on Pluriverse, new and selected poems by Ernesto Cardenal, ed. By Jonathan Cohen (New Directions)
The decision by Josef Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, to lift the excommunication (part of the papal bail-out program) of Richard Williamson, a bishop who denies that the Jewish Holocaust occurred, brings to mind Ernesto Cardenal’s run-in with Karol Józef Wojtyła, aka Pope John Paul II in Managua on March 4, 1983. Ratzinger has embraced Williamson in order to make peace with Fraternitas Sacerdotalis Sancti Pii X or The Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X, a right-wing cabal of 486 priests and others who reject Vatican II. Wojtyła came to Nicaragua to close the gap between the institutional hierarchical church and the “popular church."
Instead, the gap became a chasm. The day before the pope held mass in Managua, a commemorative service for seventeen Sandinistias was held in the plaza where the Contras killed them – the very same location of the pope's mass. He refused to acknowledge the murders or offer condolences to the families of the slain. Finally, he humiliated Nicaragua’s most respected cultural hero, Ernesto Cardenal, a Trappist priest, for resisting his order to resign from the government. A photo of the pope wagging his finger at Cardenal flashed around the world. He admonished Cardenal, who knelt before him on the airport runway in Managua, “Usted tiene que arreglar sus asuntos con la Iglesia” – “You must make good your dealings with the Church.”
Since his 1965 ordination as a priest, Cardenal has found it more critical to make good his dealings with his God. “Merton had told me,” he said, “that in Latin America contemplation could not be divorced from the political struggle.” Cardenal had been Thomas Merton’s disciple at the Gethsemani monastery in 1956-57. By then he had already formulated exteriorismo, a mode of poetry writing indebted to Ezra Pound, which Cardenal described as “created with images from the world around us … an objective poetry: narrative and anecdotal, made with elements from real life, with concrete things, proper names and precise details, exact dates and figures and facts and statements.” Earlier, he had studied American poetry at Columbia – Whitman, Williams, Frost, Moore, and Pound. Allen Ginsberg was a classmate; they would become friends with similar huge talents. Cardenal grew up listening to his father read Rubén Darío. Neruda was an early influence, but Vallejo’s influence “was more profound, not so much on my literary style, but on my soul.” Yet Cardenal’s work very often signifies a foreign mind keeping its eye on America – while gathering some of its confidence and sound from the voices of American poets. We in the U.S. should know Cardenal better than we do.
Pluriverse selects the most significant and varied work from Cardenal’s long practice, what editor and translator Jonathan Cohen calls “the most comprehensive collection to date of Cardenal’s poetry in English.” Seven translators, including Cohen and Merton, contributed these versions. Merton was the first to translate Cardenal into English. The others are Kenneth Rexroth, the Bolivian-born U.S. poet Mireya Jaimes-Freyre, Irish poet John Lyons, Donald Walsh who translated Neruda and two of Cardenal’s books, and Oxford professor Robert Pring-Mill.
“I was born for an extremist love,” Cardenal writes in “Telescope in the Dark Night,” a new long poem looking back at his monastery days. Here is “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe” from Oracíon por Marylin Monroe y Otras Poemas (1964):
receive this young woman known around the world as Marilyn Monroe
although that wasn’t her real name
(but You know her real name, the name of the orphan raped at the age of 6
and the shopgirl who at 16 had tried to kill herself)
who now comes before You without any makeup
without her Press Agent
without photographers and without autograph hounds,
alone like an astronaut facing night in space.
She dreamed when she was little that she was naked in a church
(according to the Time account)
before a prostrated crowd of people, their heads on the floor
and she had to walk on tiptoe so as not to step on their heads.
You know our dreams better than the psychiatrists.
Church, home, cave, all represent the security of the womb
But something else too …
The heads are her fans, that’s clear
(the mass of heads in the dark under the beam of light).
But the temple isn’t the studios of 20th Century Fox.
The temple – of marble and gold – is the temple of her body
In which the Son of Man stands whip in hand
Driving out the studio bosses of 20th Century Fox
Who made Your house of prayer a den of thieves.
in this world polluted with sin and radioactivity
You won’t blame it all on a shopgirl
who, like any other shopgirl, dreamed of being a star.
Her dream just became a reality (but like Technicolor’s reality).
She only acted according to the script we gave her
the story of our own lives. And it was an absurd script.
Forgive her, Lord, and forgive us
for our 20th Century
for this Colossal Super-Production on which we have all worked.
She hungered for love and we offered her tranquilizers.
for her despair, because we’re not saints,
psychoanalysis was recommended to her.
Remember, Lord, her growing fear of the camera
and her hatred of makeup – insisting on fresh makeup for each scene –
and how the terror kept building up in her
and making her late to the studios.
Like any other shopgirl
she dreamed of being a star.
And her life was unreal like a dream that a psychiatrist interprets and files.
Her romances were a kiss with closed eyes
and when she opened them
she realized she had been under floodlights
as they killed the floodlights!
and they took down the two walls of the room (it was a movie set)
with the Director left with his scriptbook
because the scene had been shot.
Or like a cruise on a yacht, a kiss in Singapore, a dance in Rio
the reception at the mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
all viewed in a poor apartment’s tiny living room.
The film ended without the final kiss.
She was found dead in her bed with her hand on the phone.
And the detectives never learned who she was going to call.
like someone who had dialed the number of the only friendly voice
and only heard the voice of a recording that says: Wrong number.
Or like someone who had been wounded by gangsters
reaching for a disconnected phone.
whoever it might have been that she was going to call
and didn’t call (and maybe it was no one
or Someone whose number isn’t in the Los Angeles phonebook)
You answer that telephone!
“The temple – of marble and gold – is the temple of her body” … Was Cardenal hearing Whitman’s lines mourning the unclaimed body of a prostitute in “The City Dead-House,” “But the house alone – that wondrous house – that delicate fair house – that ruin!” In any event, the poem’s speaker includes himself among the wreckers, the production staff of the gruesome 20th century. As Cohen notes, humor often saves Cardenal’s work from bombast and here that humor is sardonic. In his essay “The Responsibility of the Poet,” Robert Pinsky wrote, “If political or moral advocacy were all we had to answer for, that would be almost easy. Witness goes further, I think, because it involves the challenge of not flinching from the evidence. It proceeds from judgment to testimony.” Cardenal projects a vibrant, outraged, devotional, globally-perceptive voice for which moral advocacy is quite sufficient. He proceeds from judgment to the imagination of a world. While Cardenal has spent his life working toward a more just society in which Christian values may be realized, his poetry captures the world as it appears -- one in which God must be reminded to answer the phone.
In 1994, Cardenal became the first major Nicaraguan cultural figure to reject the government of the returned Daniel Ortega, maintaining that the Sandinista regime had abandoned its principles. Since then, Ortega has led a campaign to antagonize the now 83-year old poet who acted as his first Minister of Culture after the fall of Somoza in 1979. On August 22, 2008, Cardenal was found guilty of insulting the Nicaragua-based German businessman Immanuel Zerger and his wife Nubia Arcia in a property dispute, and fined 20,000 córdobas (around $1,025US). But Cardenal was acquitted of the same charges in 2005 and under Nicaraguan law there is a six-month cut-off for appealing or revoking sentences. The poet has refused to pay the fine and his bank accounts have been frozen. The sentence has been denounced by numerous writers, artists and activists worldwide including PEN America.
Cardenal’s amazing long poem “Nicaraguan Canto” (1972) includes these lines:
You brother walk unshod but you own tungsten.
Illiterate brother with antinomy mines.
I.T.T. is on the prowl
like a jaguar seeking whom it may devour.
(That’s as certain as
that General-You-Know-Who likes raping little girls
more campesinos get chucked out of helicopters
Monsignor Chavez still keeps blessing the regime!)
Did someone say the Minister of Economics would protect
his people, rather than Esso?
To understand Cardenal, register the fact that in 1925 when he was born, the United States had occupied Nicaragua for more than ten years. Although his family were colonial elites and merchants, they were also fervid about their nation’s independence and Cardenal grew up within a supportive familial embrace. Love and rebellion merged in him. It was natural for a man like Ernesto Cardenal to see through the corrupt Monsignor Chavez. Or the smiling and incomprehensibly benighted Karol Józef Wojtyła.
Meanwhile, Pope Ratzinger has condemned a sculpture of a crucified frog on display at a museum in Bolzano, Italy near his summer retreat. In a letter to the provincial government of the region, Ratzinger said the sculpture “injured the religious feeling of many people who see in the Cross the symbol of the love of God and of our salvation.” Museum officials have refused to remove the frog.
[Published January 29, 2009, 272 pages, $17.95 paperback]