Pluriverse: New and Selected Poems

by Ernesto Cardenal (edited by Jonathan Cohen)
New Directions 2009
Reviewed by Ken L. Walker


The Bleak Duplicate

cardenal coverThe public “we” voice and claim a la Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Diane Wakoski has a history of being misunderstood, but a strong history, nevertheless.  Defining “I” has been a long tradition in poetry without, of course, an authoritative solution.  Speaking for others is incredibly thorny and should be trotted with caution.  It requires one of two things—appointment/election or selfish egomania.

Ernesto Cardenal is a key example of the “we” voice, of the candle by which all vigils are held, at least the vigils in and around his Nicaraguan cipher (including parts of Kentucky, New York City, and some of Japan).  New Directions recently released Pluriverse: New and Selected Poems and featured Jonathan Cohen (a lifelong Cardenal translator) as the editor along with Coney Island stroller Lawrence Ferlinghetti (on the foreword) in January of this year—a star studded cast for a not so well known Latin American poet. 

Sure, folks have heard of Neruda and Lorca, barely Machado or Dario, but Ernesto Cardenal?  Ernesto Cardenal is a strange bird but nowhere near as full of himself as the repeatedly egomaniacal Pablo Neruda.  The two are associated all too often for their subversive stances as well as their romantic orbital patterns; but they are not in the same galaxy; that is to say, perhaps the common denominator is derived from a public of ignorance, a reading public that has no idea of the process of translation and how large corporate publishers pay for quick translations so they can make a buck or because they think the faster the better.  (See:  Roberto Bolaño’s Romantic Dogs, one of the weakest Spanish translations in recent years.)

Pluriverse, however, has no Spanish language (original) versions present, easily the most disappointing facet of the book.  The song of the open mouth (Español) has been closed.  The bulks of Spanish words, when pronounced properly, end with the mouth in an open position; the preponderance of English words keep the user’s lips sealed.  Not having at least a typeface facsimile of the original is insulting to readers and detrimental as to whether or not the translation—in this case, the entire poem—can be judged at all.  Whatever word would put pity to shame is what I am looking for.  Commiseration.  Grief. 

The twelve-page poem “Epigrams,” Cardenal’s dedication to Catullus, is a superb example, a carousel of wit—vignette little lime chunks that possess extremely witty concept-reversals which becomes darkly comedic. 


Be careful, Claudia, when you’re with me,
because the slightest gesture, any word, a sigh
of Claudia, the slightest slip,
perhaps one day scholars will examine it,
and this dance of Claudia’s will be remembered for centuries.
I’ve warned you, Claudia.

It’s not nearly as raunchy as Catullus but nowhere close to overt sentimentality and Cardenal, in this case, keeps with the tradition of remaining metaphysically-layered—of being the poet discursive with time, history, the current and lover.

And in traditional Sandinista fashion:


You’ve worked twenty years
to pile up twenty million pesos,
but we’d give twenty million pesos
not to have to work the way you’ve worked.

There are many other parts to these epigrams that coerce smirks, laughter, raised fists, and may even break a tear or two; but it is a shame that the Spanish is absent as the desk of a student who committed suicide.  With translation (and this comes from Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, among others), the original text should always be displayed because without it, readers may think they are receiving the truth and they are getting bleak duplicate.  Thus, the translation can not only be emotionally read and felt but the translation as its own gray entity can be intellectually absorbed as well as sonically heard (at least when read aloud).  The original presentation is the only necessity, its own card deck of subtlety.  Without it, a reader may be left to wander an unidentified wilderness, not knowing the primordial song, sound, cadence, manifestations, emergences, and narrative. The collection performs a damaging disservice here to Cardenal veterans and rookies alike.  One cannot blame the poet.  And the translators can only be blamed for their under-pronounced lack of effort.

Luckily, Cardenal has close ties to the United States and American thought and poetry—through the editor Cohen along with his old friend and teacher Thomas Merton, the Kentucky Trappist monk who sojourned at the Abbey of Gethsemani and brought the Dalai Lama to the U.S. on two different occasions.  Liberals, libertarians and activist-hippies alike will love this poetry, especially the long, misleadingly manageable “Zero Hour”.  It begins:

Tropical nights in Central America,
with moonlit lagoons and volcanoes
and lights from presidential palaces,
barracks and sad curfew warnings.

And ends, after seventeen full pages of slightly surrealistic narrative poetry like so:

But the hero is born when he dies
and green grass is born from the ashes.

“Zero Hour” was what a couple of E.C.’s friends called underground poetry (poesía de la bajo tierra) and could only be read aloud at rebel campfires, or passed by way of shredded paper notes.  The poem plucks a hefty majority of its content from the April Rebellion, an aggressive act of defense directed at the brutal Somoza and his Presidential Palace.  The rebellion failed.  Many of the April Rebellion leaders were bitter with each other which, in the end, did not matter because Somoza either tortured or killed all of them.  The book’s introduction tells readers that Cardenal was “lucky to avoid arrest.”

The poetry, over a span of fifty six years, does not differentiate from its form; at times, Cardenal experiments with line breaks and placement of next line—particular poems (“Managua 6:30”, “Coplas on the Death of Merton”, “New Ecology”, etc. . . ) look on the page like choreographed tango sequences.  The earlier work hugs the left margin.  The later work swirls and dances, many lines beginning with “and” or “the” (i.e. y o el/la).  E.C.’s plural, radical-flag-waving first person sometimes beautifies an imperative; other times, it cultivates an opaque screen of who specifically the “we” (nos) is.  Nicaraguans?  Oppressed Latinos continually having to (as an Other) respond to imperialist racism?  Liberation Theologists?  The proletarian in general? 

In “Coplas on The Death of Merton,” he writes, “And we are alone/immortal grains of wheat that do not die, we are alone.”  Is that “we” (nos): Thomas Merton and Ernesto Cardenal, spiritual advisors, or every human individual?  Then, in “In The Half-Light,” the we amends itself into a smooth lyricism, directly romantic and sharply clever: 

Irene moves among the tables
and we walk together, reclining,
until midnight, beneath the orange torches
what am I saying? until the Sunday dawns.

A model example of his beguiling drollness, from the “Coplas . . .”

Time? IS money
it’s Time, it’s shit, it’s nothing
it’s Time with a celebrity on the cover

It could either go in a direction of Lord of the Flies or trek on a pathway of serious attentiveness.  That is the usual with Cardenal—once out of the consistent rejection, a reader will make plenty of realizations, come across epiphanies.  His often childish word play shows readers the buried semantics a culture of consumption wants to forget rather than to dig up—slogans are seized and accessibility becomes a misnomer.  The three best poems (outside his multi-paged carry-on narratives) are:  “The Lost Cities,” “In The Half-Light,” and “Managua 6:30 PM”.  The swirling lines, sparsely minute descriptions, liberal politics, and buzzing heart that thump in those are swelteringly nuclear. 

Walter Benjamin is posthumously present to remind us that it is the translator’s mandate to “liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.”  If that is found true, this edition has failed the greatness of Ernesto Cardenal by leaving out the original and including many lackluster, decaying translations.  However, reading Cardenal in English (esp. from US publishers) has thus far been impossible.  The book’s epigraph comes from Cardenal his self:  “I have tried, above all, to write poetry that can be understood.”  That, he did.  But, he also wrote gorgeously alive minimal lyricism that necessitates a bit more energy, oomph and demand.