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A review of Poems (1945-1971) from Christopher Bakken in Pleiades

 

Excerpts from Christopher Bakken’s review of Sachtouris, as published in Pleiades:

 

1.
…the typical Sachtouris poem occurs in a place we don’t recognize as Greece, that we’re not sure we recognize as being real at all, except that like our world it is brimming with extraordinary objects and beasts.  Each poem is a nearly shattered utterance, un-punctuated, devoid of narrative, and deliberately bizarre; it proceeds according to a logic of associations we aren’t meant to decode, is saturated with metamorphosis and duende, and is held together by a scaffolding of garish and violent images:

Bad mother
with your pinned-on eyes
your wide nailed-on mouth
and your seven fingers
you grab your baby and caress it
then stretch your white arms before you
and the sky burns them with its golden rain

(“Height of February”)

At a moment when our own poetry is once again exploring methods of composition that in certain quarters are called “experimental” or “avant-garde,” the appearance of Emmerich’s volume on English-speaking soil is also timely and pertinent.  Many young American practitioners might suddenly discover they have a strange Greek uncle in the under-appreciated Miltos Sachtouris…

 

2.
In Sachtouris’s poems, Death and Silence enact a noisy, erotic courtship and one context for these poems is indeed the corrosive effect of that bad marriage upon Greece, but in the latter half of the twentieth century, there is no Greek poet as reticent as Sachtouris.  As he puts it,

A strange forest bewitches my voice
each word is a drop of blood
my whole song is a tree
watered with the blood of murderers
thousands of murderers thousands of wild trees

(“Under the Sky”)

So bewitched, Sachtouris prefers enigmas and shape-shifting, a magically real landscape populated by “phantom caiques,” “butterfly-dogs,” and “bloody flowers.”  Only very rarely, in between his incorrigibly joyful and Technicolor mayhem, do we suspect that the poet is revealing himself, confessing “I didn’t expect/ hell/ to be so bright” (“Moments”) or “I don’t cry/ for the beautiful dream/ for the bad dream/ that for years now each night/ has tortured me in my sleep” (“Excerpt from my Own Personal Winter”)…

 

3.

The project of bringing a poet this guarded and obtuse from Greek into English could not have been an easy one….  The difficulty has to do with Sachtouris’ compression and the tendency of his poems to stagger from image to image, jolting their way down the page by way of a maddeningly flexible syntax that is possible in Greek, but not in English.
Emmerich was clearly willing to retain this fragmentary aspect of Sachtouris’s style, but her real achievement is in creating poems in English that manage to proceed down the page with a double-jointed agility that isn’t exactly graceful, but is just jaunty enough to suggest a tension between the violence of the imagery and the playfulness of Sachtouris’s psyche…

 

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