Patrick Bizzaro

Studies in Entropy:

New and Selected Poems by Cardenal and Barks

Cardenal, Ernesto. Pluriverse: New and Selected Poems. Jonathan
Cohen, ed. NY: New Directions, 2009. $17.95. 250 pages.

Barks, Coleman. Winter Sky: New and Selected Poems, 1968–2008.
Athens: U of Georgia P, 2008. $26.95, cloth. 336 pages.

From where he’s standing, a young poet might think the light in the
distance, the one he sees at the end of life’s tunnel, is too small for
him to fit through. What he doesn’t yet realize is that by the time he
gets there, the hole will be exactly the right size for him. The
process he will undergo in preparation for that particular departure
is entropy, the inevitable decline and degeneration that characterize
the condition of all systems in the universe. For Cardenal and Barks,
in particular, entropy is an apt metaphor for the body in old age and
a subject worthy of exploration in their “new” poems. After all, a
mature poet might see the passing of life differently than the young
man does who has just embarked upon his travels. The “selected”
portions of these books demonstrate the different ways the poets
have reached the conclusions they have concerning end causes.

New and selected poems (coming as they most often do, late in a
poet’s career) seem quite naturally to ruminate on final causes.
People in their youth have not generally experienced the natural
chaos their bodies, like other physical systems, will undergo as they
ready for their gradual and, later, more observable demise.
Interestingly, both poets develop views of the inevitable collapse of
the biology that are hopeful and reassuring, rather than threatening
and distressing. In doing so, Cardenal relies on physical theories and
Barks on metaphysical experiences. Though they take different
routes in achieving understanding, Cardenal and Barks share the
somber realization that in the life of the body, as in the life of any
natural system, there exists an inherent tendency toward dissipation
of energy. We call this tendency dying, and it goes on for a long
time. Young poets contemplating final causes at the beginning of
their careers might not feel the urgency of these natural processes.
Or, if they do, they might take Hemingway’s way out and “just not
think about it.” Mature poets constructing their legacy in a selected
works oftentimes do think about it. As citizens of the universe, their
very different conclusions read as logical consequences of a developing
physic and metaphysic that set up an interesting contrast
between these two highly-visible poets. What’s more, reading these
books in light of one another (e.g., intertextually) gives us reason to
consider how histories get told and how the poet of witness tells a
history quite different from the one told by the lyric poet.

Cardenal’s poetry, throughout his productive career, has been a
poetry of witness to the ongoing political unrest in his native
Nicaragua. He comes early to see the Platonic connection between
temporal revolution and the condition of his soul, and his most
recent poems work out the details of this view. One must rebel
against oppressive forces, even at the cost of one’s physical existence,
if the ultimate goal is to save one’s soul. Eventually this view
comes to be the substance of his religion and thereafter the basis
for behavior supported by the scientific study of the physical universe:
“let quantum physics explain” (214), he writes.

Needless to say, this is very complicated and philosophical material.
Saying so is to assert the belief implied in this short essay that, most
often, argumentation—the heart of rhetoric—is least comfortable
when it must do the work of poetry. Such an assertion does not
hold in this collection though. Cardenal's use of Ezra Pound’s aesthetic,
exteriorismo, enables Cardenal to reach these interlocking
insights. A poet of witness is, in a sense, the historian of the
moment, the one who has been chosen by the events around him to
make an objective record of the sort we most often associate with
Pound’s poetic principle regarding imagism, in which he calls for
“direct treatment of the ‘thing.’” To truly witness, Cardenal names
names, identifies places, and collects and studies effects, thereby
working inductively, scientifically. But as witness he must do so with
a difference: he places political and economic blame, shows place as
commodity, and hypothesizes causes. In short, his poems make a
record of what occurred, and the poet’s most difficult task is to
achieve credibility, to appear objective. Cardenal establishes himself
as a credible narrator by not withholding anything. The saintly
Cardenal is so committed to his cause that he even agreed to learn
how to aim a weapon at a human being and pull the trigger: “I
learned to handle a Rising machine gun” (60), he confesses in “Zero
Hour.” He was a revolutionary as well as a poet, a poet as well as a
priest. In his poems he searches for the ways the revolutionary’s
cause connects with—indeed, is reinforced by—the priest’s beliefs.

             I’ve handed out underground leaflets,
             Shouting Long Live Freedom! in the middle of the street
             Defying the armed guards.
             I took part in the April Rebellion…

Like Clinton Rollins, narrator of Cardenal’s well-known “With
Walker in Nicaragua,” Cardenal believes he has survived to “tell
the story” (16) of oppression in Nicaragua. In “Epigrams” he
reports, during the Somoza regime,

             Our poems can’t be published yet.
             They circulate from hand to hand, in manuscript
             Or mimeograph. But one day
             People will forget the name of the dictator
             Against whom they were written,
             But they’ll go on reading them.      (44)

Often the issue at the heart of political oppression is language, and
the conflicting need to employ language objectively to witness
events is what gives the aesthetic an ethical dimension in poetry of
witness. Poetry of witness makes a point, persuades the reader to
adopt a particular view. “Epigrams” further connects political
cause to poetic effect and both of those to love:

             They plunder the people’s words.
             (Just like the people’s money.)
             That’s why we poets do so much polishing on a poem.
             And that’s why my love poems are important.      (45)

Cardenal notes that “In Latin America / we’re integrating
Christianity with Marxism.” Doing so leads Cardenal and other of
the Nicaraguan oppressed to holy rebellion.

At the core of rebellion as Cardenal sees it is God. The God of
Pluriverse is “the God of the common man” (81). His “love surrounds
them / like armored tanks” (80). Therefore, it is impossible to
love God and avoid rebellion: “You can’t be with God and be neutral.
/ True contemplation is resistance” (158). In “Nicaraguan Canto,”
Cardenal repeats: “As that girl said, in Cuba, ‘the Revolution / is
above all else a matter of love’” (143). Thus, love of God (to paraphrase
William Wordsworth) leads to love of man. Revolutionary fervor
is the logical consequence of love: “The entire cosmos copulation.
/ All things love, and he is the love with which they love” (195). The
world is interdependent: belief in God necessitates love of God which
leads to the love of man that makes revolution necessary. Revolution,
then, is a violent acting out of God’s will that all people be equal.
Revolution is a movement in the name of love:

             For you are not a God who is a friend of dictators
             Nor a supporter of their politics
             Nor are you influenced by their propaganda
             Nor do you associate with any gangster.      (79)

The pluriverse is, indeed, interconnected. Notions that link
Cardenal’s love of God to his support for rebellion against capitalist
oppression further lead Cardenal to contemplation of the purpose
of his poetry. As poet of witness, he lives under the aspect of
eternity, observing simultaneously the revolution in Nicaragua and
the spiritual consequences of revolution everywhere. Clearly, any
revolution against capitalism resonates to the stars and throughout
the natural world. For instance, in “New Ecology” we are told revolution
“also belongs to lakes, rivers, trees, animals” (177). After
all, those who would exploit peasants would not hesitate to pollute
rivers and lakes with chemical waste or contaminate air with noxious
gases. The universe is a pluriverse. Cardenal’s view is large,
reminiscent of Whitman’s, “contains multitudes.” Poetry is what
holds the pluriverse together.

In his impressive “Visit to Weimar,” Cardenal analyzes Goethe and
Goethe’s historical moment. By doing so, Cardenal comes to understand
the importance of poetry and language in this dying world.
Goethe helped Cardenal see poetry as truly democratic. Goethe
“became more and more convinced / that the art of poetry is ‘a
common property of mankind’” (179). For Cardenal, the next
insight is indeed rhetorical: “things exist in the form of word”
(193). He continues this argument in “The Word”:

             In the beginning
                             Before the Big Bang
                                             Was the Word.
             There was no light
             light was within the darkness
             and he brought the light out of the darkness
             drew the two apart
             and that was the Big Bang
             or the first Revolution.      (195)

For Cardenal, “Creation is a poem” and “Each thing that is is verbal”
(196). Inevitably, then, “each being is word” (197). Things are
“not created by calculus / but by poetry” (197).

Extrapolating this position enables Cardenal to establish his philosophy
of love: a person who exists alone and in isolation no more
exists than a sound does if there is no one to hear it: “thus one is
not if one is not dialogue.” And he insists further, “People are dialogue,
I say / if not their words would touch nothing.” We must
join together in love and revolution—that is, in meaningful dialogue—
because “A person alone does not exist” (198). This same
line of reasoning provides an argument for the existence of God:
“A universe with no one to observe it, / wouldn’t that be the same
as one that doesn’t exist?” (214–215).

If order on earth is characterized by dialogue, disorder must be the
absence of dialogue: loss or lack of love, oppression without resistance,
hegemony, isolation. Cardenal asserts that it is “Increasingly
inadequate to think as individuals” (205). For Cardenal communication
breakdown is characteristic of entropy; in this sense, the failure
to communicate or to overcome oppression that silences us is a
form of disorder and degeneration. Such entropy is the constant
failure of language to relieve the oppressed, the “silenced,” and
thereby to assert their equality. Entropy promises an eventual end
to all things, eternal as well as temporal:

                       The final state of matter.
                                      That’s entropy.
             And something that increases over time.
             An irreversible progression towards disorder,
             until total disorder of matter is reached.
             Entropy is time that runs away
             and never returns.
             The exponential curves of their bodies:
             all the girls I loved—
             entropy took them away.      (199)

Cardenal’s rhetorical strategy here and elsewhere in this fine and
challenging volume is a product of working inductively, as did
Locke. Cardenal collects sensory data, chunks it together, and
reaches general conclusions from it. Working inductively seems a
necessity in that subgenre, poetry of witness, where the need for
reliable objectification of events and persons is often in conflict
with the subjectivity usually associated with poetry. Eventually
when we group sensations we discover, as Locke did, that language
is inadequate to the task of describing all we sense; language is
prone to “doubtfulness and imperfections,” to subjectivity, according
to Locke. Language by its very nature cannot represent truth as
an absolute.

To understand this failure of language, Cardenal uses the authority
of science to underscore the Lockean view of language and to narrow
that gap we have long thought separated the concerns of
poetry from those of rhetoric; scientific discoveries make requirements
on language as demanding as those made by the poet who
wishes to convey imaginings. To make that point, Cardenal quotes
numerous physicists: Heisenberg says “we can’t / ‘talk about atoms
in everyday language’” (216). Bohr posits that “…with Atoms…,
language / can only be used as in poetry” (212). Importantly, in his
new poems, Cardenal merges the poetic and the rhetoric. Science
helps him make his point: the connections he sees between the love
of God, the necessity for rebellion, and the ongoing demise of all
systems in the universe are simultaneously philosophical, scientific,
and poetic. Cardenal writes back to us from someplace else.

Some guesses are in order, it seems, if we hope to read Cardenal’s
poems in relation to Barks’. Given where he lives and when,
Cardenal takes a different approach to helping us understand the
complexity we call entropy than Barks takes. While the editor of
Pluriverse, Jonathan Cohen, does an excellent job of selecting and
arranging Cardenal’s poems, the poems as a whole read as a seamless
narrative. Such a narrative makes these sometimes difficult
works easier to read—one poem or one section setting up the
next—but they also tell history as a matter of cause and effect, as
“continuous,” to use Michel Foucault’s term. What’s more, they
suggest, thus ordered and arranged, that Cardenal had a plan all
along for the development of his thinking. Perhaps, but doubtful,
given the uncertainty of the times Cardenal has lived through. I prefer
to think that Cardenal’s insights were gradually revealed to him.
Barks, who we assume chose and arranged poems in Winter Sky,
prefers a different representation of history: “Compartmentalizing
does disservice, and it’s a lie, the linear scheme. Poem-making for
me is more a vatic, ecstatic meander” (xviii). While to be sure Barks
did not mean this as criticism of Cohen (nor do I), it certainly forecasts
a different way of telling history of the sort “new and
selected” poems inevitably tell. Cardenal through his writing career
has been a poet of witness; Barks, a lyricist.

By starting Winter Sky with his most recent work, in reverse
chronological order—“It is the most interesting to me, so I put it
first,” writes Barks in his “Notes in Lieu of Preface” (xvii)—this
collection does, indeed, seem a “meander.” The major difference
between Cardenal’s notion of history, as Cohen has constructed it
in Pluriverse, and Barks’ rendition of history in Winter Sky is clarified
by Foucault’s distinction between history and archeology. I do
not prefer one way of recording the past over the other, though
most readers are certainly more accustomed to the construction of
past events as chronology, as cause to effect, as a series of events
moving forward in a sort of narrative, what Foucault describes as
history. Such a process of selection does, indeed, make sense when
events and their representations in various documents are treated as
vulnerable to human interpretation. “In our time,” writes Foucault
in Archeology of Knowledge, “history is that which transforms
documents into monuments… [I]t now deploys a mass of elements
that have to be grouped, made relevant, placed in relation to one
another to form totalities” (7). An alternative view of history
understands events as discontinuous. For instance, two events that
occur moments or even feet apart—let’s say events revealed by
archeological digs—are not necessarily related to one another, thus
underscoring Foucault’s preference for a method he calls archeology.
Barks’ arrangement admits to the randomness of his poetic
efforts, a “meandering,” and makes discontinuity a part of the history
he constructs using his poems as “events.” Barks presents history
as raw data rather than polished product. I am not claiming
one to be superior to the other. They are simply different and any
essay I might write treating both Cardenal’s and Barks’ new and
selected must say so. These two ways of conceiving of past events
enable us to contrast Cardenal’s poems of witness with Barks’ lyric
poems. Though they end up in similar places, in personal views of
entropy as ongoing and problematic to the biology as well as to the
universe, their processes of getting there are different.

Barks’ earlier poems deal with temporal matters, as he points out:
having children, the death of his parents, and his divorce. Barks
sees these lyric poems as “solidly grounded in the body,” thus taking
a path very different from the journey Cardenal’s poetry of witness
takes. Cardenal’s poems of witness see rebellion in Nicaragua
as simultaneously temporal and eternal. Barks’ poems of the body
are in this lifetime as he has lived it. Barks’ important antiwar
statements, “Becoming Milton” and “Just This Once,” address the
existing political order but do not, by themselves, develop from it a
philosophy of love as does Cardenal’s political poetry. Among other
things, this distinction provides an opportunity to contrast genres,
the lyric with the poem of witness, one in time and the other both
in time and transcendent.

Both Cardenal and Barks see entropy as ongoing, as a force that
shapes histories as public as a country’s and as personal as an individual’s.
To support the observation that Barks’ politics are temporal,
let’s look at “Becoming Milton.” While the title might bring to
mind a polemic like Milton’s “Areopagitica,” Barks’ view in 1993
had not yet become the metaphysical view of his new poems. But
this powerful antiwar statement focuses on a representative individual—
the twenty-one year old Tom, son of Milton, the man who
drove Barks from the Atlanta Airport back to Athens. Tom is “just
back / from the Gulf War” where he had been assigned the emotionally
numbing task of checking Iraqi tanks, “hundreds of them,” that
had been the targets of airstrikes. Then Barks renders the horrifying
reality of war, the reality that stays with a young man in his dreams:

                                                                 Can you
             imagine what he lifted the lid to find?
             Three helmets with heads in them staring
             from the floor, and that’s just one tank.      (204)

Dream here is a form of ruthless reminder, though dream in the new
poems leads Barks toward deeper contemplation, greater insight. He
had not by 1993 developed the larger vision of his more recent
poems. In “Becoming Milton,” dream is an echo of human despair,
tied to worldly events: “He has screaming flashbacks, can’t talk
about it / anymore.” Barks reminds us that these nightmares might
cease: “With time, / if you stay strong, these things’ll go away.”

But the history Barks constructs shows that not everything will go
away. Ten years later he is at it again, writing another poem, “Just
This Once,” in opposition to the resumed war in Iraq. In this poem,
as in “Becoming Milton,” the poet asks that we imagine another
way to solve our differences. The poem details such alternatives:

                                            Quadruple the inspectors.
             Put a thousand and one
             U.N. People in. Then call for peace activists

             to volunteer to go to Iraq for two weeks each.
             Flood that country with
             well-meaning tourists, people curious about
             the land that produced the great saints, Gilani,
             Hallaz, and Rabua.
             Set up hostels near those tombs. Encourage peace

             people to spend a bunch of money in shops, to bring
             rugs home and samovars
             by the bushel.


This poem experiments with solutions to the world’s problems by
worldly means other than warfare to “show some / of the world that
we really do not wish to kill / anybody and that we / truly are not
out to appropriate oil reserves” (34). He recognizes this plan as a
“spontaneous, unthought-out / hippie notion” (35). But, “Surely it
wouldn’t be worse / than the shock and awe display we have planned
/ for the first forty-eight hours.” This poem offers idealisms. But it is
only in dream that insights are revealed to Barks that may help us
understand the chaos and dispersion of energy toward which everything
in the world moves. Dream serves Barks much the same as dialogue
serves Cardenal: both provide mechanisms for understanding
the world and surviving in it. If the goal is peace, as I believe it is for
Barks much as it is for Cardenal, the route of transcendence must
eventually take us through the body and into the spirit.

Barks’ most recent work shows a change in his perception of the
world (which is probably why he wanted to start with it, finding it
more interesting than his earlier work). These poems are more
prophetic than his earlier poetry, more a product of visions from
which we as readers can learn “a way” to the life of the spirit. The
poem, “On Spirit,” is an important case in point. Love comes to be
overtly essential to the more mature poet: “Love is the clearest
opening into spirit, love (sic), and friendship” (11). And this love,
returned to him as knowledge from the spirit world, shows him
how to live on earth.

“On Spirit” begins in self analysis of the sort reflective writers often
take themselves through, questioning our uses of language. Barks, like
Cardenal, wishes his earlier poems had achieved greater objectivity.
He admits to having been carried away by language—“I call it lan-
guage-love or love for the feel of those words coming through” (11).
Barks sees that “Maybe momentarily is all we ever say, that being the
essential quality of love.” Better than using language as “a hypocrite”
might, a true poet should be led by his poems to spiritual insights.
But, says Barks, “I have not had a waking experience of spirit.”

Barks recounts experiences with the spirit world “through a
medium” and dream, thereby celebrating deceased friends “in our
soul-element” (12), in poems. “On Spirit” details the experience of
death less as Barks sees it from this side than how it is reported back
to him from the other. He learns from deceased friend John
Seawright that though we may not be able to feel death—in part, we
learn, because the process involves a “slowing down” (13) that is
imperceptible, perhaps at the pace of entropy—we can conceptualize
it as a “move over into something more capable of unconditional
love.” Or “now, before we die,” we may “move in a clear new way”
and thereby transcend the body to experience conditions that proximate
afterlife. Barks advocates “Sweat lodges, meditation, the psychic
space some of Bill Stafford’s poems walk us through, what Rumi
calls ‘positive non-being,’ the emptiness.” These and other unnamed
methods enable us “to shuffle free” of our bodies. After all, “it may
be helpful to know, even just intellectually, more about the
crossover” (13). This seems sensible enough given, as Cardenal seems
to suggest, that the great crossover “is coming toward us.”

This understanding of the spirit world ahead of us requires that we
slow down if we hope to understand better how we move constantly
toward it. Several of Barks’ poems focus on exactly that,
how to slow down enough, while being driven home from Atlanta
for instance, to watch the rain as it “drips on the sidewindows” as
they “do their slow slide toward the rear” (“Extravagance,” 6).
Barks asks, “How can that be? What is the physics / of such slowness?”
Like Cardenal, Barks contemplates physics, finding in the
end the parallel between processes in the universe and those in the
body. “The Center,” the first and perhaps best poem in the book,
praises the dynamic of a black hole, “the single thing living in the
middle / that follows no rules we yet know” (3)—what he calls in
the passage below “the big laziness” which exists simply, naturally.
But the black hole of Barks’ poem is constantly being born and
dying, constantly transforming into something else. We seem to
understand the process better if we understand it in human terms,
as a process that parallels the ongoing birth and death of people on
the planet. Barks’ description of the process is compelling:

             Praise to what we must give in to,
             the big laziness, spiracle blowhole,
             where matter comes breathing out,
             where matter gets sucked back in
             to be nothing, or changed to a lightshaft
             a trillion trillion lightyears tall
             pouring periodically from this whirlpool
             that has no bottom. Does some rhythm
             coming round ordain this making/unmaking?

Barks’ description is convincing. Scientists can do no better than he
in helping us envision that enormous symbol in the middle of the
Milky Way. They agree by processing information in different ways
that humans like all other systems are constantly birthing and dying,
“making/unmaking,” everything ultimately “sucked back in / to be
nothing.” The process is “ordained” and thereby sanctioned by religious
authority. This act is physical and metaphysical simultaneously
and reminds us that we are in a constant state of dying,
undergoing entropy.

In the end, these two very different but excellent collections of poems
invite us to contemplate how history gets told, what is most objective
in poems, and how the poem of witness achieves something quite different
from the lyric. Both poets understand entropy as the lazy
progress toward the ultimate chaos all natural bodies undergo. This
understanding of end causes demonstrates the process as long-term
and inevitable. Cardenal and Barks, in spite of their very different
paths, reach similar conclusions concerning these end causes. These
books of poetry are important, must reads which define two different
approaches to constructing new and selected poems by poets who
reach a similar conclusion: the light at the end of the tunnel that
leads to the end of our lives is exactly the right size for our bodies to
fit through, even as other bodies continue to enter.