“The Revolution that Started in the Stars“
A Review of
Pluriverse: New and Selected Poems.
by Ernesto Cardenal.
By Brent Aldrich.
Reading through Ernesto Cardenal’s poems as gathered in the new book Pluriverse has been both wonderful and challenging; wonderful in the complexity of content and lyric form, but challenging as a reader in the United States, to begin to comprehend a history of violent relations with Cardenal’s native Nicaragua. Additionally, this collection spans Cardenal’s nearly 60 years of poetry, making for an expansive body of work to read, from a man who has been, at various times, a Catholic priest, a Sandinista revolutionary, Minister of Culture, and a contemplative after living as a novitiate under Thomas Merton; he has his eyes toward the complexity and diversity of life, but through the form of the poem, a wholeness is achieved.
Pluriverse is divided into four chronological sections, the earliest beginning in 1949, and the most recent right up to 2005, which is helpful when considering the broad reach and development of these poems. Early on, Cardenal begins with some themes that continue throughout, drawing historical events and characters from Nicaraguan history alongside love poems and astronomy, but always infused with the rhythms of nature and life specific to Nicaragua – the wildlife, geology, weather, stars, people; there is always a strain of natural history running parallel with the history of imperialism, revolution, or daily life. Describing the relations of the US and Nicaragua in light of the Nicaraguan landscape:
“Oak trees in Solentiname bloom in March above the lake with
blossoms rosy as girls’ lips.
And in summer: the chichitote sings the loveliest
song of any bird in Nicaragua
and the cucurruchí sings its name in summer nest building
while the shellfish are harvested in BluefieldsBay –
in March and April – and
in Ocotal, in April, the quetzal rears its young.
But another country found it needed all these riches.
To obtain the 1911 loans Nicaragua had to cede her customs rights
also the running of the National Bank
to lenders who reserved the right
to take it over…” (126).
Often in passages such as this one, Cardenal elaborates on the beauty of Nicaragua, then continues to describe it as the site of a history of violence. The majority of this violence turns out to be sponsored by the United States; reading Cardenal’s accounts are not like the histories taught here in the States. Indeed, one way to read many of his poems would simply be as an alternative history to that codified in the US; for example:
“In March the cobs are tender.
Mist over the coffee plantations and, in the mist,
the whitish scent of coffee flowers (like that of orange blossom)
with chichitotes singing
and the “whistler.”
what lovely fields you have!
it’s a shame the capitalists own them.” (126).
There are poems throughout that conjure up Biblical poetics, such as the Psalmos, subtitled with specific Psalms, or “Apocalypse,” a Revelation for the nuclear age (“Likewise I saw the aircraft in my vision / aircraft faster than sound bearing 50-megaton bombs / and no man guided them but the Machine alone”) (88). Even this dark vision, though, is concluded with the hope of redemption, languaged alternatively as the Revolution, or the Kingdom of Heaven.
Given the political situation in Nicaragua, two characters who show up repeatedly in Cardenal’s poems are Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator, and Sandino, the revolutionary leader who founded the movement known as the Sandinistas, of which Cardenal has been a part. In many of the poems written under the Somoza government, through the weaving together of all aspects of life, Cardenal seems to suggest that everything is ‘political,’ in the sense that economies of land, animals, birds are as oppressed as the people of Nicaragua. In the larger vision, Cardenal similarly suggests the wholeness of all the universe, “everything interpenetrates everything,” he says, quoting the physicist Bohm in a poem. “There are atoms in the earth, in water and in the air / that later will be in a girl like Claudia/ … The ground you walk on is alive / and the air you breathe. / All in all. (205)
Cardenal consistently narrates the complexity of the interconnectedness of all things in these poems, many of which run for pages; no matter what the content, these long cadences all seem derived from the land and life of Nicaragua, that is, these poems could not have been written from another place, they are native to Nicaragua. Cardenal, in describing a Sandinista friend who was killed might as well be speaking of himself: “Because at times a man is born in a land / and he is that land” (60).
Cardenal’s poetry begins with a man who loves his country, in the broadest sense, and through the clarity of that place, speaks a language of oppression and redemption, reaching back “in the beginning” and extending out in all reaches of “space-time.” The infinite is embodied and understood in the specific, the particular: “To understand the universe biologically. / The Kingdom of Heaven is biological” (204). For Cardenal, that biology is embodied most specifically in Nicaragua, from which comes the diversity of animals, the volcanoes and beautiful girls, the Revolution, the stars in the sky; and all of it is connected, one whole creation.
“I said iguanas lay their eggs…It is the process. They
(or else the frogs) in the silence of the carboniferous age
made the first sound
sang the first love song here on earth
sang the first love song here beneath the moon
It is the process.
The process started with the stars.
New relations of production: that too
is part of the process. Oppression. After oppression, liberation.
The Revolution started in the stars, millions
of light-years away. The egg of life
is one. From
the first bubble of gas, to the iguana’s egg, to the New Man” (129-30).
Pluriverse has served for me as an excellent introduction to a lifetime’s worth of poetry from Ernesto Cardenal; his poetics, so rooted in the country he loves, can be difficult; they are words stemming from a country often oppressed by our own; additionally, Cardenal’s hugely expansive vision considers the depth and breadth of the universe, the heavens and the earth. But this is precisely the reason for the importance of this work, for the clarity with which Cardenal attests to the totality of the universe (is there a word that encompasses more, because if so, he covers that too!), and for the assurance of this whole universe to be reconciled together:
“Evil is because God made man free.
Because creation wasn’t fascist.
He doesn’t want the extinction
of a single one of his inhabited planets.
And the solar system is for the good and the evil.
But it’s not true he created his creation
never to intervene again. I swear it’s not.” (207-8).
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com