In Contemporary Tense/Book Review
The Universal Poet
Review of Sándor Kányádi’s poetry volume
“In Contemporary Tense”
by Emil Fischer
Book Review: “In Contemporary Tense” by Sándor Kányádi, poetry translated from the Hungarian by Paul Sohar, introduction by the translator.
Published by Irodalmi Jelen (Romania) and Iniquity Press (David Roskos, POB 906, Island Heights, NJ 08732, USA), 2013.
Hard cover, full color, 6X9, 342 pages; USBN: 1-877968-49-8
Available on amazon.com or the publisher, $19.50.
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It’s unusual to have a little-known poet introduced in a densely packed 300-plus page tome, but Sándor Kányádi, the prominent Hungarian poet, is not entirely a newcomer to the English-speaking world; “Dancing Embers,” a neat selection of his best-loved poems, was published by Twisted Spoon Press in 2002 to critical acclaim, and the present volume lists four pages of magazine and anthology acknowledgements. Thus, his name may resonate with many lovers of poetry.
György Faludy, a contemporary compatriot poet, yielded the title of “the best living Hungarian poet” to Kányádi; anyone interested in modern Hungarian poetry need only pick up this volume and keep sampling it, the way poetry is best enjoyed. Daunting as the sheer amount of material may seem at first, in Paul Sohar’s translation, the lines come in a natural flow whether in conventional form or in free verse or a unique blend of both. The poet’s eclecticism guarantees a great variety of approaches and styles; never a dull moment, never a hackneyed metaphor, never a theme not worth exploring. The poems added to the 2002 selection are of the same high quality and interest and include several longer late works not yet available at that time. Nitpickers may question the inclusion of two or three pages of ditties from story books. Skip them if you don’t want to stoop to children’s level, but don’t miss the longer tale, “The Curious Moon;” it can be read as sci-fi full of social significance and political parody. Such interpretation would rarely be amiss anywhere in this volume.
One more thing about the length of the book: the collection is couched in additional prose material, mostly commentary and elucidation but the incisive introduction by the translator should be especially helpful to readers not familiar with Hungarian literature, and it’s not very often that even such ancillary material is credited with prior publication. Almost all poems bear a date and even footnotes where absolutely necessary – the language barrier is not the only one to be overcome in translation.
With these caveats out of the way let’s look at the contents. We see poets coming from Eastern Europe in two preconceived models: either the rustic native talent full of natural wisdom and contemptuous of western decadence or the cunning intellectual sophisticate filled with irony and enamored of western decadence. Neither of these notions applies to Kányádi – or else they both do. He came from a poor peasant family and had a barefoot childhood in a small village of Transylvania, but his subsidized boarding school education catapulted his mind into the wider world of ideas very early on. By the time he finished college with a teacher’s certificate he was a recognized poet and got a job as a magazine editor, living in a major city of Transylvania. But images of country life remained iconic in his poetry and hardscrabble existence determinative of his sensibilities.
The stubble was so cruel to my feet
(their burning even night rest couldn’t treat).
So often I stopped stumbling just to cry,
lizards had a better fate than I.
At least a bird, a butterfly or a bee,
but it was a pilot I most wanted to be.
My pitcher was so easy to destroy,
yet always I remained a waterboy.
(From “The Waterboy”, p.91)
Sounds a little old-fashioned? While Kanyadi has pursued formal poetry all his life he has not hesitated to venture into free style when the poem demanded it like in the eponymous poem:
I fear him
you fear him
we fear him
you fear him
This works better in the original, because Hungarian conjugation incorporates not only the pronoun but some indication of the object in the verb. The poem is dated from the ’80s, before the regime change, from the era of Ceaucescu dictatorship, a deadly combination of strict communism and even stricter Romanian nationalism that forced the Hungarian poet into either silence or subterfuge in his poetry. In any case, in a situation much too complicated for the waterboy to retain his identity; by this time it had the city sophisticate indelibly superimposed on it, just as the Rumanian citizenship was stamped on the ethnic Hungarian and the communist ideology on the liberal. With all these dualities stretching the poet in different directions it’s no wonder he remained very eclectic in his poetry, using conventional forms and free verse with equal skill and most often in the service of a cause. Number one being the survival of his ethnic minority which he saw ensured only by building bridges to the majority Rumanian population through their poets. He did not only translate their works into Hungarian but dedicated numerous poems to them.
he set the potholes of the sidewalk
to music with his melodious gait
he made a downpour loosen its strings
and the brightest rainbow replicate
(From “My Friend Aurel Gurghianu”, p.257)
In addition, he seeks to better the situation of his people by agitating for the survival of ethnic minorities all over the world; thus he is a cosmopolitan nationalist, feeling kinship with minority cultures condemned to extinction:
down in mexico or far
up north in a Vancouver park
where I saw how natives are
apt to sit around and daze
at the last flickerings of hope
hands dropped on their knees they hold
with us the same end of the rope
I was in those distant lands
so sad and shocked to realize
how our vacant gaze had turned
us into Indians with eyes
that a funeral could’ve hewn
on a sunday afternoon
(From “Oil Print” p. 225)
But enough of Kányádi the polemicist; let’s see how he stacks up as a poet, how he uses his craft, what if anything special he has to offer. His ability to combine images with social issues in a creative way is well demonstrated by the above quotes. However, his best virtue lies in the way he can thread a narrative in a long poem with propulsive force and yet in a deceptively simple and direct language, and this cannot be illustrated; one has to pick up the book to appreciate the magic by which he can compel the reader to follow him in a forest of words page after page. Another unique feature of his long poems is the amalgam of styles he puts together, sometimes even a pastiche of poems quoted in Romanian, French and German. Yet the divergent pieces hang together, echoing and reinforcing one another. The most notable of these long poems is “All Soul’s Day in Vienna:”
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
In the whitewashed cathedral of
the augustine order I got to pass
an evening with my back against a pillar
listening to mozart’s requiem mass
The opus magnum of his later years, “Mane and Skull”, was written against the background of the Balkan wars of the ’90s that sorely tried the poet’s faith in mankind and in god but also inspired some of his most fervent lines:
You piously hide your face
behind the mounds of our sins
leaving us without a clue
you trespass oh lord by using us
to do your trespassing for you
In “Heretic Telegrams” Kányádi presents a chapbook of poems about poetry and Eastern Europe inspired by his meeting in Rotterdam with Zbigniew Herbert, the noted Polish poet, in 1988; some of his most experimental approaches are demonstrated therein. In addition, he is a master of his own version of the sonnet that utilizes the shorter Hungarian tetrameter lines; he has a number of updated Aesop fable and historical events cast in that form. Whatever the subject or the form his language is always poetic and his metaphors are breathlessly fresh:
Vacant barnyard, vacant hut:
the sadness of church bells
with the tongue torn out.
(“Fall”, p. 69)
And his descriptions are always vivid, merciless in their precision; here is how he brings his aging father to life on the page:
Skin and bone,
Face worn down to skull.
Time whittled to a pin.
(“A Song Choking up on Itself”, p.82)
The enthusiasm of this review is partially due to the translation. Paul Sohar has succeeded in giving us Kányádi in fluid and modern English translation. Even the formal poems have the natural flow of the language; they are never rhyme driven, never twisted out of shape by inversions or other nineteenth century tricks of the trade. The large number of prior publications also attest to the quality of his work; this is the fifth publication of his “All Souls’ Day” and in its fifth version. Most modern translators do not bother with reproducing formal poetry, but Sohar meticulously retains stanzas and line length. He sometimes thins out the rhymes but retains enough to show the form; often he changes “aabb” scheme to “abcb,” which is sufficient to evoke the feel of the original. What he gives us in this book is not a prosaic synopsis of each poem but an English version of it. This is a must read for anyone interested in Eastern European literature – or just good poetry from anywhere.
About the reviewer:
Emil Fischer is a closet writer not by design but by the laws of the literary market place. He has written an unpublished novel and his diary is full of poems. Or scribblings he privately calls poetry. Lately he’s had a few poems published in Buckle &, Chiron, To Topos, Visions International, etc., and a book review in Orbis.
Paul Sohar received the 2014 Irodalmi Jelen Translation Prize for “In Contemporary Tense”, a volume of poems by Sandor Kanyadi (a prominent Romanian-Hungarian poet) in his English translation, available from Iniquity Press (2013) via Amazon.com. You can read more of Sohar’s work and translations here:
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