Chris Norris presents a poem in honour of Ernesto Cardenal (1925 – 2020)
Ernesto Cardenal, who died on March 1st this year, was a Nicaraguan poet, Marxist, Catholic priest and lifelong left activist who fought a protracted campaign against the more conservative wing of Catholic religious and social doctrine. When Pope John Paul visited Managua in 1993 Cardenal famously knelt before him on the runway but was rebuffed and told to mend his dissident ways.
His relations with Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government were strained in later years but Cardenal was active in the overthrow of Somoza, remained deeply committed to the revolution, and served for a time as Minister of Culture (a role John Paul placed high on the charge-sheet). His renegade status was only revoked and Cardenal’s full priestly office restored in 2019 by the ‘liberal’ Pope Francis.
Cardenal’s poetry always united the lyrical and passionate with the tough-minded and political, though it moved increasingly in the latter direction. At best it displays a Brechtian combination of factual, nitty-gritty, heartfelt social protest, and a gift for placing vividly evocative image and metaphor in the service of both poetic and political aims.
Capital and Christ's message: for Ernesto Cardenal
With lowered head you met him, Pope John Paul.
With lowered head
but mind and heart held high:
His gospel darkest blue, yours deepest red.
No chance you’d hit it off, meet eye-to-eye.
No chance you’d hit
some middling path to tread
And reconcile that all-too-public split.
Your gospel call was ‘give the hungry bread’.
Your gospel call
was: hear the poor man’s cry
And feed the spirit when there’s bread for all.
Pie-in-the-sky, that other-worldly bit.
so long as faith played ball
With US firms that bled your people dry.
‘Faith first’, he said, ‘else into sin you’ll fall.’
‘Faith first’, he said,
‘and don’t rush to apply
That social creed lest folk should be misled.’
You’d holy writ on which to testify.
You’d holy writ
to back that creed and spread
Home-truths John Paul would shudder to admit.
If they appal, those truths, then act instead!
If they appal
(you challenged him) then why
Let faith erase that writing on the wall?
You nailed the lie that called their crimes legit.
You nailed the lie
that made weak brethren crawl
To those your poems urged they should defy.
Too long in bed with hucksters great and small.
Too long in bed,
his Church, with those who’d pry
And fix elections when their strong-man fled.
Much better quit, you told the Fruit Corp guy.
Much better quit
or have their assets bled
And crimes revealed with penalties to fit.
It’s Capital whose curse we have to shed.
you wrote, that dares deny
Christ’s message and have Paul revert to Saul.
We’ll scan it by the Marxist lights you lit.
We’ll scan it by
reviewing faith’s long haul
With optics set to ‘life before we die’.
Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. He is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, politics, literature, the history of ideas, and music.