by Marianna Levine
On Saturday, December 26 Canio’s Books will be hosting a string of festive events as part of their series of “Cultural Cafes.” Bookstore managers Maryann Calendrille and Kathryn Szoka have organized an evening of poetry featuring the work of Nicaraguan poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal.
The event starts with a jazz concert at 4 p.m. featuring local trio Steve Shaugnessy, Tom DePetris and John Ludlow. At 6 p.m. SUNY Stony Brook Professor Jonathan Cohen, who has the intriguing title of writer in residence of surgery, will read English translations of Cardenal’s work from a new book he’s edited for New Directions called “Pluriverse: Ernesto Cardenal New and Selected Poems.”
Canio Pavone will read the poems in Spanish so audience members can appreciate the work aurally in its original language.
Calendrille and Szoka decided to host this event as Calendrille states, “we have known Jon a long time as a poet and editor, and part of what we do here at the book shop is to promote poetry.” Calendrille also noted that “it is a happy coincidence” the reading of Cardenal’s work happens to fall on Boxing Day, a day which was traditionally observed as the day of rest for servants and others who had to work on Christmas Day. Cardenal is famous for having a strong social consciousness.
Cardenal’s name may not be as readily recognizable to Americans as say Pablo Neruda’s; however, within the world of letters and specifically in Latin American literary circles, he is revered as a poet of great stature. As a matter of fact, according to the Library Journal, he is “the preeminent poet of Central America today.”
Notably, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has written the foreword to “Pluriverse” and Allen Ginsberg is quoted as saying “Ernesto Cardenal is a major epic-historical poet, in the grand lineage of Central American prophet Rubén Darío” in the book’s publicity.
Pavone comments, “He may not be spoken or written about as much now- a days, but there was a time back in the 80s when Nicaragua was in the news that he was known for his strong social consciousness. His popularity may have faded a bit as our country’s political focus shifted from Latin America to the Middle East.”
Cohen notes, “We did readings together back in the 80s in New York City that were so well attended they were like rock concerts. He was like a roving ambassador during the Sandinista Revolution.”
Indeed, Cardenal’s creative work is strongly linked to politics as he fervently supported the 1979 overthrow of the Nicaraguan Dictator Anastasio Somoza. Many of his poems at the time reflected his political sympathies, and were know as poems of protest. Following the take over of the government by the Sandinistas, Cardenal became the country’s Minister of Culture from 1979-1988. He is currently the honorary president and co-founder of the Nicaraguan cultural organization Casa de los Tres Mundos.
Cardenal, who studied at Columbia University in New York during the 1940s, was influenced by the work of North American poets such as Ezra Pound, Carl Sandberg, and Walt Whitman. Cohen notes, “ He came to America in part to get out from under the shadow of Pablo Neruda, and the curious thing about his poetry is that it does fit into the U.S.’s poetry and it even extends the U.S. poetry’s traditions.”
Since the mid-80s Cardenal’s poems have taken on an interesting mix of science and mysticism. This is perhaps due to Cardenal’s religious devotion, which is as powerful an influence on him as his political consciousness. He became a Christian in 1956 and studied with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton at Gethsemani in Kentucky prior to being ordained a priest in 1965. According to Cohen, “It was Merton who told him to return to Nicaragua and start a contemplative community” which he eventually did.
Translator and editor Cohen began working on Cardenal’s poems while still an undergraduate in English Literature at SUNY Stony Brook in the 1970s. He has since developed a personal relationship with Cardenal that began after he wrote to him through his editor at New Directions.
“He was very receptive to my writing. He already had a connection with North America. He was translating North American poetry into Spanish back in the 1950s,” Cohen explains. Since then they have had an on-going bilingual correspondence. “I write to him in English and he writes back in Spanish. We write in the languages we can be most precise in.”
The event at Canio’s (290 Main Street, Sag Harbor) is free and open to the public but donations are always welcome. Canio’s Cultural Café will continue with a reading by publisher Jason Epstein from his new book, “Eating: A Memoir” on January 2 at 6 p.m., and New Yorker writer Ian Frazier’s reading from his new book “Siberia” on January 16 at 4 p.m. Call 725-4926 for details.
Top: Ernesto Cardenal and Jonathan Cohen