“In Sun’s Shadow,” by Paul Sohar

Reviewed by Mike Foldes

Paul Sohar’s latest collection, In Sun’s Shadow, divides a life into seven sections. Sohar explains in his introduction that his poems here do not appear chronologically but are grouped by their relation to general themes: War & Peace (autobiographical), The Orphan Key (riffs on the sensations of being), Insomniac Dreams (art & literature), The Country of the Soul (of social significance), From a Hiker’s Diary (nature poems), Wild Vase Poetry (experiments in formal poetry), The Endless End (in memoriam for his deceased daughter, Camilla).

Sohar advances and retreats, explores and explains, cloaks and details the stages in this odyssey that began in Budapest and ended in New Jersey (with stops in between). He finds and shares special meanings revealed in place and time with a ranging vocabulary that describes lasting connections between the heart, soul, and reality. A special volume accessible to all lovers of poetry, both academics and enthusiasts alike, In Sun’s Shadow appeals to anyone who understands the role poetry plays in lifting the pretty curtains that conceal the brutal realities of daily life.

The multidimensional emotional and intellectual dynamic of these poems renders the stress and chaos of the poet’s escape from Hungary during its 1956 revolution. Consider these lines:

… the only time we went out was
between battles and to collect snow
that we melted for water on fire fueled by
broken rafters, beams and studs
from the ruins next door
and there was no shortage of ruins
free for the taking.

And these lines from “War Bread”:

by the end of the war we’d eat
bread left over by the crows
bread brought back from the war
in caskets or black envelopes
bread growing on the empty shelf
in piles of dead maggots …

Post-war events make up the past that the “persistence of memory” will not allow him to forget, as in “Erecting New Ruins Every Day”:

… Come and get me and forget me
if you will but please do something
with the ruins crawling
all over the remnants of my life …

One’s earliest years, from childhood to young adulthood, shape the rest of one’s life. You can debate that claim, but, believe me, for a septuagenarian, the phrase “dilution is the solution to pollution” rings true. New events and experiences are as often as not like spit in the ocean. There will be significant events along the way—the loss of a loved one, divorce, poverty, hunger, success, joblessness—but how one approaches and deals with these depends on what he or she has learned along the way.

Just when readers grow accustomed to Sohar’s view and style, there’s a new bend or rapid in the river, new vistas to behold while the river meanders on. “A Night Outside My Head” provides one example:

like a dog left outside with the door shut in its face
I get locked out of my head on sleepless nights
put out into the dark that cannot settle down
cannot congeal into nothingness
but keeps churning with silent forceless winds
among walking bushes
and vicious hounds trapped by their legs
but ready to trap the sleepless in their jaws …

And another, in “Night Walk,” where loneliness steps curtly in:

… Loneliness never loses
its longing legs or the sight of lights
even if it means getting sucked into
a street without a sign

And yet another, “The Fourth Position,” which carries inherently greater meaning when one reaches the final section of the book:

The lights were out already and
the big black fluffy chest of sleep
was starting to caress them when
her voice rubbed open a tiny hole
in the silence: You know
it’s the fourth position I like best …

The poet creates an entire world after that stanza, set off in dream-like precision, as a story told to a child awakened by this closing thought:

… it’s the fourth position I like best…
her voice swims slowly back to land.,
sent by the warm waves of silence, back
to the shores of her lost continent.

“Insomniac Dreams,” which explores music, art, and literature, occasionally falls into ekphrastic overtones, then diverts to literary concerns, such as the effects of “Monosyllabic Words”:

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 laywers and theologians carefully avoid them
lest they choke on them or get lost in the street…

Imagine, for a moment, your town or city without its inhabitants. It may be easier to conjure now, in this time of the coronavirus and orders to shelter in place, but previously such was the stuff of sci-fi dramas in which a plague wipes out humanity, an alien creature devours every living thing in sight, or a too-close call with an errant sun threatens to burn earth to a crisp. Cognizant of decay, Sohar leads into “Country of the Soul” with “The Last Wind and the Last Man on Earth”:

after the last man finally devours
the next to the last man
he’ll stalk out into the desert
and the city will finally come to a standstill …

And when that last man ventures into the desert,

… it may just be that the wind will finally have
a chance to stop and think
because winds stop long before eating the last wind.

Sohar quotes his fellow Hungarian poet, George Faludy: “… at the skin my being doesn’t end.”

He goes on to write:

That’s the border of the country of being, but being
doesn’t have to stop there if the border guards let
the soul slip in and out on the waves of the universal wing…

He ends the poem thus:

… Better yet, just ask how? Reach out and ask how
you can help to stop the flow of tears; but even better
yet, show there’s life beyond the skin; beyond
the pain and pleasure, that’s where life begins.

Let your being step beyond the skin.

“Hiker’s Diary” contrasts the beauties of nature with the age-old question of “Why?” What does all “that” have to do with “this” temporal existence? Why should I care about color, about sky? Wrestling with the balance between nature, beauty and death, the poet morphs in a “Sudden and Reckless Peace” from a man enjoying birdsong to a deer in the headlights of a train. Where so many others would be heavy-handed, Sohar gently says

…that playacting I wonder
or the thrill of wrestling
with sudden and reckless peace

grandstanding playacting
call it what you will but
at the end the end will win
no matter who blinks first

The section “Wild Vase Poetry” has a title that hints, in a very subtle way, at “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” The author says this section is about experimenting with formal styles; as you will find, it includes an excellent example of concrete poetry, a style popularized in the 1950’s and 1960’s. “The Wild Vase” poem creatively conveys an image directly referencing the subject in a clever construction that masterfully reveals both physical beauty and the ethereal need to venerate it.

The opening poem, “The Implanted Epitaph,” in stark contrast, has the writer in chains, so to speak, carrying a tombstone in readiness for an inevitable but unscheduled day to come. Written in quatrains—five of them, which, taken together, have no titular distinction, such as the Shakespearean sonnet comprised of three quatrains and a couplet—the poem brings to bear the burden of guilt of the penitent, ending with:

… its destination is a secret
I’m not allowed to comprehend,

a punishment deep in my chest
as well as a sin I must commit
by my atoning for the pain
of reliving and revealing it.

If life and death are the heart and blood of poetry, Sohar venerates the obvious and oblique. The poet’s course is to engrave what his or her energies have carved from experience into autobiographical detail, injecting aesthetic and material highlights just as the soul inhabits the body. These injections of lifeblood contain the oxygen that prevails, if not in the lexicon, then in the molecular circumnavigation that carries us—with the poet—‘round and ‘round from beginning to end.

So it is that “In Sun’s Shadow” closes with a series dedicated to the memory of Sohar’s deceased daughter, Camilla, leaving him, as he writes in “My Crutch,”

a lonely old
geezer, sneaking into an empty cemetery
with a memory to lean on…

This explanation of loneliness and loss eviscerates, cutting through in occasionally prose-like form what it is like, for example, to be alone at a table and to know “the other” will never sit across from you again. Sohar delves deep into the psyche where objects large and small, such as “The Last Xmas Tree” to “Her Glasses,” assume new dimensions, take on new meaning, force one to rethink what one must do to make things right, even before they go wrong.

As “The Lost Raindrop” notes, “I keep trying to force mementos back to life.” And later,

I’ll have to stop trying to go backwards
before I find myself nowhere

a raindrop suspended in motionless mist

and i will not find the one I lost
by going back
there’s no back there, there.

Poetry’s long shadow presides here in crafted lines, measured tones and emotional exploration of what one’s life provides, what one’s death might mean, and what impact another’s life and death can have. Throughout, “Hope” persists.

… in its delerium we plan the impossible and
struggle to succeed but we also shed the tears
of joy reminiscing about the fancy hopes of old

Like most of us, Cam remained hope forever unfulfilled,
but how painfully happy and fervent a hope it was!
It’s still toying with this earthly mortal left behind.

All in all, this record of the personal journey, spelled out over decades, deserves special mention as a roadmap in the tableau of one’s own quest. To paraphrase the poet, it is “the canopy of foliage of the trees in a forest that speaks to the hiker,” and Sohar brings that canopy to life.

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