“Prayer For Marilyn Monroe”: brief discussion and translation

by John Samuel Tieman

A friend and student of Thomas Merton, Ernesto Cardenal is a Catholic priest in Nicaragua.  A proponent of Liberation Theology, Cardenal served as Minister Of Culture in the Sandinista government. The story goes that Rev. Cardenal wrote this poem right after reading, in an article in Time, of Marilyn Monroe’s death.

For my part, I lived in Mexico City during the 1980s. When I moved home, to St. Louis, I did this translation as a tribute to Cardenal and to Liberation Theology.

Among other considerations, in the broadest sense there is always the attempt, in all translations, to attend to the poetics of the craft, as well as the replication of the original vocabulary. In this case, there is one other consideration, one I feel is perhaps the most important. I hope my translation honors the holiness of this prayer. In our secular world, it is very easy to simply forget, frankly, that Father Cardenal offers a prayer. A prayer. A prayer in which he sees a woman exploited by capitalism in this life, and liberated by God’s love in the next. A prayer in which the poet acts as both priest to this woman and prophet to the rest of us, who closes his poem with our “Amen.”

(In 1993, this translation appeared in River Styx. In 1995, it was published in The Best Of River Styx.)

Prayer For Marilyn Monroe

by Ernesto Cardenal
trans. John Samuel Tieman

Lord
accept this girl known over the world by the name of
          Marilyn Monroe
though that was not her true name
(but You know her true name, the name of the orphan
          raped at age nine
and the name of the shopgirl who first tried
          suicide at sixteen)
and who now presents herself before You without her makeup
without her press agent
without photographs and without signing autographs
alone as an astronaut facing the dark night of deep space

While still a girl, she dreamed she was nude in a church
          (according to copy filed by Time)
before a prostrate multitude with their heads on the ground
and she had to tiptoe in order to avoid stepping on the heads.
You know our dreams better than psychiatrists.
Church, house, den, all are the security of the maternal womb
but also something more…
The heads are the admirers, clearly
(the mass of heads in the darkness beneath the beam of light).
But the temple is not the studio of 20th Century Fox.
The temple – of marble and gold – is the temple of her body
in which the Son of Man stands with His whip in His hand
driving out the money changers of 20th Century Fox
who made Your house of prayer a den of thieves.

Lord
in this world contaminated by sin and radioactivity
You do not only blame a shopgirl alone
who like any shopgirl dreamed of being a star.
And her dream was reality (Technicolor reality).
She could not but act according to the script we gave her
–the story of our life–the script was absurd.
Forgive her Lord and forgive all of us
for our 20th Century
for this Colossal Super-Production in which we all had a hand.
She hungered for love and we offer her tranquilizers.
For the sin of not being a saint
                                                       we recommended psychoanalysis.
Remember her growing hatred of the camera
and the hatred of make-up – she insisted on make-up for each scene –
and how her terror grew
and how her tardiness grew.

Like any shopgirl
she dreamed of being a star.
And her dream was unreal as a dream a psychiatrist interprets and files.

Her romances were a kiss with closed eyes
that when the eyes were opened
were uncovered by the spotlight
                                                       then the spotlight was turned off!
and the crew struck the two room walls (it was a set)
while the Director walked off with the script
          this scene now a take.
Or like a voyage of a yacht, a kiss in Singapore, a dance in Rio
the reception in the mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
          viewed from some slum tenement.
The movie ended without the final kiss.
They found her dead in bed, hand on the phone.
And the detectives never discovered who she was going to call.
It was
like someone who dialed the number of the only friendly voice
and hears a tape saying:  WRONG NUMBER.
Or like someone who is wounded by gangsters
who stretches out her hand for a disconnected phone.

Lord
whoever it is she was going to call
and didn’t call (and maybe it was no one at all
or Someone whose number is not in the Los Angeles Directory)
          You answer that call.

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