Ernesto Cardenal's
 Translated from the Spanish 
by Jonathan Cohen

Note: This poem is based on Sir Walter Raleigh's account of his "discovery of the
large, rich, and beautiful empire of Guiana; with a relation of the great and golden
city of Manoa, which the Spaniards call El Dorado" (1595).

Due east from Peru, towards the sea, by the Equinoctial Line,
upon a white lake of salt water 200 leagues long
lies Manoa,
Manoa, mansion of the sun, mirror of the moon,
Manoa that Juan Martinez had seen one day
when at noon as he entered it they removed his blindfold
and he traveled all that day till night through the city.
I knew about it for years from reports
how it glimmers at night on the moony lake
and the splendor of the gold at noon.
All the vessels of his house, table, and kitchen, were of gold
says Gomara
and they found 52,000 marks of good silver, and 1,326,500
pesos of gold,
he says about the treasure of Atahualpa in Cuzco,
that they found 52,000 marks of good silver
and 1,326,500 pesos of gold.
For they said that the stones we brought were not gold!
And I spoke with the caciques in their houses
and gave wine to the Spaniards in Trinidad to get them talking.
And I learned about all the rivers and kingdoms;
from the East Sea to the borders of Peru,
from the Orinoco southward as far as the Amazon
and the region of Maria Tambal,
all the kingdoms.
And the way of life that's followed in them, and their customs.
Orenqueponi, Taparimaca, Winicapora.
It was as if I were seeing them.
The Indians along the shores, those on the islands, the Cannibals,
Cannibals of Guanipa,
the Indians called Assawai, Coaca, Aiai,
the Tuitas dwelling on trees, the Headless Ones
and the Wikiri north of the Orinoco
and the Arwaca south of the mouth of the Orinoco
and beyond them, the Cannibals
and south of them, the Amazons.
And so we set out in April
when queens of the Amazons gather at the borders
and dance naked, anointed with balsam and gold,
till the finish of that moon
We set out in April
our ships quite a long way from us anchored at sea,
on the venture
100 men with their bags and their supplies for a month
sleeping out in the rain
and bad weather and in the open air and in the burning sun
and plants getting stuck to their skin and the wet clothes
and the sweat of so many men together and the sun's heat
(and I who remembered the Court)
and a sadness growing heavier by late afternoon and the buzzing from
        the swamps
and we'd hear monkeys at night crying filled with fear,
the scream of an animal frightened by another
and the noise of some oars,
the plash of some leaves in the river,
the step of gentle hooves upon leaves.
Voices: the sadness of those voices …
No prison so lonely exists in England.

And already very little bread. And not a drop of water.

Nights in cots hanging under the sky of Brazil
that kind of bed they call "hamacas"
hearing the current rushing in the darkness
and the drum from tribe to tribe up in the mountains
and the roar of water growing louder.

No bread. No water.
Our ears dazed by the silence.
The trees so high we couldn't feel the air.
And the roar of water growing louder.

No bread. No water.
Except for the murky water of the river, that's all.
And there's a red river that turns poisonous when the sun sets
and at night the groans of animals it sickens are heard.
And some lagoons black and thick, like tar …
And the heat as we drew towards the Line.
And the smell of wet leaves and the taste of weariness.
And from rapids to rapids, from cascade to cascade,
the laughter at nightfall of the green virgin of the river
and the crashing of water into water.

And the air weakening. And the jungle lonely …

My company beginning to lose hope.
And a day short of the land where all one desires is found!
And on the banks, flowers and ripe green fruits.
And some green birds
we amused ourselves a good while watching them pass
And breadfruits and monkeys and the Campana bird
and the sweet fragrance of balsam and soapberry
and the wax that the Karamana tree secretes
and the moisture in those jungles of sandalwood and camphor:
the trees were abounding in milk and honey,
they were abounding in amber and fragrant gums
and some fruit that would burst with a bang
from afar we'd hear it at night exploding.
And leaves big as canoes would fall upon the river.
And we saw the Crystal Mountain, we saw it afar off,
standing on the horizon like a silver church
and a river fell from its top with a terrible noise like a thousand bells.
And the daughters of the Orinoco laughing amid the trees …
And cascades that shone from afar like cities,
like a smoke rising over some great town
and the rumble and thunder and rebounding of the waters.
I never saw a more beautiful country:
the virgin green valleys,
the birds towards the evening singing on every tree,
the stags that came tamely to the water as to a master's whistle
and the fresh air from the east
and the glisten of gold stones in the sunlight.

Fifteen days later we sighted Guiana, to our great joy,
and a strong push of northerly wind blew that afternoon
and by night we reached a place where the river opens into three branches
and that night we lay at anchor under the stars, smelling the fragrance of
The nearness of the land of Guiana!
But we had to head back eastward
because the rains began: those great downpours
and the rivers flooded, and endless swamps
leaving behind Guiana with its sword of fire,
leaving Guiana to the sun, whom they worship.
And with sorrow we entered the sea once more …

[Return to Cohen's Profile]