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A review of Poems (1945-1971) from Bill Martin in Poetry Project Newsletter

 

In his essay “Edgar Jené and the Dream About the Dream,” the Bukovina-born poet Paul Celan addresses the defilement of language and the spirit through “evil and injustice in the world”; and he proposes a corrective: not in the unlikely rationality-induced return to an ahistorical state of “original grace,” but in the poetic renewal and freedom generated by collisions of “words and figures from the remotest regions of the spirit… images and gestures, veiled and unveiled as in a dream…”:

 

When they meet in their heady course, and the spark of the wonderful is born from the marriage of strange and most strange, then I will know I am facing the new radiance. [1]

 

Celan’s early poetry, in both Romanian and German, germinated in this surreal radiance before he began grappling with the geo-etymological sources of his later work; but he was not the only postwar (South-) Eastern European poet to engage the imagination and language of surrealism, often combined with those of inherited folk traditions (one distinguishing factor from the French movement), in response to historical trauma. A similar oneiric alchemy is operative in the poetry of other mid-century Romanians like Gellu Naum, Gherasim Luca, Eugen Jebeleanu, and Nichita Stanescu, as well as the Yugoslavs Vasko Popa, Dane Zajc, Novica Tadić, and Tomaž Šalamun, and the Greek Nobel laureates George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis; so it is not surprising that the Greeks’ younger compatriot Miltos Sachtouris (1919–2005) shared this engagement. His Poems 1945–1971, translated by Karen Emmerich and published not so very long ago by Archipelago Books, demonstrates an affiliation with this broad family of twentieth-century European poets, many of whom — unlike Sachtouris, so far at least — are very well known to American readers and writers.

 

Emmerich, in her brief, but highly informative afterword, addresses what she calls the “cumulative madness” of Sachtouris’s work, the “paralogical perspective that keeps coming at the world — or fleeing from it — at an angle.” She tempers the critical tendency to ascribe this to the influence of surrealism by pointing to alternative readings that see the “nightmarish quality” of his poems as realist — an immediate response to the experience of the occupation and the war — and by herself emphasizing moments of optimism in his poetry and of reflection on the poet’s vocation. John Taylor, in his Into the Heart of European Poetry, perceptively suggests that the “reader puzzling over Sachtouris’s disarming mixture of apparent eyewitness account and apparent hallucination should take the poet seriously when, in ‘The Dream,’ he quotes Céline, who graphically depicted First World War manslaughter yet claimed that his ‘voyage was fully imaginary — whence its force.’” [2] I indeed found myself puzzled, perhaps stunned is the better word, by this tension between the horrific and the euphoric in Sachtouris’s poetry; although I was also thrown from the start by the contrast between the book’s cheery, canary yellow-and-crimson cover and its opening poem, “The Difficult Sunday” (1945), which begins in a fever of figurativeness — “Since morning, I’ve gazed up at a better bird / since morning I’ve enjoyed the snake coiled at my neck” — and ends with the grimly sober assessment:

 

It was freezing

I no longer know what time they all died

leaving me with a dismembered friend

and a bloody branch for company

 

The shock of these contrasts repeats itself throughout the book, concussively.

 

Severed hands and heads, shattering eyes, guns, withered or malevolent flowers, mutilated bodies, dead people, blood, death, darkness, and monsters all frequent these deeply imagistic poems. Taylor points to Sachtouris’s obsession with color and images and sees an answer to the enigma of his poetry in the work of Greek painter Alekos Fassianos. But Sachtouris’s relation to the visual seems to me equally assignable to the experience of dreams, the poems being structured along chains of association and condensation, with certain colors and very forceful images recurring insistently, apparently by dint of their traumatic power.

 

Blood, for instance, is repeated more often than any other trope throughout the selection. So we find lines like “winning ideal lotteries of blood,” “Flooded with the blood of birds,” “a bloody stone in his brain,” “little streams / that washed the blood away,” “Bloody veal / blocks out / the sky,” “all day my garden sprouted / blood,” “people with skies full of rotten blood,” “the sky is a garden full / of blood,” “hearts dripped blood the crazy hare,” “I drive the siren mad I sow my blood.” The insistence on the word collapses the image of blood into the sign, an effect that is nowhere more evident than in the semantic satiation of the early poem “Hydra” (1948) which begins “They hung my blood from the branches / they cast my blood into the sea,” then compulsively reiterates the word blood in almost every line (Sachtouris’s birthplace, the island of Hydra was especially hard hit by the famine of 1941–42). Other structures occur, however, in which the visual predominates in metaphoric form, such as “red roses suddenly / sprouted / where mouths should have been.” And one also finds concatenations of the verbal sign in a complex figure, both metaphoric and metonymic: “the ashen girl among the carnations / collects blood drop by drop,” “a snow of glass confetti fell / bloodying the hearts,” or “I give no blood to the veins of birds.”

 

Sachtouris’s metaphoric capability sometimes achieves a stunning compression, as in “The Dreams” (1962) for instance:

 

The graves are happy

 

the dreams always pass

through the graves

then charge

shooting into the air

bursting open and whistling

 

at times like these they forget death

they forget all about it

 

Elsewhere, his language is more discursive; and in many cases may be understood, as Emmerich points out, as a “meditation on what it means to be a poet in difficult times,” or simply as giving an account of himself, as another poem from his 1962 volume Stigmata, “Excerpt From My Own Personal Winter,” shows:

 

When at night

I talk to dead cocks

to sleeping clouds

in the kingdom of ash

the edge of this year’s fierce

white snow

exposes me

fleshless

drunk

untarnished

but

I don’t cry

for the beautiful dream

for the bad dream

that for years now each night

has tortured me in my sleep

has tortured me every day

of my life

 

The precision and economy of these translations is apparent, as is Emmerich’s unflagging intuition for rhythm, gravity, and an English that is simultaneously austere and vibrant. Aside from one slim and difficult-to-find chapbook published in Great Britain in 1984, this is the only collection of Sachtouris’s poetry available in English. Its comprehensiveness (over two hundred poems) and the excellence of Emmerich’s work make it an important landmark on the map of European poetry in English translation.



[1] Paul Celan, Collected Prose, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: The Sheep Meadow Press, 1986), 6.

[2] John Taylor, “A Chromatic, Obsessional Poetics (Miltos Sachtouris),” Into the Heart of European Poetry (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2010), 156–158.

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