FALL 2009



Pluriverse: 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 University.

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 good samples.

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 rosary..."

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 stone pavement
and a bread vendor knocking on a front door
and crying

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 they operate.

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 Somoza regime.

A wide ranging piece, it reaches descriptive heights in its depiction of Sandino, considered a peasant bandido by the Somoza authorities:

"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 rain...
...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 say...
...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 has fallen."

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)
they spell your Name
in many colors.
“They broadcast
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
but poetic

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.




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