Review by Magdalena Edwards

by Ernesto Cardenal
Translated and Introduced by John Lyons
Foreword by Anne Waldman

Texas Tech University Press
BOX 41037
Lubbock, Texas 79409
ISBN 978-0-89672-689-5
2011, 141 pp., $21.95

I first read the Nicaraguan poet, Catholic priest, and social activist Ernesto Cardenal (1925 – ) for a college seminar where we discussed his “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe” translated by Robert Pring-Mill in the then recently published and now classic volume edited by Stephen Tapscott Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (University of Texas Press 1996). Cardenal’s poem, his plea to God to receive Marilyn Monroe with kindness and his closing line demanding God to answer her final telephone call, struck me as refreshingly contemporary after reading so many poems by the four twentieth-century pillars César Vallejo, Vicente Huidobro, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz. I also connected instantly to the excerpt from his meditative sequence in 16 parts “Gethsemani, KY,” translated by Thomas Merton, the poet and Trappist monk with whom Cardenal studied:

Like empty beer cans, like empty cigarette butts;
my days have been like that.
Like figures passing on a T.V. screen
and disappearing, so my life has gone.
Like cars going by fast on the roads
with girls laughing and radios playing. . .
Beauty got obsolete as fast as car models
and forgotten radio hits.
Nothing is left of those days, nothing,
but empty beer cans, cigarette butts,
smiles on a faded photo, torn tickets
and the sawdust with which, in the mornings,
they swept out the bars.

Tapscott’s selection does not include other parts of the sequence, and I regret not seeking the complete text on my own at that time, in particular to read part 14, also translated by Merton, with its echoes of Wallace Stevens’ “The Snowman”:

I do not know who is out in the snow.
All that is seen in the snow is his white habit
and at first I saw no one at all:
only the plain white sunlit snow.
A novice in the snow is barely visible.
And I feel that there is something more in this snow
which is neither snow nor novice, and is not seen.

Fortunately the entire sequence of “Gethsemani, KY” is included in the volume Pluriverse: New and Selected Poems edited by Jonathan Cohen and with a foreword by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New Directions 2009). Though Pluriverse is lamentably not a bilingual edition, the translations by Jonathan Cohen, Mireya Jaimes-Freyre, John Lyons, Thomas Merton, Robert Pring-Mill, Kenneth Rexroth, and Donald D. Walsh give us a cohesive group of mostly translator-poets and mostly repeat Cardenal translators. Cohen’s informative and lively Introduction delves into the volume’s origins:

The present volume is the most comprehensive collection to date of Cardenal’s poetry in English. He approved the selection, and participated in deciding the sequence of the poems, which for the most part follows the chronology of their compositions. He has a long publication history in English translation in the United States that goes back to the early 1960s, to the time of his earliest book publications in Spanish. Merton was among his first translators…

We also learn that “for this book Cardenal himself preferred just translations, rather than a bilingual format, in order to allow for the inclusion of more poems.” If only the newest English collection of Cardenal’s work The Origin of the Species and Other Poems translated and introduced by the Irish poet-translator John Lyons with a foreword by the American poet and co-founder of the “Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics” Anne Waldman offered us a parallel roadmap.

And here begins my short list of dissatisfactions with the collection The Origin of the Species:

1. The collection is not bilingual (and we do not know why).

2. The collection is not clear about where the poems come from. Some are new, some are old. The new ones, in some cases, appear for the first time ever in any language in The Origin of the Species. It would be nice to know which poems are which. If one digs around in the volume, the most one can determine is that the first 20 poems comprise the sequence The Origin of the Species and the final 13 are older poems (how old, from where, we don’t know). Is it significant that the book has a total of 33 poems, given that Cardenal was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1965 at the age of 40 and that he is now in his mid-80s? We don’t know.

3. I wanted more from Anne Waldman’s Foreword. The best part, for me, is the inclusion of a poem by Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003), the Chilean poet and novelist exiled in Spain, titled “Ernesto Cardenal and I” (a title that unavoidably echoes Borges’ stellar poem “Borges and I”). The poem begins: “Father, in the Kingdom of Heaven / that is communism, / is there a place for homosexuals? / Yes, he said.”

4. I wanted more from John Lyons’ Introduction. Why does he not summarize his translation experience with Cardenal and his work? Lyons translated the massive and significant Cosmic Canticle (Curbstone Press 1989) among many others. Lyons mentions Cosmic Canticle in the opening and describes it as a “masterly four-hundred-page meditation on the origins of the cosmos,” which clearly engages with The Origin of the Species, but he does not tell us of his role in both books as the English-language translator. Lyons tells us that Cardenal has frequently been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature and that in the late 1940s he spent two years in graduate school at Columbia University where he was exposed to “the North American poetry tradition, from Whitman to Pound, to William Carlos Williams and to Marianne Moore,” which has influenced his work deeply. He also calls Cardenal’s poems “meditations,” but this is subtle in comparison to Robert Pring-Mill’s offering in his Introduction to Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems (New Directions 1980). Pring-Mill explains that Cardenal’s “accustomed method of composition involves long periods of meditation: drafting, redrafting, cutting up, and re-assembling numerous versions, on the way toward the final process of montage (often working on several poems in parallel, with the composition of the longer ones sometimes lasting over several years).”

5. There are so many interesting references – geographic locations, poets and figures from Latin America and elsewhere, scientific phenomena, and historic events – woven into Cardenal’s poems, it would be useful to have notes elucidating some of these at the end of the volume.

Part of my frustration with the new volume might come from personal experience: I had the privilege of hearing and seeing Ernesto Cardenal recite his poetry from one of the windows of the Moneda Palace in Santiago, Chile, on March 23, 2001, to the expectant crowd, myself included, below. He wore his black beret as always and he read alongside the American poets Adrienne Rich and Rita Dove (both of whom I interviewed for the newspaper El Mercurio in preparation for the international poetry festival Chile-Poesía), Brazil’s Ferreria Gullar, and Chile’s Nicanor Parra and Raúl Zurita, among others. I do not remember the lines he read, and unfortunately there is no YouTube video to refresh my memory (though there is footage of Adrienne Rich talking about poetry in the Bellas Artes Museum and then reading at the University of Chile). I would argue, and I think that Cardenal would agree, that it does not matter: every poem is one. Moreover, it is the transformation through poetic language that we seek. My point is that Cardenal is a charismatic figure; his voice has a quality that can hypnotize the listener, draw one into the journey at hand. On that Friday night at the Moneda Palace in downtown Santiago, the starry sky, the dramatic lighting cast on each of the renowned poets as they read from separate windows, the historic weight of the site itself, all of this contributed to a transfixing and transformative experience for the crowd. I wish that readers of the new volume of Cardenal’s work could catch a glimpse of this.

My criticism notwithstanding, the new poems speak for themselves. Cardenal’s opening poem, also titled “The Origin of the Species” to mark the bicentenary of Darwin’s birthday (Lyons tells us in his Introduction), ends:

Evolution unites us all
the living and the dead
Darwin discovered it
               (that we come from a single cell)
that is we are interlinked
               if one rises from the dead
               we all rise from the dead

There is a quality to The Origin of the Species, specifically in terms of the lyrical argumentation regarding the living and the dead or the beginning and the end, that recalls T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943) even though the presentation of Cardenal’s volume is nowhere near as compact and clearly framed. Eliot cites Heraclitus in his opening epigraphs, the second of which says, “The way upward and the way downward are the same.” The first quartet, “Burt Norton,” opens: “Time present and time past
/ Are both perhaps present in time future,
/ And time future contained in time past.”

Eliot’s poetic voice in the Four Quartets is uncertain, dogged, and saddened by the tragedy of humankind’s forgetfulness. The “perhaps” in the opening lines gives us a hint of this. The opening of the third quartet, “The Dry Salvages,” is more forceful:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget…

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the hermit crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.

Cardenal’s Origin poems are comparatively joyous, a celebration of Darwin’s work and the awesome truths contained therein, an attempt to persuade the reader of our common origins and immortality through nature and her complicity with God or that beyond us. “White Holes” is not dissuaded by death:

Day will come when the sea will boil
and the earth’s crust will melt
along with all the dead it once held.
The sun will grow and draw close to the earth
and will explode with a light they’ll see
millions of light years from here,
and all the dead will go in that light.
Fear of death is an optical error.
The starry sky, what does it tell us?
That we’re part of something much larger.
Individual eternity like
part of a community of eternities. And
individual consciousness which emerges
and is diluted in the universal.
               Ontologically together.
               The union of the universe.

Humankind is not spared Cardenal’s criticism, however. In “Cell Phone,” the final poem in the 20-poem sequence comprising The Origin of the Species, the poetic voice tackles the average consumer’s mindlessness (a critique that can be coupled with Eliot’s lament of our forgetfulness) regarding the consequences of mining for coltan (fundamental to the production of cell phones) in the Congo:

You talk on your cell phone
and talk and talk
and laugh into your cell phone
never knowing how it was made
and much less how it works
but what does that matter
               trouble is you don’t know
               just as I didn’t
               that many people die in the Congo
                              thousands upon thousands
                              for that cell phone
                              they die in the Congo
in its mountains there is coltan
                              (besides gold and diamonds)
used for cell phone

Cardenal does not return here to his earlier arguments: “That we’re part of something much larger” (“White Holes”), or that “since everything is related to everything / human destiny does not / differ from that of the entire universe” (“Reflections on the River Gijalva”). By the time we reach “Cell Phone,” the final poem of the sequence, those arguments should all be stored in our minds (lest we fall to mindlessness and forgetfulness, to the poets’ horror).
Part of what makes The Origin of the Species a pleasure to read is the way Cardenal incorporates his relationships —with Darwin’s theories and curiosity, with fellow poet Thiago de Mello and his service to his community through the restoration of the Amazon Theater, with Robert Graves’ The White Goddess and the subsequent visit to the scholar’s house in Majorca, Spain, among many others— into his poems. The poems themselves demonstrate how we are all part of something much larger, how we are related to one another. Cardenal depicts his interrelatedness with the world through his intellectual, spiritual, and personal adventures and encounters, and they are interesting, inspiring, transformative. Cardenal displays humor, ease, humanity in his verses.
In “The White Goddess” Cardenal writes:

So it was a very special book about woman, by
a man certainly very much in love with his wife.
About whom not long before Time had said: “He is one
of the most intelligent and erudite men
in the world.” And it was the book I’d been reading
on the sun-lounger on deck, watching the wake
from the stern
                              —Poseidon’s curly hair—
of the French boat heading for Le Havre. From
New York to Le Havre. My first trip to Europe.
And this was the reason why I was now
on this blue Mediterranean midday in
the out-of-the-way village of Deyá, Majorca
where Robert Graves lived, and the reason why
book in hand I knocked on his door.

Graves himself opens the door and invites Cardenal into the house, whereupon the scholar’s wife insists on serving him a bowl of the chicken soup they are eating for lunch.

He fetched the globe in the living room and spun it
round until placing his finger on Nicaragua and
he called his children so they could see
where I was from: “Here we are . . .
and here is Nicaragua.” And the children bent over to see
the tiny Mediterranean spot where they were,
and the other equally tiny spot, amazed
that it was so far away.


Magdalena Edwards is the editor of Marco Codebò’s Narrating from the Archive: Novels, Records, and Bureaucrats in the Modern Age (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press 2010). Her thesis on Raúl Zurita’s Purgatorio (1979), written while an undergraduate at Harvard, led to a stint with the “Artes & Letras” section of Chile’s leading newspaper El Mercurio. She recently received a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA. Her essay “Anniversaries, Anesthesia, and Elizabeth Bishop” was published by The Millions in August 2011, and she has an essay on Norman Rush forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is completing a memoir and an article about twentieth-century poet-translators in the Americas. She works with the novelist Mona Simpson in Santa Monica, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

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