The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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.