My personal copy of the bilingual edition of Nicaraguan priest, poet, and revolutionary Ernesto Cardenal’s Golden UFOs: The Indian Poems (English translations by Carlos and Monique Altschul) has been sitting on a bookshelf since I bought it several years ago at a used-bookstore in Bloomington. Published by the Indiana University Press in 1992, it contains an introduction by my former professor Russell O. Salmon, who is sadly missed these three years or so since his unexpected and untimely death.
Back in the ’80s, aside from teaching me a good deal about Argentine literature, Professor Salmon spoke passionately about the Sanctuary Movement that rose up during the era of President Reagan’s anti-Communist adventuring inCentral America. A new sanctuary movement may be necessary in the present era of the Obama Administration’s baffling military support for the murderous regime in Honduras, which overthrew a popularly elected socialistic president and has instituted a reign of terror over every democratic impulse in that troubled land.
I come to this subject, in any case, by virtue of Cardenal’s Indian poems which I have finally started reading. And its opening poem, “Golden UFOs,” has much nuance to lend to the national discussion that we should be having about the cross-pollination of capitalistic and socialistic tendencies that is an essential component of a larger discussion about national values and priorities. It is simply irresponsible to throw around ill-defined bogey-words like socialist and liberal as if their real meaning were devilish and diabolical.
Liberals and commies and socialists, oh my!The small-c communism and small-s socialism that Cardenal observes among the Cuna Indians of a small island chain off of Panama have a remarkably lot in common with the early Christians of the second chapter of the Book of Acts, among whom “all who shared the faith owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed” (New Jerusalem Bible).
Of these Indians Cardenal writes: “I knew of the Communist system / of this unknown Central American nation”; and “They have been socialists for 2000 years.” Further, guided by the words of their teachers:
Among all of them they built everyone’s houses.
The land belonged to the whole tribe.
The deer, the great fish, shared by all.
Perfect interisland harmony.
And further, in response to the disorder and inequality brought by traders, whom they no longer allowed on their islands: “All must be equal.” Then Cardenal quotes one of their teachers: “All united like many arrows. / Like the arrows of Ibele when he went to attack the evil spirits” (pp. 5, 13, 15).
While clearly we in the U.S.A are unlikely ever to go the distance toward such a pure brand of socialism (nor are our variously socialistic Western European friends, who have managed to create supremely livable if imperfect societies without anything resembling Soviet-style totalitarianism), it wouldn’t hurt us to recall that our national history is rife with examples of communitarian experiments such as, in the 19th century alone, John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida Community in New York State; the Rappites’ or Harmonists’ community at New Harmony, Indiana (so wildly successful that they uprooted themselves and went back to Pennsylvania lest they jeopardize their humility and communion with God); and the Mormons’ United Order as practiced in Nauvoo, Illinois and later in Utah – and there have been others of a more secular nature.
But back just briefly to Cardenal, this passage with its allusion to the title that the poem shares with his book:
Turpana had told me inPanama:
There you will find what you like
a Socialist society.
The traditional here is revolutionary
I tell him now in the sand facing the reef.
Turpana had studied at the Sorbonne.
And he tells me now facing the green water:
Before they said Ibeorgun [“their mythological hero or demigod,”
p. xxv] came in a cloud of gold,
now in a flying saucer of gold.
But it is not that they believed in this truly.
They see heaven as a city of light, pure light.
That is why they say of gold,
gold means light.
Or that Ibeorgun did not have a mother,
it means his ideas are eternal.
And come from heaven (pp.23,25).
I like this reflection on the ability of these Indians to extrapolate, to read symbolically and thus with some nuance their own sacred texts, whether spoken or written. I wish that more of our own readers of the Christian Bible could do as well, thus perhaps allowing themselves to live their faith in their own hearts and church communities without so much fear – and without intruding on the private freedoms of others of more liberal interpretation, including fellow religious.
But that is another subject. What interests me most particularly in Ernesto Cardenal’s verse – at least as it pertains to the present meditation – is its reflection on the concordance of the rampant liberalism and socialism of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles with comparable traditions of the Cuna Indians of Panama and Colombia.
It is worth noting too that Ernesto Cardenal, though associated as Minister of Culture with the Sandinista government that in the Reagan era we were taught simplistically to fear and hate, is a devout priest who not only risked his life to defend his fellow Nicaraguans from the murderous regime of the dictator Somoza but took years studying Western European ideas and history as well as the indigenous histories of all the Americas from north to south – and who at the Trappist monastery of Gethsemane in rural Kentucky became an intimate friend of Thomas Merton, beloved for his own internationalist meditations (the original sense of the word catholic, or catholicity) and for his memoir of spiritual conversion The Seven Storey Mountain.