Ernesto Cardenal's epigrams


The brief poetic compositions of the writer, cardinal, theologian and former minister of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua

By Afrânio Catani*

There was some confusion in the press and the death in Managua of the Nicaraguan cardinal Ernesto Cardenal was reported when, in reality, the person who died was his brother, Fernando Cardenal, also belonging to the ranks of Catholicism. I confess that I am not versed in religion and the politics of the Catholic Church. I only know that he was a Jesuit and, with the arrival of the Sandinistas to power, in 1979, he joined the Government Board as Minister of Culture, exercising this function until 1987.

In 1985 Pope John Paul II suspended this defender of Liberation Theology in Latin America, considering his priestly mission incompatible with his political office. In 1994, Cardenal broke with the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). He wrote poetry, memoirs, received several literary prizes and, in February 2019, Pope Francis withdrew all canonical sanctions applied to him, reintegrating him into the Roman Catholic Church.

I also confess that I know little of most of his writings. But I know, and well, your Epigrams. I'll tell you a little story first. I was in Chile in January 1997 and, after a congress in the city of Talca, I returned to Santiago. With my friend Rob Rix, then a professor at the University of Leeds, UK, we took the bus and went to Isla Negra, to visit one of the houses of the poet Pablo Neruda.

As the wait was long, after withdrawing our passwords, we went out to eat and drink. Searing heat; we must have caused problems in the supply of beer in the region, a drinking that was completed in Puerto San Antonio, not far from Valparaiso. We walked around and in a tent souvenirs, at the insistence of dear Rob, I examined a handwritten little red booklet (yes, little book: 6,5 x 4,0 cm) by Cardenal entitled Epigrams (Chile: Bauhaus Graphics, 1993, 149 pages). The charm was immediate and the copy was unique and cheap.

The “Prologue” (p. 3-7) informs that the first edition of the epigrams took place in Mexico, having been written between 1950 and 1956, “shortly before Cardenal entered the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani, Kentucky” (p. 3-4). But, after all, what are such epigrams?

They are brief poetic compositions on any subject, usually ending, in the case of those produced by the would-be religious, in an ingenious or satirical tirade. In this work we find amorous and political epigrams and, in some, “both elements merge, creating an authentic ambivalent amorous-political experience” (p. 4-5). In the first ones, we have Ernesto full of love for the world and for the girls he loved at that time, even naming them. Politicians, on the other hand, circulated a lot, clandestinely, during the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza: “a testimonial poetry, of protest, which caught the attention of European and American critics” (p. 6-7).

Starting with an epigraph by Catulo – “…pero no te escarás de mis yambos” [1] –, Cardenal opens with his epigrams “a whole box of possible lyrical solutions for the social and political poem in the Latin American language” ( p.7) [2]. There are exactly 48 pieces.

Here are some samples of his talent, written between the ages of 25 and 30, 31:

“You came to/visit me in/sueños/but the void/you left when/you went/was realidad”.

“Tú has trabajado/veinte años/to gather twenty/millions of pesos/but we would give twenty/millions of pesos/to not work/como tú has/trabajado”.

“Uno se awakens/with cannons/in the morning/full of planes./It seemed that/fuera revolución:/pero es el cumpleaños/del tyrant”.

“Si tú estás/en Nueva York/en Nueva York/no hay nadie/más/y si no estás en/Nueva York/en Nueva York/no hay nadie”.

“The person/closer/to mí/eres tú,/a la que sin/embargo/no veo hace/tanto tempo/más que/en sueños”.

“Tú no/mereces/siquiera/un epigrama”.

“A tú despiadada/más cruel que/Tachito”. [Somoza]

“Take care, Claudia,/when you are with me,/because the gesture/lightest, whatever/word, a sigh/by Claudia, the slightest carelessness,/perhaps one day lo/examinen scholars,/and this dance by/Claudia is remember by siglos./Claudia, ya te lo/aviso”.

“Maybe we/we'll marry this/year,/my love, and/we'll have a little house./Maybe my/book will be/published,/and we'll go/los dos al/estranjero./Maybe caiga/Somoza,/ my love".

“They told me that/you were in love/with another/and then I/went to my room/and wrote this/article against/the Government/because I was/imprisoned”.

“Many people who/someday were loyal/emocionated/these verses/and dreamed with a poet: Sabed que yo los/hice para una/como vosotras/y que fue en vano”.

“I shared/clandestine papers./Screaming: Viva la libertad!/in full street/challenging the armed guards/I participated in the/April rebellion./Pero palidezco/when I pass by your house/and you sola mirada/ make me tremble”.

The poet Cardenal, now rehabilitated, must certainly have vivid memories of the past, which perhaps still makes him dream of Claudia, Myrian, Ileana and with mountains de other Girls which motivated him to write his epigrams.

*Afrânio Catani is a retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF.


[1] Cardenal's joke regarding his verses, referring to iamb (jambo), rhythmic clause of classical, Greek and Latin poetry, formed by two syllables, one short and the other long.

[2] The authorship of the “Prologue” is not mentioned. At the end of the small volume, after the credits referring to “Diagramación y Dibujos”, to “Portada y Gráfica”, there is the heading “Ademas”: “Mrs. Isabel. Margarita. Adriana”. Perhaps they are the authors of the said prologue.

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