Miltos Sachtouris (1919-2015) was one of the most important representatives of the Surrealist movement in post-World War II Greek poetry. He published thirteen collections of poems: The Forgotten Woman, 1945; Ballads, 1948; With Face to the Wall, 1952; When I Speak to You, 1956; The Phantoms or Joy in the Other Street, 1958; The Stroll, 1960; The Stigmata, 1962; The Seal or the Eight Moon, 1964; The Apparatus, 1971; Color Wounds, 1980; Ectoplasms, 1986; The Sinking, 1990; and Since Then, 1996. His work has received wide critical acclaim. He won three State Prizes for poetry and his poems have been translated into several languages.
Τhere are several recurring themes in Sachtouris’ poetry: the attitude of the poet toward life and his alienation, the influence of his parents, the calamities of war. There are also other themes, such as man’s self-destructiveness, the fate of the brave, the futility of material wealth and the poet’s relations with his friends, which suggest a deep alienation. The main theme though is love which is a tormenting experience without hope or light. It is often unrequited and it leads to conflicting emotions and sad illusions. It is the despair of abandonment or a sad memory.
Included in his poetry collection With Face to the Wall, “The Carnival” is another poem with war as its central theme. The festive atmosphere of a carnival is transformed into a grotesque nightmare of a war scene. One can discern elements of the festivity, a wandering little hobby-horse, children holding their kites, the falling confetti, the carnival moon. However, the portrait is very bleak, the ‘hobby-horse wander[s]’ in the deserted streets where ‘not a soul breathe[s]’, the children climbing up the sky are dead, the confetti is glass ‘bleeding the heart’ and the moon is ‘stabbed’ and thrown into the sea.
The key to what is happening is to be found in the lines: “only columns of soldiers passed right-left/ right-left with frozen teeth”, which reveals that in the guise of a carnival, the poet is actually presenting a horrifying image of war. He juxtaposes the images of children in a joyous festivity to the images of violence and death in order to show the insanity of war.
Sachtouris’ poetry is ambiguous and difficult to grasp, but he often reveals a particular insight into human life and a deep concern with it. He always challenges us with a magically illogical quality. The poet himself doesn’t’ deny the obscurity of many of his lines. He once said: “My poetry is many things which elude me and which I don’t understand, and if I did understand, I would not wish to reveal it”. He amazes us and puzzles us with his intense images, which often have the quality of a nightmare or a dream or mirage. At first, his bleak vision of the world overwhelms us, but gradually we come to recognize in his images fragments of the absurd reality that surrounds us. He makes us feel that the world we live in is as terrifying and cruel as the grotesque surreal world he depicts in his poetry.
Evocative and deeply moving, Sachtouris’s poetry builds up, block by linguistic block, an unforgettable vision that speaks even to those who inhabit worlds different and distant from his own. As translator Karen Emmerich suggests, “Miltos Sachtouris’ rather nightmarish view of the world emerges from his response to a cruel contemporary history and his need to evoke its hidden reality“. To use literary critic Vangelis Hatzivasileiou’s words, “What Sachtouris sees in the Occupation, the Civil War and the social and political amoralism during the first couple of decades after the war is the inability of people as a collective body to prioritise certain moral values and solutions as an antidote to the crisis of the times. […] History is not transformed into indelible memory but rather into a contemporary tragedy, which is being staged with the very same intensity to our own day“.
As Dimitris Maronitis eloquently put it, “the poet’s poetic production is characterised by a complex frugality with regard to both quantity and content; his poetry forms a system of ultimate equilibrium, which is ensured thanks to the subtle weighing of minute differences. There are no feverish, external antitheses to be found; the fever burns the poem from within, whilst the surface usually remains untroubled, just like snow, or glistens like ice […] I believe that he offered himself as a vessel of choice and expression for the post-war absurdity, and suddenly modern Greek surrealism rejected its ornamental opulence“.