The Poem

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 276

Ernesto Cardenal’s “The Lost Cities” consists of nine sections of irregular stanzas, ranging from six to twenty-six lines. The meditative poem arises from a visit to the Guatemalan ruins of Tikal, vestiges of the Mayan civilization at its apex. It pays homage to the great achievement of the classical Mayan civilization, laments its disappearance, and envisions its return to its former grandeur. The poem opens and closes with multisensory descriptions of nocturnal creatures inhabiting the abandoned ruins of the Mesoamerican city. They represent nature’s return to their home displaced by temples carved out of the jungle’s rock. The body of the work deals with the cyclical nature of time and the rise and fall of civilizations. The poet wonders whether the stone temples will again emerge from beneath the vines and thickets.

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The Mayan concept of time is the dominant recurrent theme. Secondary themes of religion and the changing faces of civilization are intertwined with its primary focus. The poet as visitor to Tikal meditates upon the ruins, envisions its past splendor, contrasts it with present-day Central American society, and hypothesizes the return of its former greatness. The juxtaposition of temporal descriptions from different eras leads the reader backward and forward through time. Abrupt contrasts with Nicaragua’s harsh dictatorship and the brutality of the military regime temporarily break the harmonious and mystical aura of the acropolis. Even as it is overrun with jungle flora and fauna, its majesty is awe-inspiring and thought-provoking. While the poet wonders whether the Maya can reclaim mastery over their temples, stelae, towers, chronicles, and genius, nocturnal creatures claim Tikal as their domain as his question remains unresolved.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709

The structure is a loose arrangement of irregular verse lines. Each verse describes a particular aspect of the ancient Mayan civilization and its historical context. Each stanza serves as a descriptive passage that may be rearranged to form a panoramic composite. Generally, lines alternate between three and four stressed syllables. The stanzas do not adhere to a consistent metric pattern. They vary in length, and some contain lines with more or less than four stressed syllables.

The poem’s content is more consistent than its structure. Symbols found in nature and antiquity convey the poet’s temporal message. Nocturnal scenes open and close the poem. Among the plentitude of flora and fauna, only the jaguar that “roars in towers” reappears. In the third stanza, this sacred creature returns in the form of a high priest’s cape, an evocation of ritual ceremony that revives Mayan past splendor. The revered jaguar’s endurance links nature’s strength to human aspirations and their search for divine union.

The second stanza distinguishes between the present-day wildlife and their stylized depiction in frescoes. The poet contrasts their endurance and integrity with the lives of descendants of the ancient inhabitants. He wonders how the contemporary Maya can record their greatness in hieroglyph, painting, and dethroning “tyrants.” In closing, he questions how they can rebuild their civilization.

The third stanza provides a visual explanation for these questions. As the acropolis lies buried beneath the jungle, only wild animals inhabit the abandoned city. The sacred quetzal shares Tikal with the lowly tapir. The poet evokes the past deification of the bird through personification of the present-day bird as the poem describes the jungle, where the anteater, tapir, and “the quetzal (still garbed like a Maya) go.” As a recurring image linking this sacred creature with its former role as deity, quetzal feathers reappear on fans with jaguar capes worn by the high priests. The religious ceremony seeks to transcend human limitations through shouts and drumbeats, copal incense, and smoke rising from pinewood torches.

This montage of synesthetic images acutely portrays the abandoned city at its apex. The former greatness of Tikal’s high priests is vividly envisioned, accentuated by ceremonial scents and sounds. The poem juxtaposes this scene with the description of present-day Tikal, where only howling monkeys in zapote trees replace the city’s former splendor.

The fifth stanza is a one-line statement interrupting the pastoral reverie: “There are no names of generals on the stelae.” This shocks the reader back to the present and prepares the context of the remaining stanzas. The poet contrasts the ancient Maya with the modern-day inhabitants of the Petén region and Central American society. He lists characteristics of the ancient Maya deemed superior to those of contemporary society and emphasizes that the Mayan language, records, and art do not acknowledge leadership. No names of rulers or high priests were immortalized. The seventh stanza continues this observation, as the poet relates that the Mayan language lacks words for “master” and “city wall.” This stanza’s major emphasis is on the democracy of religion. While Tikal was a city of temples honoring the gods, priests did not enslave or colonize peasants in order to create and fortify their capital.

The eighth stanza develops the concept of unifying the disparate elements of Mesoamerican culture past and present. The stanza’s axis, religion, links past and present icons. It begins by identifying “Jesus as the God of the Maize.” The ancients again counterpoint modernity by linking disparate symbols of modern civilization: “They had no wars, nor knew the wheel/ but they had calculated the synodic path of Venus.” While the stanza characterizes the civilization as utopian, unadorned nature simplifies this astronomical achievement by incorporating a ceiba tree on the horizon and parrots returning to their nest. The second half of the stanza links religion to the Mayan concept of time. “Time was holy. Days were gods.” The stanza ends by refraining the cyclical pattern of time and religion.

The final stanza returns to nightfall and the wildlife that rules present-day Tikal. It links the poem to the opening scene of nocturnal creatures inhabiting the ruins. The poet again wonders if the measure of time will return to mark the civilization’s passing.

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Themes