First published: New York: New Directions, 1977, edited and selected by Robert Pring-Mill and Donald D. Walsh, translated by Thomas Merton, Kenneth Rexroth, Mireya Jaimes-Freyre, and the editors
Subgenres: Epigrams; lyric poetry; meditation and contemplation
Core issues: Apocalypse; capitalism; compassion; conscience; good vs. evil; justice; Latin Americans; suffering
Leading Latin American poet Ernesto Cardenal is also an ordained Roman Catholic priest and an avowed Christian-Marxist. After his ordination in 1965, he moved to the island of Mancarrón on Lake Nicaragua, where he founded a Christian-Marxist commune called Our Lady of Solentiname. There he began preaching his revolutionary form of Pauline Christianity, which aims to cultivate a distinctly Christian sociopolitical awareness. In this way, Our Lady of Solentiname is linked to the larger Latin American Christian movement, concietización, to which Cardenal contributes his advocacy of Christian liberation theology and social justice. Both ideas pervade Apocalypse, and Other Poems, a selection of English translations from Cardenal’s major short poems from the late 1940’s to 1973.
The poetry in Apocalypse, and Other Poems enacts many of Cardenal’s major Christian themes, including resurrection, renunciation, love, and justice. Certainly his interpretations of such themes are informed by his Marxist politics, but one must remember that the practice of Marxism and the practice of Christianity are equivalent for Cardenal. Thus, his remonstrations against political corruption and murder, for example, are exegetic articulations of the sins of humankind, and the poems ultimately transmit to the reader a sense of Cardenal’s belief in God’s love as transformational and transcendent. In other words, just as Jesus is able to heal because he loves, so might these poems aspire to similar achievement.
Likewise, if one accepts the notion from Augustinian Christianity of sin as a form of absence, then Apocalypse, and Other Poems is a profoundly Roman Catholic book. More specifically, Cardenal repeatedly explores the catastrophic consequences of God’s absence from the lives of people, and nowhere is this more clear than in the book’s title poem, “Apocalypse,” a free-verse, bleak, and violent depiction of nuclear winter as the consequence of humankind’s failure to live through God’s love and teachings. However, with typical resilience of spirit, Cardenal concludes the poem on a magisterial note by prophesying humanity’s replacement: a gloriously new, spiritually unified being made of humans but definitively improved.
Like “Apocalypse,” Cardenal’s epigrams elucidate the sin of absence. Translated from Epigramas: Poemas (1961; Epigramas, 1978), his first collection of mature, distinctive poems, the epigrams in Apocalypse, and Other Poems ostensibly explore Cardenal’s love for two women, Claudia and Myriam. The epigrams excite in him a succinct poetry of remarkably deep and conflicted feelings, ranging from euphoria and valor to humiliation and fear. They also lend themselves to multilayered readings, whereby the beloved can symbolize both the state and the divine. Here again the link between politics, love, and spirituality becomes clear, centering these well-wrought homages to Catullian epithalamia.
For example, in Cardenal’s epigram 8, the speaker learns of his beloved’s infidelity, which drives him to excoriate the government in writing until somewhat suicidally (and therefore sinfully) landing himself in jail. In other words, the speaker is stripped of love, and its sudden absence drives him to self-destruction, with the amorous, the political, and the spiritual invoked. This is compounded in epigram 10, where the speaker upbraids his beloved for her inadequate love for him. Again, the absence of love might be read on the literal, romantic level. It can also, however, represent an irreverent challenge to God for failing to love his followers more perceptibly. Simultaneously it can symbolize the Nicaraguan state’s lack...
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of love for its people, whom it neglects and murders with seeming indifference throughout Cardenal’s book. Thus the absence of love ultimately resounds as a metonymic reminder of Jesus’ teachings of unconditional love for God and his creation.
Like the epigrams, the book’s “psalms” are beautifully crafted explorations of the intersections of faith, time, love, and politics. Translated from Salmos (1967; The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation, 1971), these poems are Cardenal’s lively reinterpretations of biblical Psalms by casting them in modern context and idiom. Rhythmically driven, they range in tone from the ecstatic to the outraged, and a fine example of the former is “The Cosmos in His Sanctuary (Psalm 150),” where Cardenal exhorts everyone on Earth to celebrate God and his goodness with unbridled euphoria. In startling juxtaposition, the Psalm “Unrighteous Mammon (Luke 16:9)” is a fierce, twenty-two-line Marxist-Christian manifesto of Cardenalian renunciation, in which private wealth ranks among the most egregious and execrable sins of injustice.
Like renunciation, resurrection is explored with tremendous force. Poems like “Behind the Monastery” and “The Lost Cities” elicit the anguish and impatience in awaiting Christ’s return. Equally poignant, the poem “Night” offers a violent, resonant depiction of life in a despoiled world unready for Christ’s return. Nevertheless, even in this case, Cardenal’s faith buoys the poem, suffusing it with an ultimately unconquerable strength. This strength is explicit in poems such as “Katun II Ahau,” which forecasts the triumph of the Scriptures over political and spiritual evil. Similarly, “The Arrival” quickly transcends its political details to evince an indestructible fraternal love uniting God’s children. Thus, whether impatient, terrified, battered, or ecstatic, Cardenal’s belief in God is absolute and essential to this powerful collection of poetry.
Perhaps the most moving and masterful poem in the collection is its longest one: “Coplas on the Death of Merton.” Written in eulogy of monk and poet Thomas Merton, who was Cardenal’s novice-master at the Trappist Monastery at Gethsemani, Kentucky, from 1956 to 1959, the poem creates a quintessentially Cardenalian collage of personal memories, geopolitical history, theological wonder, and much more to generate equanimity in the face of death, grief, and suffering. This peace amid the terror can be read as nothing less than Cardenal’s belief in the triumph of God’s love over mortal agonies, and the careful crafting of such a notion in fresh, plangent poetry is what distinguishes this book.
The dominant Christian themes in Apocalypse, and Other Poems are resurrection, renunciation, love, and justice. Most often these themes are approached through indirection, whether in the form of historical commentary, social allegory, or political vision. Regardless, Cardenal’s Christian ethic never falters. Instead his belief in God’s love prevails over multifarious challenges.
Furthermore, through lyrical, vernacular poems, the book enacts Cardenal’s unique Christian-Marxism, which aims to cultivate sociopolitical awareness through a revolutionary form of Pauline Christianity fusing liberation theology with social justice. To understand this, one must understand Cardenal’s belief in the practice of Marxism as equivalent to the practice of Christianity. Thus, to create a Marxist economy for Nicaragua would be to create a Christian utopia for Nicaraguans. This is evident throughout the book, whether Cardenal is joyously rewriting a biblical Psalm or hauntingly prophesying the Apocalypse.
Likewise, one must recognize Cardenal’s belief in the Resurrection. That belief never abandons him, however terrifying his portrayals of a world despoiled by misbehavior (both political and personal). God’s love always circumscribes human life, and always his love is posited as salvific and indomitable. Thus the work of the poems is the work of readying oneself for God.
Similarly essential to the book is an Augustinian notion of sin as a form of absence. For example, the cardinal sin of avarice is frequently portrayed as the absence of Christian morality from the political domain. Nevertheless, implicit in such absence is its potential refilling: through devotion to God in thought and deed. Thus the book becomes a means for healing the damaged world by redressing the injustices among people, cultures, and countries.
Sources for Further Study
- Cardenal, Ernesto. Cosmic Canticle. Translated by John Lyons. Willimantic, Conn.: Curbstone Press, 1993. A long poem (almost 500 pages) exploring the intersections of Christianity and science.
- Cardenal, Ernesto. Love: A Glimpse of Eternity. Translated by Dinah Livingston. Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 2006. Prose from Cardenal’s religiously formative years of study to become a Trappist monk; apolitical both in content and by monastic order.
- Elias, Edward. “Prophecy of Liberation: The Poetry of Ernesto Cardenal.” In Poetic Prophecy in Western Literature, edited by Jan Wojcik and Raymond-Jean Frontain. London: Associated University Presses, 1984. Good introduction to scholarship on Cardenal’s fusion of religion with poetics.
- Field, Les W. “Constructing Local Identities in a Revolutionary Nation: The Cultural Politics of the Artisan Class in Nicaragua.” American Ethnologist 22, no. 4 (November, 1995): 786-806. Scholarly, succinct introduction to the sociopolitical landscape of Cardenal’s work.
- Merton, Thomas. Courage for Truth: The Letters of Thomas Merton to Writers. Edited by Christine M. Bochen. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993. Includes letters to Cardenal from his Trappist novice-master; their friendship and correspondence spanned more than a decade and inspired Cardenal to create Our Lady of Solentiname.