New and Selected Poems (New Directions, 2009), a new book
of translations edited by Jonathan Cohen concerning the life-work
of the celebrated poet Ernesto Cardenal — “one
of the world’s major poets” (Choice) and “the
preeminent poet of Central America today” (Library Journal
) -- effectively follows Cardenal’s poetic development
across six decades, from the early Imagist-influenced 'exterioso'
poems and romantic epigrams of the early 1950s, to the increasingly
political and theologically activist verse he wrote -- including
his classic revolutionary documentary poem “Zero Hour.”
From there it moves to poems on ecology and other matters,
elegies to fallen Sandinistas, and on to the cosmic-mystical-scientific
dimensions of his later work.
Most everyone in the know knows Ernesto Cardenal, born in
1925 in Granada, Nicaragua. The poet was a revolutionary activist
theologian, disciple of Thomas Merton, and a Roman Catholic
priest who served as ambassador for the Sandinistas, Minister
of Culture in post-Somoza Nicaragua, and was co-founder of
the international cultural center House of Three Worlds. He
was hailed by Allen Ginsberg as "a major epic-historical
poet," and "the outstanding socially committed poet
of his generation in Spanish America" by the Times Literary
Supplement in London.
Cohen, who has translated Enrique Lihn, Pedro Mir, and Roque
Dalton, has been translating Cardenal since 1970, and includes
his own translations in Pluriverse along with forays by Thomas
Merton, Kenneth Rexroth, and four other authors.
But this is Cohen's baby start to finish. According to Robert
Hass in the Washington Post Book World, "There could
hardly be a better introduction to Cardenal than Jonathan
Cohen's beautifully edited and really brilliant translations
of his early poems." And in fact with "From Nicaragua,
With Love: Poems (1979–1986)," Cohen was winner
of the Robert Payne Award of the Translation Center at Columbia
Somewhat anecdotally, the book includes a short foreword
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In it, Ferlinghetti recalls how
he met Cardenal, and how when he visited Nicaragua during
the Sandinista government, he brought with him a seed from
Pasternak's grave, which he had received from Russian poet
Andrei Voznesensky. "Ernesto and I gave an open air reading,
plus a little ceremony in which I presented to him (the seed),"
writes Ferlinghetti. "I don't know whether Ernesto ever
planted this symbol of freedom, but he himself is such a seed."
Aside from planting seeds of ideology, to the general reader
of poetry, Cardenal's early work -- as chosen by Cohen --
will be of interest from a number of viewpoints. Particularly,
those wishing to see how the Objectivist ideas of Ezra Pound
took hold in the writings of the Nicaraguan author will find
The poem 'Leon' is one. "I used to live in a big
house by the Church of St Francis /which had an inscription
in the hall saying /AVE MARIA /and red corridors of brick
/an old red-tiled roof /and windows with rusty iron grilles,
and a large courtyard just unbearable on stuffy afternoons
with a sad clock bird singing out the hours
and someone's pale aunt in the courtyard counting out the
In short order, Cardenal leads us through the sights and
sounds of that courtyard at all hours: "the noise
of a door closing...a black coach /an empty cart rattling
as it rolled the Calle Real /And then all the roosters in
the neighborhood crowing..." and concludes with
a pointed, yet understated image which prefigures his later
focus on political and social issues:
"...and the jars of the milkmen clattering on the
and a bread vendor knocking on a front door
In these early poems, Cardenal has a rare knack for combining
tenderness toward individuals caught up in injustice with
tenacity of spirit in opposition to the larger forces in which
Of particular interest is "With Walker In Nicaragua,"
a longer work concerning the William Walker Expedition, which
occurred in the first half of the 1800s as part of an effort
by the Southern Confederacy to bring Nicaragua -- and Central
America -- under its umbrella. Told from the viewpoint of
a member of the expedition, it is surprisingly tender and
sympathetic to the individuals involved in the imperialist
thrust, while speaking out against the injustice of their
cause: "The voices of the people sounded strange to us
/and their words ended faintly as in a song /And the sentry's
cry was as musical as a bird's in the evening /Just the way
in snow covered small towns in the States, come evening one
hears the watchmen's voices cheery, full and clear...
...(and) the girls in Nicaragua
wore rosaries with gold crosses hanging from them
and stings of pearls around their heads and black tresses
And we fell in love with the women of that land."
In the poem "The Filibusterers," he states this
duality even more strongly. Of the individual men who were
sent to Nicaragua, says Cardenal, 'There were scoundrels,
thieves, gamblers, gunslingers /There were also honest men
and gentlemen and brave men,' he writes. But he takes aim
squarely at American industrialists, upon whom he will frequently
heap blame for exploitation of Central American peoples and
manipulation of American governments: 'Vanderbilt and Morgan
knew where we were going...And down in Nicaragua they stole
money from the dead.'
In subsequent works, Cardenal tends toward longer works,
and in order to sustain the reader's interest, he frequently
turns to a more complex technique, creating cinematic narrative
collages and entire fabrics of narrative.
It is a necessary approach in offering up these more highly
didactic poems -- with their overt political and social messages
and straight factual information, his effort to create an
engaging interweaving of cinematic pieces helps relieve the
factual and ideological load. Thus in the best of these poems,
Cardenal offers up a collage-like pastiche -- or as some critics
explain, the poet utilizes crosscutting, vignette, juxtaposition
and contrast to establish his effect.
While some of the later works will be more difficult to access
for the general reader of poetry, the best of these poems
provide a rich interwoven fabric of commentary on the political,
social and theological concerns Cardenal is confronted by.
Perhaps most powerfully, Cardenal reaches a summary peak in
the major work "Zero Hour," which treats the assassination
of Nicaraguan revolutionary leader Cesar Augusto Sandino,
who drove US Marines from Nicaragua in the 30s, during the
A wide ranging piece, it reaches descriptive heights in its
depiction of Sandino, considered a peasant bandido by the
"His face was as vague as that of a ghost,
remote because of his brooding and thinking
and serious because of the campaigns and the wind and the
...And Sandino wasn't intelligent or cultured,
but he turned out to have mountain intelligence.
'In the mountains everything is a teacher,' Sandino used to
...and it seemed as if every cabin was spying for him."
Later, the arch-enemies Sandino and Somoza confront each
other: "I talked with Sandino half an hour,"/said
Somoza to the American minister, /but I can't tell you what
he talked about /because I don't know what he talked about..."
"'And so, you see, I will never own any property'
And 'It is un-con-sti-tu-tion-al,' Sandino would say,
'The National Guard is unconstitutional.'
'An insult!' said Somoza to the American Minister."
The late Richard Elman calls Zero Hour, in The Nation, perhaps
the "single greatest historical poem about gringoism,
a patriotic epic of sorts. It's a poem of heroic evocation
in which the death of a hero is also seen as the rebirth of
nationhood: when the hero dies, green herbs rise where he
But it is in the more intimate poems that Cardenal shows
his rarest talent -- the ability to love and be angry in one
perfectly formed phrase. It is telling that, at the celebration
of Pluriverse, Cohen handed out a broadside -- a translation
of Cardenal's lovely poem, 'Managua, 6:30 pm,' which aptly
illustrates this skill. "In the evening the neon
lights are soft /and the mercury streetlamps, pale and beautiful
… /And the red star on a radio tower /in the twilight
sky of Managua /looks as pretty as Venus /and an ESSO sign
looks like the moon...
A most clear and loveable utterance of a theologian who embraces
the world and is, yet, determined to change it:
all proclaim the glory of God!
(Kiss me under the glowing signs oh God)
KODAK TROPICAL RADIO F&C REYES
they spell your Name
in many colors.
the news …”
I don’t know
what else they mean
I don’t defend the cruelty behind these lights
And if I have to give a testimony about my times
it’s this: They were primitive and barbaric
There is much in the didactic and ideology of the poems of
Ernesto Cardenal that could prove difficult of access to a
general reader. However, after close reading of key poems
in Pluriverse, I consider it to be a book of major importance,
helping to further establish Cardenal's claim to an enduring
place in world literature and revealing -- through Cohen's
capable editorship -- an author of rare tenderness and tenacity.