Life force

Ernesto Cardenal’s latest poetry collection seeks answers to the monumental questions of life in an earthly paradise


The Origin of Species and Other Poems
Ernesto Cardenal
2011, Texas Tech University Press
141 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Isabel O’Toole

MANY of the great poets of 20th-century Latin America articulated an enduring passion for the landscape that celebrates the continent’s rich natural environment in a deeply patriotic vein.

Pablo Neruda’s Canto General, an encyclopaedic history of Latin America, is far more than a cry of revolt against oppression and a hymn of solidarity with the meek, it is also an evocative celebration of the heights of Macchu Picchu that tells us the Earth’s name is Juan and marvels at the flower of Punitaqui. Thiago de Mello’s poetry is suffused with wonder at the natural world in Amazonia; the late Jorge Enrique Adoum, Ecuador’s giant (declared by Neruda himself to be Latin America’s greatest poet), wrote in deep green ink; the work of the Mexican Homero Aridjis is based on a profound, almost cosmological understanding of the natural world; even the great Panamanian poet Changmarín invests much of his literary energy in describing the lush landscape of his beloved homeland.

This is a small selection and the list can run and run – and yet another can be compiled for prose – but what can be noted from all these poets is the unmistakable link between their poetry and their politics.

For many of these poets, the natural environment in Latin America often provided the metaphorical source for a pure landscape undefiled by alien interventions or predations – aka imperialism or capitalism. For others, such as Aridjis, environmental politics is an end in itself deriving from the unrivalled splendours of the continent’s landscape – he is recognized as one of Latin America’s most prominent green activists.

The relationship is strong not least because Latin America is the most bio-diverse region of the world, but because the fate of its land and its peoples have been organically linked since pre-Columbian times. It is no coincidence that the great global debates about the environment, its over-exploitation and sustainability, have so often ended up focusing on Latin America.

Earthly paradise

Against this backdrop, Ernesto Cardenal’s vision of how an earthly paradise generates and sometimes answers the monumental questions of life seems to fit comfortably within a noble tradition. The Origin of Species and Other Poems, his latest collection translated into English by John Lyons, combines the elements of wonder at the natural world with the poet’s well known non-conformism.

Cardenal was an early green revolutionary, spurred on by the disastrous impact of the rapacious Somoza dynasty – and that of his many friends and allies among foreign, mainly US, corporations extracting the country’s natural resources – on the landscape of Nicaragua and its poor. As a member of the Sandinista revolutionary government in the early 1980s, Cardenal once wrote in verse: “not only humans desire liberation. The entire ecology cried for it. The revolution is also for lakes, rivers, trees and animals”.

His work has lost none of its longstanding proclivity for social criticism, politics and the search for a transcendent spiritual life; but here his patriotism has embraced a much broader tableau of evolutionary history alongside the inevitable spiritual wanderings of a man in the twilight of life, a good example of which comes from the titlepiece, “The Origin of Species”:

Microscopic algae
now immense trees
the gills become wings
and the arthropods took flight

Graceful gazelle barely touching the ground
sloth with curved nails like a sickle
without tail and silky felt-like skin
frivolous butterfly in floral disguise
long-necked giraffe with unequal legs

The great mystery of life
all sharing the same origin
and that such different bodies
should come from a single cell
all species relatives

The common thread in this piece and others is connectedness: that we are all connected in a form of Gaian theory of ecology and that, because all life comes from a single, shared cell, a reconciliation is possible between the religious, such as Cardenal, and an ever more confident secularism. As Anne Waldman writes in the foreword, the poet is trying to move thinking forward here, holding the “both/and position” – “if one rises from the dead / we all rise from the dead”.

It is a suitably progressive position for a man of the church and Sandinista revolutionary once admonished in public on the tarmac of Managua airport by a visiting Pope John-Paul II: “Usted tiene que arreglar sus asuntos con la Iglesia.” One of Latin America’s most prominent liberation theologians in a country bloodied by the oppression of a singularly brutal dictatorship, Cardenal understands perhaps better than anyone the human cost of a failure to reconcile the apparently irreconcileable.

The Origin of Species provides a timely insight into the preoccupations of this great poet and reminds us that we have moved on from the stark ideological differences of the late cold war.

Yet if Utopian, the message is as always ultimately, and reassuringly, hopeful: a forthcoming transformation of the old order into a new and more just society.

Isabel O’Toole is a freelance contributor

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