From Richard Elman's
[The] Cardenal of most interest to me is the poet of the late 1950s and early 1960s, whose work is represented in With Walker in Nicaragua, translated with great accuracy, simplicity and beauty by Jonathan Cohen. Cardenal's poetry of this period is exteriorist (documentary) and not so oracular as his Indian poems or his poems about Managua's earthquake. These early works are more available to us because of their subject: the penetration of the isthmus of Nicaragua by a succession of barely well-meaning and not-so-well meaning imperialists from the United States, chiefly during the nineteenth century. The subject was a natural for Cardenal. When young, he studied at Columbia University, was close to New York City's Upper West Side intelligentsia and, later, coming under the influence of Thomas Merton, resided in the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani. Cardenal was deeply influenced by Pound, Williams, Whitman, Marianne Moore and Muriel Rukeyser, whose free-verse styles he used to alter the more arty approach to exteriorism characteristic of Urtecho. His interest in the theme of the gringo in a strange land may also have been occasioned by more immediate identifications. During the nineteenth century, Cardenal's family had assimilated some European immigrants, including, legend has it, a defector from the William Walker expedition which sought to make Nicaragua a vassal state of the slave-holding Southern Confederacy. In choosing to write intimate accounts of these filibusters and verify passages from Ephraim George Squier's nineteenth-century treatise on Nicaragua, Cardenal like Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom was coming to terms with his own history:
"With Walker in Nicaragua" is narrated by a survivor, in a voice still awed by the jungle, the deaths, the tropics, the wonder of a land, a people. It is a report on a time when the land was unsullied, the air clear and the imperalists either bloody-minded or awestruck. The poem is tender toward the invaders without being sentimental. It presents us with their terror, their pain, their ordeal. It is these filibusters who were culturally deprived until they came to Nicaragua, where they were astonished by relatively simple beauties:
When Cardenal's early poems are not about the contact between gringos and indigenous Nicaraguans, they are amatory and sometimes political. They were often printed anonymously, like certain poems composed for underground revolutionary handbooks. His single greatest historical poem about gringoism, a patriotic epic of sorts, is "Zero Hour," which treats of the assassination of Sandino. It's a poem of heroic evocation in which the death of a hero is also seen as the rebirth of nationhood: when the hero dies, green herbs rise where he has fallen. It makes innovative use of English and Spanglais and is therefore hard to translate, but from its opening lines about noches tropicalesthrough to its conclusion, it is very much a work of national consciousness and a unique poetic expression.
There are hardly any poems in this collection about Nicaraguan poverty; both Cardenal's middle-class origin and his historical perspective permit him to avoid describing the squalid cardboard shacks and 6-year-old laborers in the Tipitapa cotton fields of Abram Gorn, Somoza's crony. Cardenal's religious community on the island of Solentiname in Lake Nicaragua existed within peasant society and had peasants among its artists and contemplatives, but there is nothing in Cardenal's work that resembles the moving social realism of the Honduran poet Roberto Sosa, a great and original artist, who sees the children of the poor as having the faces of indignant gods.
After "Zero Hour," Cardenal's poetry became increasingly pious, almost doctrinaire, but very often effective as such. He is now so closely identified with the interests of the Sandinistas that he has been willing to allow the party to instruct him in his duties, and he complains often about his lack of time for poetry. His service as a kind of international ambassador does not always show him at his best. After chatting up the Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, he wrote enthusiastic nonsense in Barricada about ecclesiastics and politics, at a time when the Imam was sending prostitutes to the firing squad.
To put the matter only this way, though, is not to allow Cardenal's fine work to speak to us as it can and should. Publication of With Walker in Nicaragua in English provides us with examples of some of the best poetry of a modern master:
Cardenal imitates the sounds of birds and evokes the growth of erotic feeling in the gringo traveler. He can be such a superb poet that his occasional wordiness and heavy-handedness is all the more unforgivable, and Cohen's translations are so close that they make you aware of the poet's occasional faults as well as his virtues.