Reflections on Miltos Sachtouris’ poetry by Sofia Kioroglou

A Greek surrealist poet whom admittedly most of my fellow poets might have stumbled on is Miltos Sachtouris who is renowned in his native country, Greece. Miltos Sachtouris was born in Athens in 1919. He was seventeen years old when General Metaxas imposed a Fascist dictatorship that lasted until the general’s demise in 1941.By then the Greeks were living under Axis occupation and experiencing war-related famine that led to the death of 100.000 lives. Unfortunately, the end of the second war was rife with ongoing conflicts which flared into a civil war, the ripple effects of which were felt for years, right up to the dictatorship of 1967-74. Sachtouris poetry was bereft of a decorative use of poetic language. He describes things with incredible fidelity. He is not one to interpose psychological descriptions and eschews ideological labeling. His clarity of idea-generating images are endowed with a substantive value. They offer a material outline with mental representations that are properly received. His poetry engages the imagination and has all the hallmarks of oneiric alchemy operative in the poetry of other eminent Greek Nobel laureates such as George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. However, the Greeks’ younger compatriot, Miltos Sachtouris is lesser known.

What Sachtouris sees in the Occupation, the Civil War and the social and political amoralism during the first couple of decades following the war, is the lack of ability of people as a collective body to prioritise certain moral values and solutions as an antidote to the crisis of the times.  This is successfully conveyed through his poetic diction and his poetry serves as an invitation to touch his traumas and wound and to ponder on his future.At the same time , he forbids us to think of ways to cure him and this is evident throughout  this poetry.

The use of images go beyond the dry recording of external reality. Instead, they acquire autonomous power as they become unfettered from the restricting nature of the mirror. The ample use of symbolic nuances creates an inner landscape that, although still reflecting experiences and feelings of everyday life, is a departure from the realism of social decadence or from the lyrical style of a personal confession. The odd and excessive elements that we can perceive in the expressionistic images stand for the fixed characteristics of a world suffering to its very core. 

Sachtouris’ images develop into self-reliant, symbolic units that go beyond isolated episodes.  They create a dissonant introspective universe, in which objects, animals, humans and machines degenerate into substitutes of reality, without however losing their commonly accepted qualities. 

Sachtouris relies heavily on surrealist imagery and there are many recurring images such as birds, a broken/bloody/fractured moon, severed hands/fingers, nails, blood but these are no gratuitous images–they reflect what Sachtouris saw all around him while writing these poems: the occupation of Greece by the Nazis, civil war and the eventual military dictatorship that took hold in the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. 

Poems such as ‘The Forgotten Woman’ make use of these intriguing and disturbing images:

The forgotten woman opens the window

opens her eyes

trucks pass below with women in black

who show their naked sex

and one-eyed drivers who curse

her christ and her holy virgin

the women in black wish evil on her

though they throw her bloody carnations

from the rolling garden of their bliss

from the car exhaust into the cloud of smoke

the drivers tear through the cloud and call her a whore

 

Poems such as ‘Height of February’ and ‘The Garden’ also make use of surrealist imagery:

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

 

THE GARDEN

It smelled of fever

that was no garden

some strange couples were walking inside

wearing shoes on their hands

their feet were large white and bare

heads like wild epileptic moons

and red roses suddenly

sprouted

for mouths

that were set upon and mauled

by the butterfly-dogs.

Some of these poems can be a bit of a ‘heavy’ read given the subject matter they address while some can be very turgid, clothed in surrealist imagery and metaphor which perhaps may take more than one reading in order to decipher its meaning. However, all of them are very compelling works, reflecting three differing tumultuous times in the nation’s history. His work is definitely recommended, especially for those who are surrealist poetry buffs.

 

 

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