Ernesto Cardenal died on Sunday, March 1st, Saint David’s Day. Born into a privileged Nicaraguan family, Cardenal resisted tyrants and dictatorships throughout his life. He died bitterly opposed to the Ortega government in Nicaragua, that betrayal of the revolution which he had once fought for, acting as Minister of Culture in the first Sandinista government (1979-87).
The last time Cardenal crossed my thoughts was after reading an interview of sorts in the Spanish Newspaper El País, in April last year, in which he claimed that he was unable even to comment on Nicaraguan politics: ‘No hay libertad para que yo diga algo, estamos en una dictadura.’ ‘I don’t have the liberty to say anything, we are in a dictatorship’.
The interviewer then asks Cardenal: What, for you, in the current state of affairs, is a revolution? To which he replies, unobligingly: ‘Why are you asking me? Go look in a dictionary. I’ve already written about it in The Lost Revolution. Why repeat things, I have nothing to say, I don’t want to . . ‘
I met Cardenal a couple of times, in Nicaragua, and translated a few of his poems for the magazine Poetry Wales. He was a man who didn’t seem to much care for all the attention he received. He was mentored by the English mystic Thomas Merton as a young man, in the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, and he might well have preferred the quiet life of the literary monk to that of the famous revolutionary priest that he became.
One of the poems I translated for Poetry Wales is available on Ricardo Blanco’s Blog here. I translated the following two poems a decade ago, but haven’t published them before now.
LIKE EMPTY BEER CANS
My days have been like empty beer cans
and stubbed-out cigarette ends.
My life has passed me by like the figures who appear
and disappear on a television screen.
Like cars passing by at speed along the roads
with girls laughing and music from the radio . . .
And beauty was as transient as the models of those cars
and the fleeting hits that blasted from the radios
and were forgotten.
And nothing is left of those days,
nothing, besides the empty cans and stubbed-out dog-ends,
smiles on washed-out photos, torn coupons,
and the sawdust with which, at dawn,
they swept out the bars.
Our poems still cannot
they circulate from hand to hand
or photocopies for a day
the name of the dictator
against whom they were written
will be forgotten
and they will continue to be read.