Ernesto Cardenal, poet and Catholic priest, still causes controversy at age 86

“It was a beautiful revolution,” the man in the beret says one night over dinner. “A beautiful revolution.”

On other lips, those words might ring campy and downright spoof-goofy a la Woody Allen in “Bananas.” But the man in the beret pulls it off, as he has for decades.

At 86, Ernesto Cardenal can still muster passion for revolutions past and future. It’s the present that confounds Nicaragua’s cosmic poetic stylist, a towering figure in Latin American literature absorbed in the winter of his life with a kind of eco-poetics swirling with the earthly evils of greed, corruption and exploitation.

Cardenal the poet and Cardenal the religious iconoclast and Cardenal the political figure cannot be delinked. He was and is all three. In a life seldom free from controversy, “El Padre,” as friends call him, became a Catholic priest, championed Marxism and the Sandinistas and evolved into a pillar of the liberation theology movement, which centered on wresting the poor from unjust social conditions. He defied a pope, conjured an artist’s utopia on a picturesque island in Lake Nicaragua and produced an astonishingly vast cascade of words in the form of poems and books so numerous that he says he’s lost count.

Cardenal is a small man, with a beard and shoulder-length hair the color of whipped cream that spills out from beneath his signature black beret. He steadies himself as he walks by clasping the arm of anyone who happens to be nearby. His back aches these days, and he complains that his feet hurt, yet somehow he has managed to endure a grueling schedule of takeoffs and landings for readings of his mesmerizing and challenging new collection of poems translated into English, “The Origin of Species.”

He travels alone, hopscotching to a dozen cities without assistants or an entourage. On this day in Baltimore, Cardenal arrives to read to an audience of students and local lefties at Loyola University in sandals and a loose-fitting, collarless white shirt that he wears untucked. The students, some of whom are tapping messages into their phones as he speaks, break into applause when Cardenal reads from a poem that asserts multinationals are responsible for countless deaths in Africa related to mining minerals used for cellphone production.

“You talk on your cellphone / and talk and talk / and laugh into your cellphone / never knowing how it was made / and much less how it works / but what does that matter / trouble is you don’t know / just as I didn’t / that many people die in the Congo / thousands upon thousands / for that cellphone / they die in the Congo.”

The reading is enlivened by an amusing undercurrent of chaos that somehow seems fitting for a gathering of minds that tend to rebel against conventional thinking. At one point a woman in the audience stomps onstage, dissatisfied with the skills of the students translating the master’s words, and takes over translation duties. No one stops her.

Later, the woman — who whispers of dark conspiracies gone by that prevent her from revealing her name — says she saw Cardenal speak in Panama decades ago during the height of his revolutionary zeal.

“Now, it’s like Picasso in his blue period,” she says. “When I saw him, he was in his red period.”

The revolution up close

Cardenal was born into an upper-crust family in the charming colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua, but he’s spent his life upending the establishment. In the 1950s, he fled Nicaragua after a failed coup d’etat and entered a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, where he befriended and was inspired by the famed writer-priest Thomas Merton. He would return to Nicaragua, where he was ordained as a Catholic priest.

Years later, he would see his “beautiful revolution” up close, acting as a spokesman for the Sandinista National Liberation Front in the late 1970s as it waged war against and eventually toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza. A prelude to the revolution came when Somoza’s forces destroyed Cardenal’s artist colony on an island in Lake Nicaragua called Solentiname. The colony would be rebuilt, with Cardenal as its guiding light, and still exists as a place infused with the magic of words and ideas.

The iconic American beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti tells of hat shopping with Cardenal in the days before the Nicaraguan Revolution. “After a visit to City Lights Bookstore he wanted to find an Army/Navy surplus store,” Ferlinghetti wrote in a foreword to “Ernesto Cardenal: A Memoir.” “There he bought something like a half-dozen black berets. (The number of berets may have grown in my imagination, like a good fish story, but I should have surmised that a revolution was brewing.)”

The clarity of the revolution, as is so often the case, gave way to the ambiguity of governance. Cardenal, who served as Nicaragua’s culture minister after the revolutionary triumph of 1979, eventually renounced the Sandinistas in 1994, having become disillusioned with the party’s course under the leftist leader and current Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega.

Now, with a poet’s gift for molding language, Cardenal calls Ortega’s reign a “robo-lucion,” inserting the Spanish word for robbery to decry what he claims is widespread corruption. Ortega’s government, Cardenal says between sips of whiskey at dinner in Baltimore, is “not leftist, not revolutionary. It’s a family dictatorship.” An Ortega spokesman did not respond to interview requests.

Cardenal’s relationship with the Catholic Church has been equally fraught. After the triumph of the Sandinistas, Cardenal infuriated the Vatican by entering the government as culture minister. He defied his superiors in Rome who were insisting that he leave the post.

In 1983, Cardenal became an international cause celebre when Pope John Paul II publicly admonished him during a visit to Managua. The photograph of the moment is unsettling. There is Cardenal, even then snowy-bearded, kneeling before the pope on the tarmac of the Managua airport. But rather than bestow blessings, the pope wags his finger at Cardenal, a rare gesture of condemnation. Cardenal’s defiance prompted a Vatican ban on him administering the sacraments, which he has made no attempt to overturn.

Cardenal’s appearances in the United States to promote his latest work were greeted with hostility among some conservative Catholics. Thousands of protest letters spurred by the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, known by the acronym TFP, were sent to officials at Xavier University in Ohio and Loyola.

“Inviting Fr. Cardenal to speak at a Catholic university is like welcoming a wolf into a hen house,” John Ritchie, TFP’s student action director, wrote in an e-mail. “It’s a scandal that Xavier University and Loyola University (Maryland) hosted this man. His radical Marxist views are not only flawed, but also detrimental to the faith and incompatible with the teaching of the Church.”

The organizers of Cardenal’s book tour chose not to tell him about the complaints, lest it upset him. This is made easier by the fact that he doesn’t have a cellphone or use a computer (at home in Managua, where he is attended by a driver and a cook, an assistant prints e-mails for him to read). In the information-free vacuum of his trip to the United States, he remained unaware that a debate was raging about him on the Internet until I mention it at dinner with a group of students and professors after his reading. Far from becoming unhinged, Cardenal simply shrugs and takes another sip of his whiskey.

In the audience that night was the Rev. Frank Haig, a Catholic priest and Loyola physics professor who is the brother of Alexander Haig, a secretary of state under President Reagan and chief of staff for President Nixon. Cardenal, who has said little, perks up when Haig’s name is mentioned.

“He was one of the worst of Nixon’s people, and Reagan’s!” Cardenal says of Alexander Haig. “One of the worst.”

Later, I call Frank Haig and recount the conversation about his brother, who died last year. The professor laughs heartily.

“Well, remember, Cardenal is a leftist,” Haig says. “Of course, he didn’t like Al. That’s understandable.”

Also understandable and laudable, Haig says, is Cardenal’s balancing of religious faith and a belief in evolution, a theory hotly disputed by fundamentalists. “This is poetry that takes off from science,” Haig says. “Usually scientists and poets can’t talk together.”

Indeed, Cardenal describes his current work as “poetry that is scientific. Just as there is science fiction, there is science poetry,” Cardenal says.

“The rotten-leaf cicada / Sleepy-eyed jaguar / Squid with diadem of gems,” Cardenal writes in the title poem of his latest collection. “Lizard with dinosaur structure / aberrant wasp copulating with orchid / the dromedary on its knees / with its hump on its back / the frog in its pond: ra ra ra ra / the heron with angel body / and neck of snake / ant carrying its gigantic leaf / and the hummingbird’s wingless flight / The same DNA in common / with all the animals / and our hands and feet / Of amphibious fish and reptile / all emerged from the Big Bang / cosmos not finished yet.”

Cardenal’s evolution — as a poet, that is — intrigues Robert Hass, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “Fr. Cardenal has been attempting — in his poetry and prose — to work out in the last two decades a synthesis of his Marxism and his Christian faith,” Hass wrote in an e-mail to Cardenal’s publisher. “That the new poems begin with a meditation on Darwin and the evolutionary account of the origin of life is fascinating because the evolution of species has been treated as a threat to religion.”

Cardenal’s role in untangling questions of faith and politics was canonized by the great Chilean writer Roberto Bolano in his poem, “Ernesto Cardenal and I.”

“I was out walking, sweaty and with hair plastered / to my face / when I saw Ernesto Cardenal approaching / from the opposite direction / and by way of greeting I said: / Father, in the Kingdom of Heaven / that is communism, / is there a place for homosexuals? / Yes, he said. / And for impenitent masturbators? / For sex slaves? / For sex fools? / For sado­maso­chists, for whores, for those obsessed / with enemas, / for those who can’t take it anymore, those who really truly can’t take it anymore? / And Cardenal said yes.”

Hass calls Cardenal “one of the best living Latin American poets, perhaps the best — certainly one of the most influential (and controversial) of his generation.” The arc of Cardenal’s career, Hass says, took him from his early years when he produced some of the “best poems in the Spanish language in his generation” to his middle years when his work became more “polemical” as he became consumed with Marxism and the San­di­nista movement.

And in this latest phase of his career, Hass writes, Cardenal’s “Origin of Species” is a work that “combines wonder at the richness and complexity of life and the simplicity of its origin with a sense of mystery that anything exists at all and then leaps to a theology of chance, change, mystery and love. . . . It’s a poem that will be talked about and argued about in the new discipline of ecopoetics for a long time to come.”

‘The perfect communism’

On the morning after his reading at Loyola, Cardenal meets me for breakfast at One World Cafe, a vegetarian place near Johns Hopkins University. The spot, chosen by a professor at Loyola who has been escorting Cardenal, seems like a perfect fit for the leftist Nicaraguan. Cardenal, though, scans the menu disapprovingly.

“No bacon? No ham?” he says. That won’t do. A change of venue is hastily arranged, and we drive to the New Wyman Park restaurant in the Charles Village neighborhood.

Crammed into a booth, Cardenal orders ham and reminisces about his globe-trotting days. Once, he says, he was received personally by Ayatollah Kho­meini when he was seeking aid for Nicaragua. He recalls hanging out with Fidel Castro in Spain. The reporters were pressing Castro about the lack of fair elections in Cuba. Fidel shot back, “The king of Spain isn’t elected either,” Cardenal recalls.

“That’s true,” Cardenal says.

Cardenal says he always supported the Cuban revolution, even though it had “flaws.”

What sort of flaws?

“I’d rather not say,” he responds.

He’d rather talk of dreams for a “perfect society, without classes, the perfect communism.” It’s still achievable, he says, still reachable through some future revolution, but not anytime soon. “In the short term, I have no hope.”

He says he thinks a lot about death, a subject he contemplates in conversation and in his poetry. “The sun is only in middle age,” he says.

The poet awaits another Big Bang.

“Death is recycling,” he writes in his poem “White Holes.” “Death is another phase of life / The entire planet is recycling, or there’d be no life / If not, how? / Sacred recycling / It’s entering into new combinations. . . . In the final Revolution the dead / will all be resurrected.”

 
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