Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Spring 2004

Second-Hand Souls by Nichita Danilov

Second-Hand Souls
Nichita Danilov
Twisted Spoon Press
Prague, Czech Republic
154 pp. $13.50


The most obvious comparison of Nichita Danilov's poetic style is to that of Rilke with perhaps a hint of Borges. This expresses itself more abundantly in theme than in language, since Danilov's work doesn't display the intensity of image more obvious in Rilke's work. This is poetry more of idea than language, but luckily the ideas are substantial and interesting: the distant and unreachable aspect of the divine, uncertainty and the suffering of life in the concrete sphere, along with other theo-philosophical questions.

Danilov's poems edge near the surreal through his linking of simple disparate images, while avoiding the more traditional surrealist device of complex head-turning juxtapositions. There is a hint of this exuberant koan structuring, though not as much as the tenor of the material seems to call for. He does employ some sequential mixed metaphor but it doesn't quite attain that high bar of “stopping the world.” Some of the poems and sequences of images stand out as particularly striking: an angel hanging himself from his halo; a surreal well wherein an order of fraternal/monastic brothers are stationed one above the other, continually peeking at the Psalter of the one below; Mrs. Fear walking on stilts from Red Bridge to Iron Bridge. When he's on his game, Danilov can write rich, arresting poetry, going toe to toe with the best. Other times, his sentences show an almost Oriental sparseness, simple, almost to a fault. The translation by Sean Cotter seems ably done though not outstanding. Some word choices sound a bit limp, and Danilov’s clichés creep their way in from time to time (take this cup away, monkeys at typewriters). The work often bleeds a kind of spare, unpoetic ethic—especially when some of the usual suspect modifiers like small, little, big, etc. rear their puerile heads. Translators need to understand that accuracy of translation must come second to the demands of the audience. Overuse of simplistic modifiers will undermine any translation. There is also a repetitive use of particular adjectives in Second-Hand Souls that comes off as a bit glazing to the mind of the reader. This device does not entrench ideas as may be intended but rather brings into question the depth of the poet. Even a peculiar obsessive interest can show a general variety of description. (Red becomes crimson or scarlet, sunset, blood, brick dust, etc.) This poetry is not exciting to view, and the reading of it would be a flat experience indeed were it not for the inherent dynamism of the spiritual ecstasy/confusion at its core. (I would love to see Seamus Heaney get his hands on this material.)

There is some textual support for this spare approach in Danilov's prose passes, where he stands somewhat dismissive of writers with too much flamboyance of character. It is hard to say if he extends this dismissiveness to poetic language itself. If so, the translator must show even more delicacy in his difficult work since he has less to work with—though even in this case, the end responsibility should be to the reader. There are textures to any language that do not translate, and allowing oneself to be influenced by a poet's intransigence rather than the native needs of prospective readers is simply a mistake.

Not surprisingly, given the translator's general language choices and style, the prose fares better overall than the poetry —though the poetry is powerful at times. Some of Danilov’s critical assertions carry too much of the weight of his moral mysticism to work effectively as theory. For instance, the concept that some words should not be said or that some ideas should never be spoken because of the evil they might cause flies in the face of almost every non-dualistic theological/social belief structure. It is also a perfect and almost derisible example of Nietzsche's Christian slave morality at work. Only by exposing “Evil” do we rob it of its power—the US Confederacy's Andersonville and Hitler's concentration camps being good examples. As long as these evils were not spoken of or acknowledged, they thrived; when the hideous truth was at last spoken only then were they made anathema. Despite this inconsistency, a generous mind tends to forgive the Western mystic when he speaks, his mind flooded with restrictive ideas of the possibility of divinity. It is a truth of sorts to say that our beliefs are the byproducts of the culture into which we are born, often to our own narrowing or detriment.     

The side-by-side inclusion of Danilov's original Romanian works helps one judge how well the translator has captured rhythm and flow; that judgment falls somewhere in the middle of the value scale. The work is clean and communicates ideas effectively if not spectacularly, and in the end could have been much worse. However, given the tremulous, almost Kierkegaardean philosophical/theological material at play here, Second-Hand Souls could well have been a marvelous and vivid triumph. As it sits, it's a succinct and valuable translation of a potentially important Eastern European poet. We can only sigh for the majestic jewel this could have been. Recommended.