Letter to Ernesto Cardenal from a young poet
Dear Father and friend;
You’ll never read this letter
because I’ll never be able to send it to you.
I wrote it to say my last good-bye.
I’m in debt to you...
I’ll never forget your sullen tender gaze
of a spiritual child trapped in
an undying elderly man’s body
when you read my verses,
when you told me about
your work as a sculptor…
I never thought you were going to die…
William Grigsby Vergara
My first contact with your work was at the age of 15, when I found an edition of “Oración por Marilyn Monroe” (Prayer for Marilyn Monroe) on my grandmother Myriam’s nightstand. She was one of your big readers and carries the name of one of your youthful loves. That book touched my first literary fibers. It wasn’t until later, when I was 18 and had just graduated from the Central American School, that I felt deeply enlightened by your vast universal work.
Everything began when I was walking to the Central American University one sunny morning and stopped to look at the sign of the Nicaraguan Writers’ Center offices. I decided to go in and buy one of your books: Salmos (Psalms). I liked that cheap paperback for its anti-solemnity. That little book changed my life.
You were on the front cover of it, celebrating Mass in your chapel in Solentiname with a thick beard, white hair, thick glasses, hands upon the chalice and the host. I remember the picture, so coherent with the verses I read. I was surprised by your clear and direct language, authentic and lucid. I wanted to write like you. That’s how my literary vocation began; wanting to imitate you…though I never could.
I’ve been grateful to you ever since…
Ever since then, I began to visit you. You would receive me, very interested in what I was writing. I took you a bundle of bad poems, like all those bad poems one writes as an adolescent. You corrected what you could with a lot of detail. I must have inspired some noblesse oblige. If not, I believe you would have given them all back to me, rejected. But no, you told me you saw “some future” in several of my verses. Since then I have felt deeply grateful to you.
That same year, 2003, we saw each other in Cuba, when they dedicated the Week of the Author to you in Havana. I was on the island for health reasons and went to your recital. But we were barely able to talk to each other because, when it ended, you were surrounded by press and a multitude of youths asking for pictures and autographs.
We met again when I participated in the Ernesto Cardenal International Poetry Competition for Young Poets in 2005. The award ceremony was in the auditorium of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in León. That day, poet-writer Claribel Alegría, a member of the jury and a great friend of yours, was fussing over the winner with special affection, our dear Francisco Ruíz Udiel, who left us at an untimely moment in a tragic ending
I wanted to explore the relationship
between your poems and sculptures
Years later I had the opportunity to preface a presentation of your sculptures in the Códice Gallery, which would be your last exhibit in Managua. Several years later I decided to do my master’s thesis on those sculptures, which are less talked about than your poems. I was interested in exploring the relationship between the two.
I interviewed you a couple of times for my thesis, in your office in Managua. Once again, as years before, I felt your support for what I was doing. The first interview was in January, 2014, close to your 90th birthday. You told me that even though you were working with more intent every day, you were sculpting less due to your age. “I don’t have much to say anymore, however I keep on working,” you said, and that seemed admirable to me.
That day you said that ever since your childhood, when you studied in the Central American School in Granada, you’d been making little figures and silhouettes out of clay left by the rains. You always had a fondness for sculpting. You told me about when you were studying at Columbia University in New York, you made very small sculptures of wax and playdough and when you returned to Nicaragua you showed them to Rodrigo Peñalba. “He liked them a lot.” The master Peñalba, father of modern painting in Nicaragua, showed them to José Gómez-Sicre, director of the Museum of the Pan American Union, now called OAS. Gómez-Sicre was traveling around Latin America, looking for paintings and sculptures for a big exhibit in Washington. He picked some of yours, asked you to work them into a bigger size and more professionally. And that is how they went to the exhibit. Since then you not only wrote but also dedicated yourself to sculpting.
Your first large-scale sculptures were a repertoire of animals: tapirs, macaws, toucans, ocelots, grackles, quetzals, fish. You also did oil paintings. However, Peñalba and Armando Morales, great Nicaraguan painters, didn’t like them much. Eventually, you quit painting.
“I’m an instinctive author”
When you began to make bigger sculptures, Fernando Saravia, sculpture professor at the School of Fine Arts in Managua, would correct you and give you guidance. Saravia was a painter and sculptor. He was your sculpture teacher, the only one you ever had. He taught you to work with plaster and above all, to improve your style: “Sometimes my lines were unsteady and Saravia helped me polish them into well-defined curves and straight lines.”
“I’m an instinctive author,” you told me. Your sculptures had a certain affinity with those of Brancusi and Giacometti. You told me you met Brancusi after having found your own personal style. “I saw a likening in him with what I was doing and I liked that; his was less abstract, more representational, but along the same line of simplification and stylization.” You also did some works with wire and iron, inspired by Giacometti after having found your own way. But it was just an exploration because you soon returned to your animals carved out of wood.
A very modern sculpture
During that first interview for my thesis I asked you about the relationship between your poetry and your sculptures. “There are some things in common,” you said. And it was true: the simplicity of your poetry was like the simplicity in your sculptures. The minimalism that some saw in your sculptures was also present in your poems. Eliminate decoration and leave the figure and word very sober; that was true in both your sculptures and your poetry.
Also, the influence of the popular, the indigenous. The pre-Columbian world “and that of the indigenous of our times, like those from Nagarote, inspired me.” You drank from the cultures of other primitive peoples, “the Eskimo, for example.” The sculptures of the people from Oceania and Africa were also drinking troughs for you and some of the sculptures of the Mesoamerican indigenous, their simplicity influenced you a lot.
I told you I thought your sculpture was very modern. “You’re right,” you said. And you explained that the stylizations in the modern world’s sculpture and architecture were similar to yours. In them, the curve, the arch, the sphere is repeated. These forms are seen in authors such as Zaha Hadid, Henry Moore or Santiago Calatrava
“Merton’s lesson marked me for life”
During the 1950s you sculpted heads of young girls, nudes and female torsos. You also made a sculpture of Saint Teresita. And when you lived as a Trappist monk in the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane, in Kentucky, you sculpted Christs, virgins and monks.
“Once I told my novice master, Thomas Merton,” you recalled, “that I had doubts about making sculptures that weren’t religious; the ones I had made all my life were animals. Merton told me that animals were also a religious motif, because Nature and God’s Creation was what I was reproducing. He told me there shouldn’t be any difference between the sacred and everyday life. It was a lesson from Merton that marked me for life.”
In the end, you were particularly attracted to animal shapes, where you saw all the pure curves. “If you look closely at their feet they are arches and more arches.” During the time I interviewed you, you told me you were “working more with plants.” And when I asked for your opinion about conceptual art you were categorical: “I don’t like it, I don’t understand it.”
The herons of Solentiname
and the dinosaurs’ curves
I interviewed you again in December, 2016, also in Managua. That time you told me you liked to sculpt herons: “Because of their necks, they’re always moving them.” Herons, abundant in Solentiname, move their necks in all directions; they twist them, stretch them, shrink them, always taking on different forms.
You told me about the creative process of your sculptures: “I start by drawing on paper with a pencil, in a spontaneous and automatic way until a figure comes out complete, by chance. It’s something very instinctive. I stylize them, that’s how they come out. When I have a drawing, I make a small replica… all herons and four-legged animals, foxes or cats. Sometimes I color them. Lately, almost always when I work with wood, I give it to a carpenter to make it faster and easier with material that I don’t have.”
You were still sculpting animals at the age of 91. “Not long ago,” you told me, “I made an anhinga out of wood. I was in a boat in Solentiname and I saw the anhinga on the lake and I thought I could make it out of a rod. I conceived it that way and made it that way, black and white. I drew it from memory.”
Another of your passions was sculpting dinosaurs. “They have a fickle shape and are very sculptural. Their curves attract my attention,” you said with an artist’s passion.
Your rarely-mentioned sculptural work
Despite the enormous interest your poetic works awoke around the world, interest in an intertextual dialogue on your sculpture and your poetry was basically null. In my master’s thesis I went over some of the authors who had commented, reviewed or critiqued your poetic work in articles, prologues and anthologies. I found some Nicaraguan and foreign authors who always highlighted your extra-literary virtues, especially your ethical commitment to the most disadvantaged, the innovated character of your revolutionary poetry and your scientific poetry, which made you deserving of many awards. The main ones were the Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Award in 2009, and the Queen Sofia Ibero-American Poetry Award in 2012. However, your sculptural works were rarely ever mentioned.
I discovered a huge gap in linking the two artistic expressions in which you were outstanding, sculpture and poetry. I believe, in fact I’m sure, that it’s due to the lack of promotion of your sculptures outside of Nicaragua. Of your 29 individual exhibits in more than 90 years, only 8 were outside of Nicaragua.
“Prayers in bronze and wood”
Luce López-Baralt, the most important scholar of your mystical facet, does refer explicitly to your sculptural works. In her book cántico místico de Ernesto Cardenal (The mystical canticle of Ernesto Cardenal), she writes that you also express your infinite experience through the plastic arts, which go from your famous crucifixes of lava and stylized monks to your masterful vegetation and animal forms (cactuses, extended heron necks, fish from Solentiname), and without intending, they become prayers in bronze and wood. She concludes that with your multicolored pieces the poet celebrates all the exuberant life that God, the creator, has made evolve from a single sacred cell.
López-Baralt rescues many interesting reflections in which spiritual prayer and the sculptural work dialogue with each other. I wanted to go a little farther and establish a tighter link interviewing you to understand that relationship better. In my search, I only found three authors who have commented on your sculptural works in any sort of depth, from your first Christian iconography to the wildlife iconography. They were the Spanish critic and art historian María Dolores Torres, Nicaraguan writer Mercedes Gordillo and poet and art critic Julio Valle-Castillo.
In the first article I read about your plastic work, written by María Dolores Torres, you introduce yourself in the line of imagination and despite your stylization and omission of what you consider accessories, the likeness your sculptural work maintains with natural forms is evident, albeit reduced to their purest essence. In other writings about your work, Torres presents a captivating vision of your works, even though she doesn’t have them dialogue explicitly with your poetic works.
Mercedes Gordillo’s contribution is brief, stating that Ernesto Cardenal’s sculptures come from the terrestrial and lacustrine, extracting forms, movements, colors and essences of primitive magic during mystic prayer. An authentic, cultured work of humble love. Material poetry open to diversity, to organic and silent space. Always seeking the form closest to truth and beauty, which is the same as saying the Perfect Eros or Love.
“It’s poetry-image, image-poem”
Julio Valle-Castillo is the one who makes the most interesting contribution in a written text about your sculptural work, in which at last we see an intertextual approximation between your visual poetry and your sculpture.
He says that although Cardenal is valued and known as a poet, he is a sculptor with an almost solitary place in the panorama of art in Nicaragua. It’s been said flippantly that the “exteriorism” trend of which Cardenal had been the cultivator and main theorist scorns metaphors, figures, verbal and conceptual images. But no, “exteriorism” as its name indicates, advocates for the exterior such as form, turning a poem into an object, poetry-image, image-poem. Cardenal’s stylistic resources were not in vain: decorative spelling, acronyms and signs, numbers and petroglyphs—like the Chinese ideograms his master Pound loved—and the chromatic spectrum among the descriptive elements of his poems are present in all his works. Cardenal’s poetic act happens in the eye, it’s plastic poetry.
Only Valle-Castillo traces the bridge needed between your visual poetry and your plastic work. The poet and painter is able to see in a comprehensive way both trades to which you dedicated your multifaceted life.
Though there are other outstanding sculptors in Nicaragua, like Jorge Navas Cordonero or Edith Grøn, the place you occupy is the most singular for dedicating yourself to sculpting animals and plants in a country where the predominate sculptures are historical heroes.
Other contemporaries of yours were important visual artists: Patricia Belli, Luis Urbina, Orlando Sobalvarro, Miguel Ángel Abarca, Alberto Gutiérrez, Noel Flores, Leónidas Correa, Aparicio Artola and Ilce Ortiz de Manzanares. But your work had no precedent in Nicaragua.
You retreated from the world, sculpted in intimacy and with your vanguard works exhibited silently, made a huge artistic contribution, challenging the throw-away culture in which we live, where the junk we produce has more value than organic material like wood.
A lyrical goldsmith,
a contemporary classic
You recycled elementary material creating your own art. One could say your work, besides being modern, is deeply groundbreaking: surpassing the Christian motifs that dominated sculpting in Nicaragua since the beginning of the 20th century. In your solitary labor as an instinctive creator you didn’t seek to create public plazas. You went for the elemental: sculpt an insect or a cactus with basic materials: clay, wood, junk, painting them in the end with car paint.
You created and recreated yourself. You were a lyrical goldsmith with the same materials you played with as a child. Your poetic and sculptural works subvert tradition from modernity, question modernity from the primitive and are original from the instinctive. You, dear Father and friend, succeeded in personifying your own artistic product. I think each of your poems and each of your sculptures is biographical: they tell about you as a human. In your legacy there’s an artist who touches the faith of the spectator. And even if the spectator doesn’t agree with you, you are capable of touching him.
Your work managed to create a “new modern aura” in a way that returns the sacredness to the material. And it does so with that peculiarity you also reached—to represent love in cosmic matter, when it’s assumed that cosmic nature is only approached through the cold vision of a retired scientist in his laboratory, incapable of seeing kisses where there’s only condensed gases. This is also achieved by a groundbreaking artist, someone before his time. All of your work resists being ephemeral and you’re a contemporary classic with your poetry and sculpture.
Celebrating your 90 years in Mexico
While in Mexico, where I studied my graduate courses and presented my thesis about your sculptural works, I had the opportunity to meet many people who considered themselves debtors of your human and literary legacy, people of all ages and different nationalities who followed everything you did and said in Nicaragua.
I remember you as the guest of honor for a Mexican audience, especially youths, in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, where you celebrated your 90 years of life. That place, symbol of culture for all of Latin America, opened its doors for you to have a recital. You started your literary adventure in Mexico, the place you always considered your “second homeland,” as a student of Philosophy and Literature in the UNAM. There you met Octavio Paz, Xavier Villaurrutia and León Felipe, who when he saw you for the first time saw in your eyes of a nervous fawn the gaze of an engrossed poet. With affection he always called you “my angelical friend.”
I thought, dear Father
and friend, that you were never going to die. I would watch the years pass you by like unfaithful girlfriends stealing your age, but you would never die. In reality, I believe you never died, though newspapers around the world have written mournful chronicles about your physical disappearance. I believe what has happened is that you experienced metamorphosis: a trance from man to spirit…
As large as that sculpture
I don’t remember who wisely said that one is the size of the best he has done. I think of your true stature when I see the gigantic sculpture of Sandino you made, that silhouette drawn in the skies of Managua and which Managua contemplates every day on top of Tiscapa Hill, where Somoza’s ominous presidential palace once stood. Now that you are closer to heaven than we are, surely you can see us from there. Dear Father and friend, you are as big as your work, as all of your works, work that is beyond us.
You were the only Nicaraguan capable of making the dead rise by simply naming them. You, who prophesied Somoza’s fall, who had enlightened blood, like your brother Fernando, who prophesied that someday “…the youth (of Nicaragua) return to the streets to make history.” It happened in April 2018.
You, who contain multitudes, as said by Walt Whitman, one of your great teachers, were also a priest who announced and denounced the injustices committed by tyrants, the corrupt and the powerful. Today we owe the fifth Gospel to you. The Gospel of Solentiname, translated into 20 languages, where theology, poetry and contemplation of Nature fuse together with the islands of the Cocibolca, Nicaragua’s great freshwater lake.
Eternally in love with God
We will remember you, Father and friend, because you also gave a voice to the child poet of the Revolution, the prodigious Leonel Rugama, who wrote the eternal poem “Like the Saints.” You were the inspiration for Leonel to write everything he wrote at the young age of 20, before Somoza’s National Guard silenced him with bullets.
You inspired a rare hope that infects the chosen. I always saw you with your spiritual hump and your accumulated silence due to your age, stubborn and tender, hard as oak, and I would say to myself: Father is never going to die, Father Cardenal is like his sculpture, solid, clear, essential. There are no decorations, no threats, no baroque style in it. Everything in it is the summary of a lyrically immeasurable, unquantifiable cosmos.
When you were 80 years old, you started visiting children with leukemia in La Mascota hospital. You were the stubborn and necessary teacher, tenacious and patient with your disciples. You invented poetry workshops for children whose future was uncertain. You awoke the imagination of those children sick with cancer, tired of transfusions, injections and IV’s and gave them the future their parents couldn’t give them because besides being sick, they were also poor children.
Away from cameras and reflectors, with no intention of being noticed, but with your notable presence, you gave yourself blindly to others, like a person in love. I believe you were eternally in love with God: you loved expecting nothing in return, like hardly anyone loves in this life.
Your black beret is the dome of
the Cathedral of Nicaraguan poetry
I have always thought that Rubén Darío, Alfonso Cortés, Joaquín Pasos and Carlos Martínez Rivas are the four pillars that sustain the Cathedral of Nicaraguan Poetry. I’ve also thought that your black beret is the dome of that cathedral.
You kept that lucid head, dear Father and friend, to the end. You also kept that soft beard and that cotona (cotton shirt), white like your celestial soul, that profile of a sui generis priest who remained on the margin of all the gold accumulated by the Vatican. In 1983, kneeling before the pope, you seemed taller than him. You, who knew how to stand unscathed and smiling before the accusing finger of the pontiff sanctioning you before the eyes of the world, never lost your humble smile full of grace on that day.
You, dear Father and friend, who slept in a hammock and always wore sandals, austere, frugal and shy, never left your spiritual vocation and your spirit of solidarity, in spite of the suspension a divinis imposed on you and finally lifted by Pope Francis at your deathbed.
Today you expand with the universe and your cosmic metaphors dance with the planets that gravitate around the sun singing the music of the celestial spheres. You, who said you had no ear and were no good for the canticles of the choir at the Trappist abbey, bequeathed us all the music from your poems because you could clearly hear God’s whispers in your soul to later translate them into poetry.
What we are left with
Priest, poet, sculptor, apostle of the peasant church of Solentiname, liberation theologian, but above all a human being who feels and empathizes with others, with the nobodies, with those marginalized by the system that worships money, you, Father and friend, are unclassifiable.
Now your soul lives with the souls of the dead who don’t have a sepulcher because their tombs are the whole national territory. Now you are united with so many young ones killed in so many battles and are part of the constellation of heroes and martyrs who inspired and continue to inspire the people of Nicaragua, who still don’t know the true flavor of lasting peace.
We are left with your tribute to Laureano Mairena, Donald Guevara and Elvis Chavarría, among so many others killed in combat and your tribute to Alvarito Conrado and those of this stage of the struggle.
We are left with the moving prayer you wrote in Antioch for that little girl who dreamed of being a Hollywood star and whose body was ransacked by the cinema industry before millions of passive spectators around the world.
You, Father Cardenal, God’s secretary, who wrote everything God would dictate to you since that June 2, 1956, when God revealed himself to you, according to your Memoirs, leave us a patrimony as big as your love for the cosmos. You leave us your Epigrams and your Psalms, turned into a continental cry. You leave us the example of privation and sacrifice that a Christian utopia demands, which you embraced with so much passion.
Now, during the darkest nights, we can pull out telescopes and see your white smile shining in the sky like a comet that leaves an indescribable tail. Dear Father and friend, I thought you were never going to die. Today I know you haven’t died. Father Ernesto Cardenal, now that you are there where violins of ether play clearly, you can answer Marilyn Monroe’s call.
William Grigsby Vergara is a Nicaraguan writer.