In Memoriam Ernesto Cardenal

March 2, 2020
Ernesto Cardenal in Santiago, Chile, 2009 / Photo by Roman Bonnefoy

Editorial note: The editors of WLT were saddened to hear that Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal passed away on March 1, 2020, at the age of ninety-five. Cardenal was universally recognized as a towering figure in Latin American letters. A priest, social activist, and former minister of culture in Nicaragua, Cardenal was an urgent and eloquent voice in a country of poets and revolutionaries. He was born on January 20, 1925, in Granada, Nicaragua. After studying in Mexico City and at Columbia University, he became a member of the National Union for Popular Action, a revolutionary group in Nicaragua. In 1956 he converted to Christianity and studied for the priesthood with Thomas Merton at the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in Bardstown, Kentucky, and was ordained in 1965. An early advocate of liberation theology, he fought for political freedom through his work as a priest and was declared an outlaw by the Somoza regime in 1977. After Somoza attacked Cardenal’s religious commune, Solentiname, Cardenal became a field chaplain for the Sandinista National Liberation Front and often held poetry readings for guerrillas at the front. Following the Sandinista victory, he served as minister of culture from 1979 to 1988. He also served as director of Casa de los Tres Mundos, a cultural organization in Granada. The author of over three dozen books in Spanish, his poetry has been translated into numerous languages. The following poem appeared in the May 2006 issue of World Literature Today.

The Zoological Garden of Iquitos

by Ernesto Cardenal

After viewing the Amazonian animals
the great leopard in repose
yellow with quadrilateral black spots
tiny little monkeys mock-fighting
among small branches
the papagayo birds draped in flags of color
the sloth with terrifying
yet weak claws
the eccentric toucan behind his sharp beak
like the bird-of-paradise flower

the boa snake thick as a firefighter’s hose
unraveling itself
decorated with Incan patterns
the enormous alligator
and its rough topography accentuated by tall peaks
the ecstatic tortoises, each on its own rock
the elastic otter stretched out as far as it can
—the nine-year-old Indian guide
picked up from the ground an immense
red petal
that had fallen from a tree
and said to me:
“Touch it; it’s as smooth as the leopard’s coat,”
and, indeed, it was as smooth as
the silky fur with quadrilateral spots
that we did not touch.

On the banks of the Amazon River
September 24, 2005

Translation from the Spanish
By David Draper Clark & César Ferreira

Editorial note: “Zoológico de Iquitos” was first published in Caretas (Peru), October 13, 2005. English translation copyright © 2006 by World Literature Today.