the son …!
Because you were the people, you were I,
and I was Democracy, the people's family name,
and I was also Walt Whitman, a kosmos,
of Manhattan the son …!

*** Video of Cohen Reading Section 9 ***


And now
it is no longer the word
the accomplished word
the password to begin the world.
And now
now it is the word
And now,
now has come the hour of the countersong.
            We the railroad workers,
            we the students,
            we the miners,
            we the peasants,
            we the wretched of the earth,
            the populators of the world,
            the heroes of everyday work,
            with our love and our fists,
            enamored of hope.
            We the white-skinned,
            the black-skinned, the yellow-skinned,
            the Indians, the copper-skinned,
            the Moors and dark-skinned,
            the red-skinned and olive-skinned,
            the blonds and platinum blonds,
            united by work,
            by misery, by silence,
            by the cry of a solitary man
            who in the middle of the night,
            with a perfect whip,
            with a meager wage,
            with a gold dagger and an iron face,
            wildly cries out
            and hears the crystal-clear echo
            of a shower of blood
            that relentlessly feeds on us
among the docks receding in the distance
below the skyline of the factories
in the flower, in the pictures, in the tunnels
in the tall structure on the way to orbit
on the way to marble halls
on the way to prisons
                                                      ourselves …


Why did you want to listen to a poet?
I am speaking to one and all.
To those of you who came to isolate him from his people,
to separate him from his blood and his land,
to flood his road.
Those of you who drafted him into the army.
The ones who defiled his luminous beard and put a gun
on his shoulders that were loaded with maidens and pioneers.
Those of you who do not want Walt Whitman, the democrat,
but another Whitman, atomic and savage.
The ones who want to outfit him with boots
to crush the heads of nations.
To grind into blood the temples of little girls.
To smash into atoms the old man's flesh.
The ones who take the tongue of Walt Whitman
for a sign of spraying bullets,
for a flag of fire.
No, Walt Whitman, here are the poets of today
aroused to justify you!
Poets to come! … Arouse! for you must justify me.
Here we are, Walt Whitman, to justify you.
Here we are
                    for your sake
                                         demanding peace.
The peace you needed
to drive the world with your song.
Here we are
                    saving your hills of Vermont,
your woods of Maine, the sap and fragrance of your land,
your spurred rowdies, your smiling maidens,
your country boys walking to creeks.
Saving them, Walt Whitman, from the tycoons
who take your language for the language of war.
No, Walt Whitman, here are the poets of today,
the workers of today, the pioneers of today, the peasants
of today,
              firm and roused to justify you!
O Walt Whitman of aroused beard!
Here we are without beards,
without arms, without ears,
without any strength in our lips,
spied on,
red and persecuted,
full of eyes
wide open throughout the islands,
full of courage, of knots of pride
untied through all the nations,
with your sign and your language, Walt Whitman,
here we are
                    standing up
                                        to justify you,
our constant companion
of Manhattan!

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