By Manuel Roig-Franzia
The Washington Post
May 30, 2011
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.