Two Ways of Looking at a Plague…

Ernesto Cardenal, Zero Hour And Other Documentary Poems
New Directions, 1980

Dear Chase & Liz,

The Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal died on March 1. I’m going back over his works this spring under quarantine. I first read Zero Hour in 2008, and it was a godsend, a goad, a glory. A little more than 100 pages, Cardenal’s exteriorismo invites you into a world of injustice, resistance, and revolution, the last of which the U.S. government was determined to kill off, and did by the late 1980s. Translator Robert Print-Mill has this to say: “Cardenal’s recording of the present or the past is aimed at helping to shape the future—involving the reader in the poetic process in order to provoke him into full political commitment, thus fostering the translation of the poet’s more prophetic visions into sociopolitical fact.” Without Cardenal, without this book, I could not have written Dear Layla [see therein, Reading/5 (Subversive/3)]. The following are some passages from several poems that caught my attention…

The Brazilian miracle
Of a Hilton Hotel surrounded by hovels.
The price of things goes up
And the price of people comes down.

We cut through the canyon of windows [in Manhattan] and trillions of dollars

Who is that other monster rising up in the night?
The Chase Manhattan Bank screwing half of humanity.


The underground radio kept saying he was alive.
The people didn’t believe he had died.
(And he hasn’t died.)

And God? Well, what about God?
Let’s make a distinction:
There are many Gods
The God of John D. Rockefeller….

Two ways of looking at a plague:
The point of view of Egypt
And that of the Hebrews.

And they don’t invite you to the big barbecue with the Minister of the Interior.
The Companies sowing desolation.
They bring in the telegraph to transmit false news.
The transistor to the poor, for murmured lies.
Truth is forbidden for it makes you free.

The Military Police have told you that all
The Church should worry about is “souls”
But what about the children starved by corporations?

For Communists there is no God, only justice.
For Christians there is no God without justice.
Monsignor, we are subversives
A secret code on a card in a file who knows where,
Followers of the ill-clad and visionary proletariat, a professional
Agitator, executed for conspiring against the System.
It was, you know, a torture intended for subversives,
The cross was for political criminals, not a cluster of rubies on a bishop’s breast.

There is no communion with God or with
Man if there are classes,
If there is exploitation
There is no communion.

They’ve told me I talk only about politics now.
It’s not about politics but about Revolution
which for me is the same thing as the kingdom of God.

“We all greet each other with hugs,”
Sandino used to say—and nobody hugged like him.
And whenever they talked about themselves they’d say “all”:
“All of us…” “We’re equal.”
“Here we’re all brothers,” Umanzor used to say.

[Politicians:] like blind bats hanging over us
To shit upon us in the dark and piss on us
The shit and piss of bats as black as night
Black wings beating black air

Imperialism says it wants to make us happy!

From the womb of the oppressed the Revolution will be born.
A land promised for the revolution.
With all things held in common….
A just social system
Which will ensure that the rule
Of social inequality does not return.

I’d like to see billboards by the roadside here:
Your worth lies not in what you take
From others but in what you give

And all luxury homes will be expropriated
All those incapable of work
Shall have their needs met by the state

“Verily, verily I say unto you
The revolution is in the midst of you.”

We enter into the Easter of the Revolution.
After the bombardment of words and bombs
The slow sale of lives (hours/months/years)
Fecundity sabotaged and beauty sabotaged
After the terror in the streets filled with radio patrols
The Central Intelligence Agency
Anchilostomiasis and equisistomosis
The United Fruit lush as a cedar of Lebanon,
The burning of huts, the boot on top of the pregnant belly
And baseball to make the people forget
(this is the paschal mystery of the revolution)
We shall be reborn together as men and as women.
It becomes the chrysalis and
The chrysalis sprouts wings.

Means of production not to be in the hands of a few bastards.
Are they going to halt the march toward the promised society?

What’s that light way off there? Is it a star?
It’s Sandino’s light shining in the black mountain.

And Sandino had the face not of a soldier
But of a poet changed into a soldier through necessity,
And of a nervous man controlled by serenity.
There were two faces superimposed on his face:
A countenance somber and yet radiant;
Sad as a mountain evening
And joyful as a mountain morning.

“In the mountains everything is a teacher,” Sandino used to say.

Sandino reading Don Quixote, in the open air, by firelight.

… and the confession, and then the hallucinations,
The snapshot of your wife shining like a spotlight
In front of you and the nights filled with shrieks
And with noises and with silence, a tomblike silence,
And again the same question, the same question,
And the same noise repeated and the spotlight in your eyes
And then the long months that followed.

“Accused of talking against His Excellency the President…”
And the ones judged by a toad-faced judge
Or in Courts Martial with dog-faced guards:
And the ones forced to drink piss and eat shit
(when you all get a Constitution, remember them)
The ones with the bayonet in the mouth and the needle in the eye,
The electric shocks and the spotlight in the eyes.

The kid
They caught at night sticking up posters
And some laughing guards drag him off into the woods

You are the voice of people with adhesive tape across their mouths
This is no time for literary criticism.
Nor for attacking the gorillas with surrealistic poems.
And what use are metaphors if slavery is not a metaphor,
If death in the river of the Dead is not a metaphor,
If the Squadron of Death is not?


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