Before and After the Fall

by Sandor Csoori, translated by Len Roberts
BOA Editions, 118 pages
$15.50 paper, $22.95 cloth

Sandor Csoori is one of Hungary’s most prominent writers of poems, novels, films and essays.

The translation of poetry is the most debated of all literary skills. I’ve tried my hand at it, for the wrong reasons, mostly… because editors thought the poem was a dark hole that needed to be filled.. I tried Persian and Bulgarian. I can honestly say I had some ecstatic moments moving from the Farsi/English to English; but when I encountered the flat literal translations of Bulgaria, I actually preferred its raw power to my clumsy ramifications, and I let it alone. The eastern European tongue is deceptively like ours and it takes a light hand to turn the subtle and the nuanced on the page.

This is why Len Roberts is to be applauded. We know his reputation well as a poet and teacher of poetry. He is one of America’s great narrative poets, and transcendental poets…although those are gifts not often thought to be combined… Len is also a no-nonsense public servant in the poetry world. This is why we open the book at all, I suppose. First in trust, next in curiosity. Who is Sander Csoori? This eastern European poet who lived under communism, writing mostly of the nightmares of war? As with all existentialists Sandor Csoori’s act of writing which rails against nothingness, is its opposite.

We would be barred from the language of this poet if it were not for this translation and others like it. We know poems we did not know before… a little miracle, don’t you think? Gratitude to translators, in this case to Len Roberts for introducing us to Hungary’s intellectual giant, Sandor Csoori. The better the poet translating, the better the translations, so we are happy for the meeting.

Here is the reduction of harshness, where reality and actuality are made sweeter by poetic procedures:

May the Water Keep Vigil with Me (pg. 31)

I wake.
Outside there’s a lake
and a foreign country’s darkness.
Inscrutable cry of bird
under the bushes,
as though someone were being murdered.

My head’s heavy with drinking,
heavy with myself in my recent dream
shirtless soldiers were running
and combing the ruffled park
with raised Pitchforks.

Were they looking for me? For you, the long banished?
I can’t remember anymore. A blood stain
shone darkly on a stone. Past that, a storm lantern,
overturned. The flame mingled with the mud
and made everything so finite, so shameless.

I’d like to sleep for spite, too. I’d like to forget
my European nightmare, the horror of those flat on their backs,
but in this foreign silence I’m just stumbling and groping;
I turn on the tap, let the water flow-
may it keep vigil with me till morning.

Sandor Csoori (Translated by Len Roberts)

Frugality makes words into gemstones. What we learn is that there is no poem which is nonreferential. The horrors of World War ll and the Communist occupation, the tortured and the tarnished of Hungary, tell us even more about tragedies of the present day.