by Javier Rodríguez Marcos (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Ernesto Cardenal is 87 years old and has been just about everything a human being can be in these times -- monk and priest, revolutionary and minister, translator and poet -- but there is one image that haunts him. It was captured on television in March 1983 at the Managua airport. Pope John Paul II had just gotten off the plane. He was greeted by a sign that said "We have justice, freedom and bread, and we are fighting for peace." In the official receiving line, he met Cardenal who, with his long beard, black beret and untucked white shirt, knelt before him. Thus he received the dry admonition from the Pope, who wasn't amused by his membership in the Sandinista government or his advocacy for liberation theology. The only thing he didn't do was criticize him as a poet.
Amid the choppy waters of politics and religion, the verses have always been the least noisy refuge of Ernesto Cardenal, who yesterday received the 21st Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana, the most prestigious of the genre, organized by Patrimonio Nacional and the University of Salamanca and endowed with 42,100 euros. Thus he enters a laureate to which authors like Nicanor Parra, Antonio Gamoneda, Juan Gelman, José Emilio Pacheco, José Hierro, Álvaro Mutis -- all of whom are also winners of the Cervantes prize--, Claudio Rodríguez, Sophia de Mello Breyner, Francisco Brines, Blanca Varela and Fina García Marruz also belong.
From Managua, Ernesto Cardenal tells us by telephone that the news came to him at 5:30 in the morning. The surprise was the prize, not the hour. As usual, he had already been up two and a half hours. For Cardenal, poetry, faith, and commitment form an "indivisible whole." Born in Granada (Nicaragua), he was ordained a priest in 1965 after having participated in a first -- and failed -- attempted revolution against the Somoza dictatorship, after passing through the monastery of Gethsemani in the United States, and after studying theology in Mexico.
It was in "North America" that he delved into Walt Whitman and a poet as psalmodic as himself -- Ezra Pound, whom he translated. "My interest in making him known," he says,"comes from the fact that he brings something new: the language of the man in the street, of reality, of the jungle and the cities, of nature and history. Everything can be sung." A message that, he asserts, "has been little understood in Spanish language poetry."
After the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, in July 1979, Ernesto Cardenal was named Minister of Culture. By then he was the author of such fundamental titles in late 20th century Latin American poetry as Epigramas, Salmos and Oración por Marilyn Monroe y otros poemas. And of an unclassifiable book, El Evangelio en Solentiname, fruit of the campesinos' commentaries on the sacred scriptures -- "more profound than those of many theologians" -- from the island in Lake Nicaragua where the author had founded a Christian community.
"I have never been a dissident but a poet of liberation theology, which is the theology of the poor," Cardenal stresses. "'Gospel', in Greek, means good news and the good news for the poor is justice. It turned out that this theology wasn't the Vatican's. We believed in Jesus of Nazareth."
The conversation with the recent prize winner is full of nuances. He's neither a dissident, nor a politician: "No, I'm not a politician; I'm a revolutionary. I accepted the position of minister at a great sacrifice to spread culture to the people. I would never have been a minister in a capitalist bourgeois government."
True, he doesn't hide his disappointment with the current government of Daniel Ortega. In 1994, he disassociated himself from the Sandinista Front because of the latter's authoritarian drift. So did other ex-leaders like writers Sergio Ramírez and Gioconda Belli. Ten years later, he titled the third volume of his memoirs (published in Spain by Trotta, his main publisher) in a resounding way: La revolución perdida ("The lost revolution"). "That's what happened. It got lost," says the poet. "We didn't expect the revolution to be as beautiful as it was, a dream from which we didn't want to wake up. The current government in a nightmare from which we can't wake up. Nicaragua is now in a dictatorship. The current government isn't leftist, or revolutionary, or Sandinista. It's a family dictatorship of Daniel Ortega, his wife and his children."
Accustomed to rowing against the current, Ernesto Cardenal doesn't keep quiet. "I'm persecuted in Nicaragua. There are a lot of things I can't say. I'm risking a lot saying these things to you." And poetry? Can it change anything? The author of Canto cósmico says that for 20 years science has been his inspiration but he doesn't doubt it. "Obviously, it can do a lot. It can change the mind of the human race, which it has always done. The first language was poetry. Prose came later. Poetry keeps ideals alive and proclaims a better world. The prophets in the Bible, who are so close to the poets, already said it. Poetry is announcement and denouncement. It announces a new world and denounces injustice."