Tag Archives: Ernesto Cardenal

Ernesto Cardenal’s Prayer for Marilyn Monroe

16 Feb

 

Yesterday I was introduced to one of the great poets of the 20th century, Ernesto Cardenal, on the fragile grounds that I have translated some of his poems, two of which appeared in Poetry Wales last year. There follows a translation of one of his most well-known poems, along with the original Spanish.

 

 

Prayer for Marilyn Monroe

Lord
receive this young woman known around the world as Marilyn Monroe
although that wasn’t her real name
(but You know her real name, the name of the orphan raped at the age of 6
and the shopgirl who at 16 had tried to kill herself)
who now comes before You without any makeup
without her Press Agent
without photographers and without autograph hounds,
alone like an astronaut facing night in space.

She dreamed when she was little that she was naked in a church
(according to the Time account)
before a prostrated crowd of people, their heads on the floor
and she had to walk on tiptoe so as not to step on their heads.
You know our dreams better than the psychiatrists.
Church, home, cave, all represent the security of the womb
but something else too …
The heads are her fans, that’s clear
(the mass of heads in the dark under the beam of light).
But the temple isn’t the studios of 20th Century-Fox.
The temple—of marble and gold—is the temple of her body
in which the Son of Man stands whip in hand
driving out the studio bosses of 20th Century-Fox
who made Your house of prayer a den of thieves.

Lord
in this world polluted with sin and radioactivity
You won’t blame it all on a shopgirl
who, like any other shopgirl, dreamed of being a star.
Her dream just became a reality (but like Technicolor’s reality).
She only acted according to the script we gave her
—the story of our own lives. And it was an absurd script.
Forgive her, Lord, and forgive us
for our 20th Century
for this Colossal Super-Production on which we all have worked.
She hungered for love and we offered her tranquilizers.
For her despair, because we’re not saints
psychoanalysis was recommended to her.
Remember, Lord, her growing fear of the camera
and her hatred of makeup—insisting on fresh makeup for each scene—
and how the terror kept building up in her
and making her late to the studios.

Like any other shopgirl
she dreamed of being a star.
And her life was unreal like a dream that a psychiatrist interprets and files.

Her romances were a kiss with closed eyes
and when she opened them
she realized she had been under floodlights
as they killed the floodlights!
and they took down the two walls of the room (it was a movie set)
while the Director left with his scriptbook
because the scene had been shot.
Or like a cruise on a yacht, a kiss in Singapore, a dance in Rio
the reception at the mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
all viewed in a poor apartment’s tiny living room.

The film ended without the final kiss.
She was found dead in her bed with her hand on the phone.
And the detectives never learned who she was going to call.
She was
like someone who had dialed the number of the only friendly voice
and only heard the voice of a recording that says: WRONG NUMBER.
Or like someone who had been wounded by gangsters
reaching for a disconnected phone.

Lord
whoever it might have been that she was going to call
and didn’t call (and maybe it was no one
or Someone whose number isn’t in the Los Angeles phonebook)
You answer that telephone!

(Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Cohen)

 

 

ORACIÓN POR MARILYN MONROE

Señor
recibe a esta muchacha conocida en toda la Tierra con el nombre de Marilyn Monroe,
aunque ése no era su verdadero nombre
(pero Tú conoces su verdadero nombre, el de la huerfanita violada a los 9 años
y la empleadita de tienda que a los 16 se había querido matar)
y que ahora se presenta ante Ti sin ningún maquillaje
sin su Agente de Prensa
sin fotógrafos y sin firmar autógrafos
sola como un astronauta frente a la noche espacial.
Ella soñó cuando niña que estaba desnuda en una iglesia (según cuenta el Times)
ante una multitud postrada, con las cabezas en el suelo
y tenía que caminar en puntillas para no pisar las cabezas.
Tú conoces nuestros sueños mejor que los psiquiatras.
Iglesia, casa, cueva, son la seguridad del seno materno
pero también algo más que eso…

Las cabezas son los admiradores, es claro
(la masa de cabezas en la oscuridad bajo el chorro de luz).
Pero el templo no son los estudios de la 20th Century-Fox.
El templo —de mármol y oro— es el templo de su cuerpo
en el que está el hijo de Hombre con un látigo en la mano
expulsando a los mercaderes de la 20th Century-Fox
que hicieron de Tu casa de oración una cueva de ladrones.
Señor
en este mundo contaminado de pecados y de radiactividad,
Tú no culparás tan sólo a una empleadita de tienda
que como toda empleadita de tienda soñó con ser estrella de cine.
Y su sueño fue realidad (pero como la realidad del tecnicolor).
Ella no hizo sino actuar según el script que le dimos,
el de nuestras propias vidas, y era un script absurdo.
Perdónala, Señor, y perdónanos a nosotros
por nuestra 20th Century
por esa Colosal Super-Producción en la que todos hemos trabajado.
Ella tenía hambre de amor y le ofrecimos tranquilizantes.
Para la tristeza de no ser santos
se le recomendó el Psicoanálisis.
Recuerda Señor su creciente pavor a la cámara
y el odio al maquillaje insistiendo en maquillarse en cada escena
y cómo se fue haciendo mayor el horror
y mayor la impuntualidad a los estudios.

Como toda empleadita de tienda
soñó ser estrella de cine.
Y su vida fue irreal como un sueño que un psiquiatra interpreta y archiva.

Sus romances fueron un beso con los ojos cerrados
que cuando se abren los ojos
se descubre que fue bajo reflectores
¡y se apagan los reflectores!
Y desmontan las dos paredes del aposento (era un set cinematográfico)
mientras el Director se aleja con su libreta
porque la escena ya fue tomada.
O como un viaje en yate, un beso en Singapur, un baile en Río
la recepción en la mansión del Duque y la Duquesa de Windsor
vistos en la salita del apartamento miserable.
La película terminó sin el beso final.
La hallaron muerta en su cama con la mano en el teléfono.
Y los detectives no supieron a quién iba a llamar.
Fue
como alguien que ha marcado el número de la única voz amiga
y oye tan solo la voz de un disco que le dice: WRONG NUMBER
O como alguien que herido por los gangsters
alarga la mano a un teléfono desconectado.

Señor:
quienquiera que haya sido el que ella iba a llamar
y no llamó (y tal vez no era nadie
o era Alguien cuyo número no está en el Directorio de los Ángeles)
¡contesta Tú al teléfono!

 

 

 

 

Brief from Nicaragua

15 Feb

At four in the morning there is a noise of riotous celebration from the nearby square, but I cannot be bothered to make it to the balcony to discover its source. Then there is an hour or so of quiet before the deafening screech of birdsong that signals both the beginning and the end of daylight in the tropics. From the trees circling the park hundreds of birds dance, joust, leap and dive in a frenzied avian fiesta.

 

Cloud forest at Mombacho

 

Yesterday began with an excursion to the cloud forest volcano of Mombacho – in which we saw howler monkeys

 

howler monkey from rear

 

and many birds, including the black headed trogon (trogón cabecinegro, in Spanish) pictured here,

 

Black headed trogon

 

after visiting two coffee plantations, sampling their delicious brews, and witnessing a possum asleep in a bucket

 

Possum in a bucket

Our excellent guide José, and friends, at Mombacho

 

- and concluded with an interminable poetry reading, extremely mixed in quality, but beginning with a single (new) poem by Ernesto Cardenal on the sacking of the museum of Baghdad, and ending with Derek Walcott, again reading a single poem, Sea Grapes. Between these two octogenarian maestros – and with one or two exceptions – a number of distinctly indifferent poets went on for far too long, though I will refrain from mentioning the worst offenders.

Granada is an extraordinary festival, which is growing in importance and recognition, but which needs reining in and the exertion of greater balance in the selection of invited poets. This year, like last, I have met some wonderful individuals, made new friends, and learned a lot, but have also had to listen to far too much bad poetry. Fortunately, Walcott’s Sea Grapes does not fall into this category.

 

 Sea Grapes

That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean;
that father and husband’s

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name
in every gull’s outcry.

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy sighed its last flame,

and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough
from whose groundswell the great hexameters come
to the conclusions of exhausted surf.

The classics can console. But not enough.

 

Or you can listen to Walcott reading it here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filibuster in Nicaragua

13 Feb

Of all countries of the world, there is a special place for those that have endured a suffering and a struggle for definition against powerful enemies both from within and without. Some of the struggles and mortifications that a people endure have become almost mythic and have come to stand as an example of human suffering that stretches beyond the countries concerned: they become, in a sense representative and definitive. Over the past couple of centuries there have been countless examples of the extremes of human conduct, in which small groups of people inflict their will on the majority. Nicaragua, although relatively small, must be counted among the most afflicted of countries in this respect. A series of dictatorships here have condemned the bulk of the population to obscene levels of poverty over generations, but less well known is the role played by influential foreigners. Few can compare in this respect with William Walker, the subject of an epic poem by Nicaragua’s great poet Ernesto Cardenal.

William Walker, the American son of a Scottish banker, exemplified a type of expansionist vision of what North Americans might make of their back yard, and he was evidently a scoundrel of the first order. He set out for Nicaragua in June 1855 with a small force of mercenaries and his plan was to colonise the country as a new slave state, to be settled by North American Anglos, who would own the land and the plantations, and import black slaves – who would do all the work. Eventually he planned to settle and colonise all of Central America as a slave-based empire to compensate for the abolitionist tendencies that were to drive the United States towards civil war a few years later.

His plans went well at first, his well-armed battalion of troops taking on the local army from Granada, which he made his base, before launching attacks into Leon and other regions. Walker declared himself president, invented a new flag for the country, confiscated all the lands owned by those who opposed him, made English the official language of business, and gained the recognition of the US government as head of an official state. His apparent invincibility came to an end when the Nicaraguans decided they’d had enough and rose up against him. After several bloody battles, he fled Granada by steam-boat, across Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean, but not before his mercenaries had raped and massacred to their fill in a drunken killing spree,   and burned Granada to the ground.

 

 

According to the plaque, the church of San Francisco was re-built in 1867, twelve years after the filibuster (delightfully, filibustero in Spanish) William Walker left Nicaragua. He had another throw of the dice in Honduras, but was captured by a British naval officer, Captain Salmon, and handed over to the Honduran authorities, who had him shot, an action that was long overdue.

 

 

 

 

Radio Bards and an Homuncular Misfit

19 Nov

Saturday Morning Porridge

Few things are quite so guaranteed to make me come out in a rash as a BBC Radio 4 poet blathering on in rhyming couplets while I’m attempting to stir the porridge. This morning I almost fell over the cat as I hurled myself across the kitchen to switch off some dementedly cheerful bard on Saturday Morning Live.  I don’t think it was Wendy Cope or Pam Ayres (though I really have no way of discriminating between these people, they are all equally awful). In fact Roger McGough is not much better, or (yawn) Andrew Motion or any of the other so-called interesting poets who jolly along in a British sort of way. I can’t say I enjoy listening to poetry on the radio at all, it’s something about the terribly twee way the BBC goes about presenting the stuff, and the awfully selfconscious way that poets go about reading their work, as though they were reciting from the Bible – or worse, were super-selfconsciously reading from the Bible when pretending NOT to read from the Bible, with all those awful Eliotesque or Churchillian High Rising Tones at the end of lines that actually make me want to barf, make me want to have nothing to do with the stuff. Toxic, it is.

Which might strike you as kind of odd coming from a poet, or one who writes and performs poetry, like myself.

The problem is, I don’t really enjoy poetry readings either. Maybe one in a hundred, and then I absolutely love them. But they are incredibly rare events and I can never predict when it is going to happen. I managed to truly enjoy a joint reading by Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky in Cardiff County Hall back at the beginning of the 1990s. I heard an amazing reading by Sharon Olds in Stirling in 2004. I listened to a hugely powerful reading by the revolutionary poet priest Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua last year. But granted these were practitioners of excellence (and I have heard Walcott read on other occasions when he has not been that clever). And occasionally I enjoy cosy, informal readings by people who understand that poetry does not have to be a form of display behaviour, such as my friends Patrick McGuinness and Tiffany Atkinson, who both read very well. And a handful of others. But even the ones I like I can only abide in small doses, and even then am not certain I would be able to sit out a full-length radio performance without beginning to fidget.

The truth is, I suppose, that, unfashionably, I prefer to read poetry, in the quiet solitude of my darkened room. I prefer to read it to myself, and imagine its sounds, sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head, but in solitude: just me and the poet. Then, if I don’t like what I’m hearing I can just turn the page, or close the book; something which is not so easily achieved at a poetry reading. Even when the poetry (as at most public Open Mics) is so appallingly bad as to promote immediate self-immolation, it is difficult to leave without drawing attention to oneself. Even propelled by an immediate need to leave the room, to breathe fresh air, if not to commit some terrible violent crime or murder an innocent bystander, one risks the condemnatory glances of audience members (all of whom are aspiring bards themselves). The awful, depressing truth is that every one of the participants at these gloomy affairs believes, at heart, that they are touched by genius. If only others could see it, the world would be a better place. It makes me want to weep, honest: it is such a tragic expression of doomed human endeavour. But still.

David Greenslade is an extraordinary, shamanistic, performer of his work; and a writer of a different order. One of the most startling and memorable readings I can recall was his performance at Hay-on-Wye some years ago, surrounded by an array of glorious vegetables, items of which he would produce from time to time during the course of the event – leek, radish, rhubarb, beetroot, soil-encrusted carrot – in sequential explosions of purposeful poem-making.  And his latest book, Homuncular Misfit is, true to form, both bonkers and brilliant. It is, en passant, both an evocation of the alchemical reality of the everyday, as well as a profund, and at times searing account of personal dissolution and nigredo. The sequence of poems relating to the poet/narrator’s adoption by a crow while living at a mysterious Oxfordshire manor house, or indeed a hospice, inhabited by invisible Taoist swordsmen and Chakra cleansers, the kind of place one goes for an ontological enema, is particularly impressive:

 

. . .  For a moment I thought

it might be the same bird that flew

from the glove of Mabon son of Modron

into the mouth of a shepherd

known to Henry Vaughan.

It had appeared as effortlessly as

a piece of clothing I never knew I had

until I bent to pick it up . . . .

. . .  Why Crow had come, I couldn’t explain

but it didn’t go away and it did change everything

about that retreat I’d planned, considered

and thought I’d carefully arranged.

As so often occurs in Greenslade’s work, the phenomenal world intercedes in the poet’s life, seeming to take things in hand of its own accord. In his other works vegetables (as we have seen), animals (check out an article of his Zeus Amoeba here), bugs, articles of stationery, random broken things, all break in on the alchemy of the everyday and cast rationality in doubt. This time the crow follows the narrator around whenever he emerges from the house. In one poem, he contacts the RSPB and RSPCA, who both advise to scare the bird off,

But it wouldn’t go. I tried

to be as fierce as a vixen

driving off her cubs.

Defied, the crow would glide into the trees

but return within an hour.

Soon it started waiting near my window.

 

Unsurprisingly, the bird begins to acquire mythic status in the poet’s mind, taking on the appurtenances of a famous bird from the Mabinogion:

 

One night, with the hostel

all asleep, I waited mesmerised

beneath the fig tree where

Brân the Blessed perched,

Both as Bendigeidfran

and as Branwen

son and daughter

of their liquid father Llyr,

whose half-speech I now learned.

While soft, slow, pearls of rain

sparkling by kitchen light

fell in glistening strings,

dollops of scintillating guano

puddled freshly opened oysters

on the courtyard’s medieval tiles.

 

The crow persists, of course, and acquires an increasingly menacing aspect. But we never know how much is in the narrator’s head or how much is (ever) verifiable, because this is the borderland, the zone, the place where weird stuff happens, as Greenslade’s not inconsiderable pack of avid readers have by now learned. Elsewhere the poetry invites favourable comparison with the very best of British poetry currently being published, with a hybrid strain of influence from North American and classical Japanese poets (Greenslade lived in Japan in his twenties and is an ordained Zen monk) as well, of course, as that recurrent dipping into Welsh language and mythology. It might, gentle reader, serve as a fitting stocking-filler for an erudite beloved homunculus of your acquaintance, and is available here.

Dog waiting for Blanco to stop blogging and take him for a walk, finally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drake in the South Sea

2 Oct
Francis Drake entered in the city after the fa...

Image via Wikipedia

To schoolchildren of my generation, Sir Francis Drake was a hero, the epitome of English sangfroid, insisting on finishing his game of bowls before dealing with the Spanish Armada as it sailed up the Channel. It didn’t happen quite like that, of course, but who cares. The sea captains who forged the first imprint of Empire under Elizabeth the First have gone down here as great patriots, but are known to children in schools throughout Iberia and Latin America simply as pirates. In fact I remember looking through the history homework of my friend Nelson Pereira’s younger sister Elsa, while staying at their house outside Lisbon in 1983 and being shocked to see Drake being vilified in categorical terms. I imagine he doesn’t get much of a press in Irish school history books either, as he was involved in a massacre of 600 people during the English enforced plantation of Ulster in 1575. But that is how it goes: history is an imprecise art, dependent entirely on the perspective of the historian. Rather like fiction, in fact.

While in Argentina last month, I got into a lengthy discussion about the pirate Drake, and buccaneers of his ilk, on discovering that Drake entered the River Plate on his travels, and, I was told, sailed up the Paraná. I said to my companions that in Britain we did not speak of Drake as a pirate at all, not by any means, and that the first time I had heard him referred to in those terms was reading Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:

“When the pirate Sir Francis Drake attacked Riohacha in the sixteenth century, Úrsula Iguarán’s great-great-grandmother became so frightened with the ringing of alarm bells and the firing of cannons that she lost control of her nerves and sat down on a lighted stove. The burns changed her into a useless wife for the rest of her days. She could only sit on one side, cushioned by pillows, and something strange must have happened to her way of walking, for she never walked again in public. She gave up all kinds of social activity, obsessed with the notion that her body gave off a singed odor. Dawn would find her in the courtyard, for she did not dare fall asleep lest she dream of the English and their ferocious attack dogs as they came through the windows of her bedroom to submit her to shameful tortures with their red-hot irons.”

The BBC history entry on Drake gives the bare outlines:

Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon in around 1540 and went to sea at an early age. In 1567, Drake made one of the first English slaving voyages as part of a fleet led by his cousin John Hawkins, bringing African slaves to work in the ‘New World’. All but two ships of the expedition were lost when attacked by a Spanish squadron. The Spanish became a lifelong enemy for Drake and they in turn considered him a pirate.

In 1570 and 1571, Drake made two profitable trading voyages to the West Indies. In 1572, he commanded two vessels in a marauding expedition against Spanish ports in the Caribbean. He saw the Pacific Ocean and captured the port of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama. He returned to England with a cargo of Spanish treasure and a reputation as a brilliant privateer. In 1577, Drake was secretly commissioned by Elizabeth I to set off on an expedition against the Spanish colonies on the American Pacific coast. He sailed with five ships, but by the time he reached the Pacific Ocean in October 1578 only one was left, Drake’s flagship the Pelican, renamed the Golden Hind. To reach the Pacific, Drake became the first Englishman to navigate the Straits of Magellan.

He travelled up the west coast of South America, plundering Spanish ports. He continued north, hoping to find a route across to the Atlantic, and sailed further up the west coast of America than any European. Unable to find a passage, he turned south and then in July 1579, west across the Pacific. His travels took him to the Moluccas, Celebes, Java and then round the Cape of Good Hope. He arrived back in England in September 1580 with a rich cargo of spices and Spanish treasure and the distinction of being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. Seven months later, Elizabeth knighted him aboard the Golden Hind, to the annoyance of the king of Spain.

In 1585, Drake sailed to the West Indies and the coast of Florida where he sacked and plundered Spanish cities. On his return voyage, he picked up the unsuccessful colonists of Roanoke Island off the coast of the Carolinas, which was the first English colony in the New World. In 1587, war with Spain was imminent and Drake entered the port of Cadiz and destroyed 30 of the ships the Spanish were assembling against the British. In 1588, he was a vice admiral in the fleet that defeated the Armada. Drake’s last expedition, with John Hawkins, was to the West Indies. The Spanish were prepared for him this time, and the venture was a disaster.

Drake died on 28 January 1596 of dysentery off the coast of Portobelo, Panama.

Apparently, before dying, he asked to be dressed in his full armour, which reminds me of the death by suicide of Captain Hans Langsdorff of the Graf Spee (see post of 22 September).

He was buried at sea in a lead coffin. Divers continue to search for the coffin.

Ernesto Cardenal

Last year I was looking at some of the lesser-known historical poems of the great Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal (born 1925), Sandinista, theologian, rebel priest, and translator of Ezra Pound into Spanish. I was struck by the rather Poundian flavour of some of these, and particularly taken by the following poem, written in the voice of a Spanish sea captain and based on a true account, in which Drake comes across as quite an honourable fellow, in spite of his terrible reputation.

 

 

 

DRAKE IN THE SOUTH SEA

                                                                        Realejo, 16th April 1579

For Rafael Heliodoro Valle

I set out from the port of Acapulco on the twenty-third of March

and steered a steady course until the fourth of April, a Saturday,

and half an hour before daybreak

we saw a ship draw alongside us

its sails and prow silver in the moonlight

and our helmsman shouted at them to make way

and they might as well have been sleeping, for they did not reply.

Another voice shouted over: FROM WHERE DOES YOUR SHIP SAIL?

and they answered, from Peru, and that it was the Miguel Angel

and then we heard trumpets and the firing of muskets

and they ordered me to board their boat

and I was taken to the Captain.

I found him pacing on the bridge

and I approached him and kissed his hands, and he said to me:

What gold or silver does your ship carry?

And I told him: None at all.

None, my lord, only my plates and cups.

After which he asked me if I knew the Viceroy,

and I told him that I did. And I asked the Captain

if he was truly Captain Drake,

and he said he was, the very same.

We stayed talking a long while, until it was time to eat

and he ordered me to sit at his side.

His plates and cups are silver, with golden borders,

adorned with his coat of arms.

He has many bottled perfumes and scented waters

which he says were given him by the Queen.

He always eats and drinks to the accompaniment of violins,

and takes with him painters who make pictures all along the coast.

He is a man of some twenty-four years, small, with a blonde beard,

He is a nephew of the pirate Juan Aquinas,

and he is one of the greatest sailors on the seas.

The following day, which was a Sunday, he dressed in great style,

And ordered his men to hoist banners

and pennants of many colours at the mastheads.

The bronze rings and chains and embellished handrails

and the lights of the quarterdeck

shone like gold.

The ship was a golden dragon among the dolphins.

And we went, with his page, to my ship, to see the coffers,

and he spent the whole day, until nightfall, inspecting my cargo.

What he took from me was not much,

a few baubles I owned,

and he gave me a cutlass and a small silver brazier for them

asking my forgiveness,

but that it was for his lady he had taken them,

and I was free to leave in the morning as soon as there was a breeze

and I thanked him for that,

and kissed his hands.

He carries in his galleon three thousand bars of silver

and three coffers filled with gold

and twelve great coffers of pieces of eight,

and he says they are heading for China

with navigation charts and a Chinese pilot they captured . . .

 

 

(Translation by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol. 46 No. 3, Winter 2010/11)

 

 

 

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