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Black Arts and Culture

Ernesto Cardenal, Revolutionary and Poet

By Judith Stevens
Special to the NJ&G

Poet Ernesto Cardenal served as the Minister of Culture in the revolutionary government of Nicaragua. In 1980 he was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Publishers Association. This Guatemalan poet, author of “Los Ovnis de Oro,” (Golden UFO’s), also offers a probing look at American Indians. A Trappist priest, colleague and friend of Thomas Merton, the poet, Ernesto Cardenal has been compared to Ezra Pound and the Chinese poets for his use of ideograms – the superimposition of images, often a juxtaposition of past and present, giving two different or ironically identical images that create an unsuspected third powerfully dynamic image.

Cardenal says that the poet is the “Keeper of the Word.” He says he is attempting “poetic integration” – a search for unity, by using exterior stimuli and internal responses, showing that poetry can be both intimate and public at the same time – poetry containing both history and wisdom. Cardenal has said, “The only way for mystical union is that of release, the renouncing of everything , and that ‘s what I had to do upon entering the monastery.”

Ernesto Cardenal’s prophetic/revolutionary vision allows him to write political/mystical poems, economic/reality poems, social/religious poems – contemporary images versus mythic reality (mystic versus modern) – in a form that is enlightening. Even a revolutionary ideogram – the juxtaposition of the dual reality of priest and revolutionary can render the poem as incantation – poems that are prayers, and at the same time, a call to action. Cardenal says, “For me, poetry is above all, prophesy in the Biblical sense of guidance. My preoccupation is that of writing a poetry which serves others in communicating its meaning.”

From his poem, Golden UFO’s…

“I heard them talk
about a tree of knowledge
laden with fruit,
with water and whirlpools in its roots
so fishes could live.
And a snake fallen from the tree…”

And from “The Secret of Machu Picchu,”

“…everywhere stone ramps and staircases
leading to deserted plazas, empty towers…
This fortress was never a fortress…
Machu Picchu is now for tourists…
The roads of Machu Picchu lead inward.”

Finally, writing about the North American western plains in “The Ghost Dance,” Cardenal imagines SItting Bull, prophet and wise man of the Ghost Dance Movement, a belief in the return of the buffalo and the disappearance of the white man:

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“…The Ghost Dance was without weapons
night after night dancing the sacred dance
There were tribes that left their firearms
and even everything made of metal
‘everything as it was before the whites…”

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