Dancing Embers


Sándor Kányádi

Dancing Embers
Translated by Paul Sohar.
Prague: Twisted Spoon Press.
180 pages, $14

Reviewing a collection of poetry translated from an unfamiliar language is always a challenge. It’s difficult to assess not only the poetics but also the cultural matrix out of which the poems emerge. In the instance of Sándor Kányádi, his status as a Hungarian living in Transylvania, which is part of Romania, complicates the issue. Yet his poems, at least in Paul Sohar’s graceful translations, seem a part of the larger movement of Central European poetry in the past century. They are burdened with relatively few unfamiliar cultural references and speak to the large issues of war, political repression, and culture shock in a modernist concrete realism leavened with cynical humor, touches of surrealism, and dramatic irony. Much of this is familiar stuff to readers of Popa, Sachs, Tranströmer, Herbert, and others, and sometimes Kányádi sounds perhaps a little too predictable, as in “History Lesson,” which could be a Charles Simic poem:

I tried explaining history
to the stones
they listened quietly
I tried the trees
they kept on nodding
I tried the garden
which gave me a gentle smile

However, this is perhaps the most generic poem in the collection. Despite his absorption of Cendrars, Apollinaire, both Miloszs, and perhaps Montale, Kányádi does not often sound like the universal twentieth-century European poet. Not only would his poems have a distinct sound, rhyme and syntax in their native Hungarian, but he has a body of imagery, a range of registers of diction, and a dramatic sense of structure, in his longer poems, that are clearly his own. In “And Yet” he also displays some skepticism toward that universal European modernist poetics:

The evening sky provokes
no poetic comment from me.
We’re getting closer to the ground.
The soul is sated with metaphors;
we have better tools at our disposal
than similes for illustration;
exaltation is gathering dust
in the attic or the cellar,
bundled together with defunct currency;
words pool into lakes,
pathos floats on them in oil slicks….

All European poets coming of age in the twentieth century have experienced the burden of history, and none are able or eager to shed it. Kányádi’s poems, consequently, are never entirely present tense but are alloyed with the emotional and linguistic detritus of the wars and dislocations embedded in his and his divided nation’s psyche. “All Souls’ Day in Vienna,” surely one of the major poems of post-war Europe, concerns itself with commemoration, the high price of art, survival, and the difficulties of celebrating an imperfect world:

They will braid you too some day
in a wreath with pomp replete
but the world will feel as cold and
strange as this Vienna street
wie die glocken schall verloren
you will so soon forget your joy

The translator’s note discusses the complexities of working with a highly formal and sometimes dauntingly experimental poet working in a language incognate with English. Yet Sohar has worked with tact and substantial English resources to produce a fine, highly readable collection that although unable to fully convey the linguistic elegance of the Hungarian original nonetheless displays poise, force, and a convincing grasp of the modern dilemma.

—William Doreski

Copyright © 2004 William Doreski.  All Rights Reserved.

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