Monday, September 30, 2013

Ernesto Cardenal: "In Latin America, we are fulfilling Bolivar's dream"

By Silvina Friera (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Página/12
September 25, 2013

A few lines by Ernesto Cardenal speak worlds, a beautiful galaxy in which there's room for everything, in a simple, straightforward, sensible style. “¿Qué hay en una estrella? Nosotros mismos. Todos los elementos de nuestro cuerpo y del planeta estuvieron en las entrañas de una estrella. Somos polvo de estrellas (...) De las estrellas somos y volveremos a ellas” ["What's in a star? Ourselves. All elements of our body and the planet were in the womb of a star. We are stardust (...) From the stars we come and we shall return to them," we read in Cantiga 4 titled "Expansión", included in Cántico Cósmico ["Cosmic Canticle'], the outstanding third volume of his Poesía Completa ["Complete Poems"], published by Patria Grande. In the preface to this edition, as necessary as it is fundamental, Venezuelan poet Luis Alberto Angulo argues that there is no doubt that at some point he will begin without resistance to be viewed in sum as one of the greatest mystic poets of humanity.

"Maybe then nobody will be surprised that the educational and cultural entities of the world's most advanced governments publish his works in large numbers and distribute them freely to students at all levels." The Ministry of National Education has distributed the works of the poet, priest, theologian, translator, sculptor and former minister of culture in the Sandinista government -- from 1979 to 1987 -- in a collection for secondary school libraries (see sidebar). The walking stick, fisherman sandals and Che style beret move forward while time slows down here in the Congress Hotel. "I'd rather they didn't do tributes to me. I don't like them," says the weary poet who at age 88 could be a sort of Latin American Bartleby of poetry. Although he would rather not, Cardenal will be honored today at 5:30 p.m. in Leopoldo Marechal Hall in Sarmiento Palace, in an event organized jointly by the Ministry of Education and Patria Grande. Participants include journalist and director Ana Cacopardo, singer Teresa Parodi, actor Horacio Roca, and poet and director Tom Lupo, who will read poems by the Nicaraguan poet. Journalists and writers Reynaldo Sietecase and Stella Calloni will share their experiences on how Epigramas, Hora 0, Salmos, Oración por Marilyn Monroe y otros poemas, El estrecho dudoso, Canto Nacional, Oráculo sobre Managua and Los ovnis de oro, among other titles, have had an impact on their lives and their work. Poet Jorge Boccanera will also speak. As part of his visit to the country, the author of El Evangelio en Solentiname [The Gospel in Solentiname] will be part of the First Festival of Poetry at the Mendoza Book Fair next Friday. And on Saturday, finally, he will present his Cántico Cósmico in the Le Parc Cultural Space in Guaymallén. In 2009, he was awarded the Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize, the first received by the one who until then was considered the "least honored Spanish language poet." Last year, to temper that judgment or prejudice, he was given the Reina Sofia Prize. And who knows if the Nobel Prize for Literature, for which he was nominated in 2005, might be forthcoming, even though Cardenal waves his hands as if he were shooing away Swedish mosquitoes.

A huge Big Bang was the impact American poetry had on him, especially the work of Ezra Pound, who he translated into Spanish, after his stay in New York as a student at Columbia University between 1948 and 1949. From the American poet, Cardenal took a resource that "rather than a collage, rather than quoting a bit from the poetic range, is a wise redistribution of the historian or traveler's prose until it reaches a lyric or epic level." "His poems are like that, beautiful and vast foreign documents whose grace is in the cuts and seams," says Pablo Antonio Cuadra. The priest and Trappist monk committed to the liberation of the people acknowledges that Pound's main influence was showing him that "there are no themes or elements that are characteristic of prose, and others that are specific to poetry." "Everything that can be told in a story, or an essay, or a novel, can also be told in a poem. Statistics, extracts from letters, newspaper editorials, news reports, historical chronicles, documents, jokes, anecdotes, things that were once considered elements of prose and not poetry, fit in a poem."

His eyes light up as he remembers the child he was. "My first memory is not writing; it's making a poem before being able to write. I recited it from memory. I think I might have been about six years old. So humanity began and so my poetry also began in childhood," Cardenal tells Página/12.

In re-reading your Poesía Completa, one's attention is drawn to finding in one of the Salmos that "the galaxies sing the glory of God ...", something you work with intensively in Cántico Cósmico. Your interest in science and the universe appeared early, right?

Well yes, since I was very young I've been interested in science, in making poetry with creation and with scientific language, not -- let's say -- Biblical language but the more recent discoveries. Scientific poetry has been there since the period of the Salmos and other childhood poems. And after reading more, becoming more informed, I kept expanding the scientific poetry. Since then I've had the vocation of "poet of science," if I may say so. Poetry was already there at the beginning, with God.

Didn't scientific uncertainty collide with your Christianity? Could you always reconcile science and faith?

Yes, perfectly. Faith and science are the same thing to me. There isn't any conflict because science is the explanation of creation, creation is a poem, and the creator is a poet. "Poem" is "creation" in Greek and Saint Paul calls God's creation "poiema", like a poem by Homer.

It's usually thought that science is opposed to faith, or at least that it questions it.

That's how the conflict has often been. But not in my case, not in any way.

Why didn't that conflict happen? Perhaps contemplative art allowed you to unite elements that are sometimes contrasted?

Yes, that could be. Also as a poet, which is about the same as contemplative art. Cántico cósmico is intended as an epic or a saga.

Are there epics or sagas in poetry today?

Practically none. There are in novels, but not in poems. The novel is the current epic. And therefore the novel is very popular but not poetry. Almost nobody reads poems and it's the fault of the poets who write poetry that's not interesting.

When you say it's the poets' fault, you mean they're not clear in the poems they write?

Exactly. They're hermetic and no one understands them nor are they to be understood, and therefore of no interest to the public. I always wanted to make poetry that would be understood and that would communicate.

It's been said that we only know about 9 percent of the universe, a small figure.

That's how it is, more or less. The visible universe is a tiny part. A large part of matter we don't see; it's the so-called "invisible matter".

And what does the poet do with what's unseen?

It's the great mystery on which we can meditate, though most don't think of this. But one should think of this because most of reality that exists is that which is unseen -- dark energy and dark matter. I love to look at the stars when I'm praying too, so I have the universe in mind, communicating with God through his creation.

Do you read many scientific texts?

Yes, that's almost all I read. I don't usually read poetry because I no longer find anything new in what's being written. I read science books. Or current events, which are also themes of Cántico Cósmico.

Speaking of current events, how do you view the present political situation of Latin America?

With much love, much interest, much concern, and much hope. And especially, with optimism. There's a new reality in Latin America, a new independence. The first independence was from the Spanish empire; now it's from the Yankee empire. The second independence is happening in many countries, some with independent governments already. Relative independence in others. Hugo Chavez was a great figure. He might have had his faults but his great merit was renewing Bolivar's ideal: the creation of a united Latin America in contradistinction to North America. We are fulfilling Bolivar's dream of creating a single nation.

In that sense, how's Nicaragua doing?

...Very poorly What there is now is neither a revolution nor is it leftist. It's a personal, a family dictatorship of a pair, a couple and their children. Something very embarrassing...It's dangerous for me to keep talking about this subject because I have to go back to Nicaragua.

Is it dangerous for you to live there?

Yes, but I can't keep talking....

And he doesn't speak for a few seconds, as if he were falling back into irreproachable silence. This priest has integrated writing and political activism and, with his teacher and friend Thomas Merton, he founded a small contemplative community in Solentiname in 1966, which encouraged the development of cooperatives, created a primitive painting school and a poetic movement among the peasants, as well as the work of conscientization based on the Gospel interpreted in a revolutionary key. "As a Marxist, Cardenal is a heretic, and as a Catholic priest, he is on the verge of another heresy since he rejects the notion of the incompatibility of Christian faith and socialist politics," emphasized Paul W. Borgeson. "In poetry, he also disagrees with traditionalist circumscriptions, in his rejection of metaphor and his inclusion of the commonplace in verbal art. Believing and creating, politics and faith in God are not incompatible for Cardenal. On the contrary, he insists that one definitely leads to the other. Thus, these aspects mark his definitive work." When John Paul II visited Nicaragua officially in 1983, the pontiff -- in front of the TV cameras that were broadcasting to the whole world -- severely admonished and rebuked the poet and priest who kneeled before him on the airport runway itself, for propagating apostasies according to the Catholic faith and for being part of the Sandinista government. The liberation theology priest, an obstinate rebel against the Vatican, was a newcomer to Mendoza in April when he got a suprise at breakfast. "In my first interview, the reporter asked me what I thought of the Argentine pope. What Argentine Pope? I thought he was asking in case an Argentine pope were elected some time. I had to ask him three times before I understood that they had elected an Argentine pope," the poet recalls.

Do you think there'll be changes in the Church?

Yes, at the beginning I didn't think he could be doing all that he's doing...something truly incredible because he's turning things upside down. As it should be, because everything was all wrong. That a pope doesn't ride in the popemobile but in the smallest car in the Vatican is the world turned upside down. The last shall be first -- Francis is doing that.

Do you think Pope Francis might review the "suspension a divinis" that hangs over you?

It doesn't concern me because it's a prohibition on administering sacraments and I didn't become a priest to administer sacraments or go around celebrating baptisms and marriages, but to be a contemplative. And I'm still one. Pastoral practice is rather a nuisance for me; it's not my vocation. As a poet and a priest, I'm a contemplative.

What would happen if the Pope removed that prohibition on providing the sacraments from you?

It might complicate my life instead. It would put me in commitments that I don't currently have ... I feel very tired now, I hardly slept at all last night, and you're asking me many questions.

Will the next prize you receive be the Nobel for Literature?

That would complicate my life too...I don't think there's any danger of that.

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