In Sun’s Shadow
Ragged Sky Press
Reviewed by David E. Poston
Paul Sohar’s long experience as a translator of Hungarian poets such as Miklós Radnóti, Zoltán Böszörményi, and György Faludy has informed his own poetry in fascinating ways. In his new collection, In Sun’s Shadow, we see a clear preference for concrete language and a translator’s attention to the nuances of every word. These poems cover a wide range of topics and life experience and, one gathers, were written over a long period of time, with the exception of the last section, new poems dealing with his raw grief over the death of his daughter Camilla.
His poem “Monosyllabic Words” both describes and models his affinity for simple diction:
they are the pits in the lush flesh of language
the hard-bitten monosyllabic words
good black love death crib
the man in the street spits them out with gusto
but lawyers and theologians carefully avoid them
lest they choke on them or get lost in the street.
The informal language of In Sun’s Shadow allows for an understated surrealism. Sohar piles up images with no shred of self-consciousness, pretension, or chagrin. He animates and anthropomorphizes everything: rain taps a code, bark weeps, silence walks us home in heavy boots, a green-glazed tile crawls into the fireplace to hug the flames. His syntax sometimes borders on the absurd, as in the droll “The Second Coming of Antichrist” or “The Show: Sex in the Ice Age,” a quaint take on prehistoric bliss, but is seldom ordinary.
Sohar refers to himself as having “washed up” on US shores as a twenty-year-old student refugee in the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, and his experiences growing up in World War II and Cold War-era Europe give him a rich historical perspective from which to view his adopted country. In “War and Peace in Budapest,” he notes that “to reside here is a sin absolved by every statue in every park,” an observation that is uncomfortably appropriate for many statues in this country. The opening lines of “On Exhibit” provide a telling comment on the tawdry shape of our society.
The carnival social life:
a leper colony or a museum?
We cannot decide just what we want;
exhibit our wounds or genitals,
or both at once?
The poem goes on to describe the United States as the place where “even the potted palms are / fighting depression in the lobby.” In a brilliant use of metonymy, “The Sweet Stink of Money” describes a society ruled by “power-hungry steaks” where money has a stink that is
… glitter that tickles the nose
and crawls down the palate
like a drunken monk into the cellar
to fetch another pitcher of wine,
but he’s too befuddled to see what
comes out of the tap; the stink is a love
potion for the love of death …
In his preface, Sohar assigns a theme to each of the seven sections, but sounds, themes, and images echo throughout. In the opening autobiographical section, “War Bread” is a litany of war horrors and comments on the aftermath of war, closing with an apocalyptic vision:
after this war there will be another war
eating the soil without baking it into
bread and the soil will be lapping up
toxic crumbs scattered by loaves of
war-bred clouds from an oven we
used to call the sky.
“Redemption Circa 20th Century C.E.” relates how a priest who handed him a mop bucket helped Sohar overcome the trauma of war:
the smell of the latrine smelled sweet
after smelling eternal fear for an eternal night,
after smelling the cynical stench of hell
I was overcome by a smell of revelation,
the promise of salvation handed to me with
a bucket of water and a scrub brush.
There is lyric beauty in “The Silent Dreamer,” with its personification of dusk:
… its charcoal
belly rubs the glint off the glass and the long
tentacles smudge up the sky …
That poem ends with the darkness building a nest “minute by minute within the walls.” These poems blur the line between realistic and surrealistic, as does “The City on the Hill,” where the city opens its walls to “little hearts seeking solace and a restroom.” The piece continues,
seek and ye shall find everything
that brought you here
and everything that will drive you home.
Some of the most imaginative poems are those about art and literature: La Bohème, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, a Seurat exhibit at MOMA. Both “Violent Concerto No. 1” and “Chamber Opera in Ten Acts” break out from the ordinary, the former in absurdist violence, the latter in the off-kilter surrealism of “I died on the spot and started doing the dishes.” “Insomniac Dreams” is inspired by the tortured, distorted images of post-WWII British painter Francis Bacon, ending with
and your flesh starts to
howl at the bloody cage
of light for the comforting
hand of a big black night.
Sohar describes the section titled “The Country of the Soul” as poems of social significance. Two poems particularly reveal the breadth and relevance of Sohar’s historical perspective. The first, “Pedestal City Revisited,” describes how wars end and revolutions fade over time:
and now the horses of the one-time
rebels are seen out there
grazing on the shadows and even
the watchdogs join in the feast
“Dona Mihi Pacem,” which follows it, is a parable of magical realism in which
a man of peace decides
to show his city
what war is like
but ends up displayed “in a glass cage / as a real-life terrorist.”
The “From a Hiker’s Diary” section contains a fine set of nature poems, particularly “Trail to Timelessness” with its closing image of
… the single-engine plane above
that wants to stop there and freeze into the sky
like an insect immortalized in blue amber
For me Sohar’s formal experiments in the “Wild Vase Poetry” section have mixed success. Several of these poems seem forced, reminding us that English is a rhyme-poor language. The title poem seems a bit maudlin, with its narrator
just there, in everybody’s way,
my wounds and welts, my tearful sins
and tortures on indecent display,
though it ends on a more whimsical note: “Sometimes though a passing penny / rolls along and shares a tale with me.”
In the poems mourning his late daughter Camilla, Sohar returns to images found throughout the collection: endless roads, lost raindrops, a table without a chair. “Maledizione!” employs passionate phrases from Rigoletto to vent his sorrow. In a grand sweep from Budapest to Jerusalem to the suburban New Jersey of “Saturday Morning in Warren,” these poems describe the realities of the world and imaginatively transcend them. However, in the end, Sohar faces, as every translator must, the empty spaces in language. “What is the opposite of orphan?” he asks in “My Crutch.” One wonders if Hungarian has a word for a parent who has lost a child. One realizes that Paul Sohar has a consummate command of words and a deep awareness of the ineffability of grief.