The Peasant Women from Cuá

by Ernesto Cardenal

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 371

Ernesto Cardenal’s “The Peasant Women from Cuá” consists of seventy lines of free verse in the reportorial style of a vivid yet unadorned chronicle of the Nicaraguan civil war. The poem is based upon actual events during the President Anastasio Somoza García era and serves as a telling account of the tumultuous events. It is representative of oppression of peasants in the mountainous regions of Nicaragua, in which insurrection brewed and initiated a popular revolution.

This documentary poem evokes the trauma and agony of women who are left to deal with soldiers of Somoza García’s government after their men have fled. It appears in part 1 of Flights of Victory, “Flights of Insurrection.” A responsorial poem entitled “Llegaron las de Cuá” (“The Women from Cuá Arrived”) is in part 2, “Flight of Victory and Celebration.” It recounts the testimonies of a delegation of Cuá’s women at a mass pro-Sandinista rally after the overthrow of the Somocista regime. Their testimonies serve as affirmations of survival and spiritual triumph.

The narrator chronicles several women’s accounts of their experiences while they were imprisoned for three months in a mountain barrack. Recurring images of their boys in hiding are juxtaposed with the gruesome fates of other captured boys. Another image recurs throughout the poem: “pangs of birth.” The women’s cries at the death and loss of their men ironically evoke their birth pains upon giving life. The cyclical nature of human experience emerges from the siege, crisis, and spiritual triumph of the village of Cuá. Descriptions of women giving birth, nursing their young, or aborting reinforce the message that the cycle of life continues despite oppression and imprisonment.

In the second half of the poem, poignant repetition of the women’s visions and dreams shifts the focus from their present reality to the hope that their boys are safe in their mountain hideouts or triumphant in their guerrilla attacks against the military. The optimistic tone impacts the second half of the poem. The transition from the focus on the forces of oppression and its deadly consequences to the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity delivers the poem’s message that freedom emerges from spiritual triumph over earthly evils.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

Cardenal’s style is devoid of artifice. It utilizes prosody in poetic structure. No consistent metric pattern dominates. The English translation resembles a prose poem with irregular line breaks. Some names of victims are isolated on separate lines or in short staccato lists to heighten their impact. Women are listed by name with their testimonies, concise and unelaborated accounts of their traumas. The simplicity of their speech heightens its impact. Their voices return as they are again identified in the continuation poem “Llegaron las de Cuá.” This structural aspect resembles techniques of film documentary in which reality is edited, interpreted, and underscored by linguistic choices.

The poem focuses on “María Venancia, 90 years old,” “Amanda Aguilar, 50 years old,” and “Angela García, 25 years old.” Some lines focus acutely on a woman’s agony: “Matilde aborted sitting down/ when they questioned her all night long about the guerrillas/” and “Worse ones came in an army truck/ Three days after they left Cándida gave birth.” Other images reveal cruel irony: “A guardsman called to Cándida/ come here and wash my pants/ but he wanted something else/ (Somoza smiled in a picture like/ an Alka-Seltzer ad).” The portrait of President Anastasio Somoza García as a benevolent overseer contrasts with the soldiers’ brutality. Commonplace icons of the political regime and consumer culture alternate with the women’s visions of their men’s triumphant return.

The poem’s vocabulary is markedly unpoetic, originating in the vernacular and the consumer culture. Cardenal’s poem presents reality directly through its objects and images rather than through abstractions and symbolic analogies. Its language is at times prosaic. The women’s denial of “I haven’t seen any boys” and “We know nothing about them” recurs with emphasis on reportorial stylistics. Their speech is clear and concise in its structural simplicity. Repetition reinforces the women’s message of defiance.

The interplay of life and death is also repeated. When one of the boys is taken away or killed, another one is born or raised to take his place. Stark realism marks this cycle: the Cándida suckles her baby, “very tiny and underfed.” After listing the nightly disappearances of Esteban, Juan, Saturnino, and Chico, Matilde aborts her child and Cándida gives birth.

The overt political message does not detract from its intensity and clarity. Lines 49-70 digress from factual reportage to a suspension of reality. Elements of political ugliness combine with the purity and beauty of a spiritual vision as prosaic and poetic language merge. The narrator describes the women’s dreams in which inexpressible hopes become hazy visions: “their dreams are subversive.”

This final section is the only digression from the harsh chronicle. Utilizing vocabulary and line structures more analogous to traditional poetic language, this dream state liberates the women from their imprisonment structurally as well as thematically. Repetition of “mist,” “mountain,” and “at night” distance this section from the preceding explicit reality. Elderly María Venancia reappears. Rather than her defiant contest to the soldiers’ interrogations, she sees the boys in misty mountains. She joins the village women, empowered by their unified vision crystallized in their silent defiance. Cándida, Amanda, and Emelinda return in stark contrast to their torturous experiences with the soldiers. In their dreams, they are free, climbing mountains, wearing knapsacks and singing “happy-go-lucky songs.” Their joint creation of a dreamworld strengthens their belief that their boys will come home. The repetition in the final lines concretizes their resolve: “so often at night in dreams/ they see the boys.”

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