On George Sarantaris’s Abyss and Song: Selected Poems, translated by Pria Louka: A Review by Nicole Yurcaba 

George Sarantaris’s poems pack exceptional force, beauty, ambiguity, and longing into tiny stones. The poems in Abyss and Song: Selected Poems are creatively deceptive because of their conciseness and compression. At first, readers might merely see a poem of two or three lines. Nonetheless, within those two or three lines, Sarantaris places each word skillfully and adeptly, like a master bricklayer or stone mason clinically piecing together a foundation or wall. The walls and foundations that Sarantaris built, nonetheless, are vastly different from those built by other poets of his generation. Sarantaris’s are mysterious, even evanescent—qualities elevated by Pria Louka’s elegant translations.

“[Now that calm reigns],” one of the collection’s initial poems is a piece of metaphysical fruit ripe with natural imagery. Transformation is at its core. Stars “are lilies,” and an absent moon becomes synonymous with the speaker’s absent friend. The desire the speaker expresses in this poem contradicts the fervent passions expressed in other poems. The phrase “I would like to shed” centers the poem, and this centering makes the expression the one around which all the others evolve. The speaker continues, describing their tears as “prized” and their friend as “distant:” “into your hands, / oh my distant friend.” The juxtaposition between “prized” and “distant” solidifies the speaker’s loss and turmoil, while the compact, rather traditional, form condenses the lines in such a way that each line acts like a trail marker through the speaker’s ache. Thus, “[Now that calm reigns]” is the quintessential poem of loss and longing.

This ache is a continual sensation throughout Sarantaris’s collection. “[I’m dying, the day]” is a small, edgy poem in which the speaker’s yearning is undeniable. The poem utilizes linguistic inversions to create the perception of confusion. This is most noticeable in the first two lines: “I’m dying, the day / whispered it into your ear.” The comma placed after “dying” and and before the two words “the day” creates a pause. Then, the following enjambment forces readers to step into the hallucinatory realm where breath becomes mistaken for a mirror, and passion and desire give way to eternal longing.

Passion and desire are common emotional expressions in Sarantaris’s work. “[When I kissed your hair]” stands as the collection’s premier example. Quiet, romantic imagery fills seven crisp lines, and the speaker makes direct, desirous confessions: “I loved you truly / I came to know you.” The speaker creates an origination story in the final three lines: “I took you from the tree / From the root / Where I too was born.” The imagery brings to mind the Norse myth regarding Yggdrasill, an enormous ash tree regarded as the tree of life, whose three great roots are watered by the three wells Urdarbrunnr, Hvergelmr, and Mimisbrunnr. Thus, the poem develops a mythical tone, which adds an intellectual spice to its sensuality.

Taking sensuality to the next, even more romantic, level is the poem “[You let your hair loose over the sea.]” The initial line may invoke the image of Botticelli’s breathtaking painting The Birth of Venus. The poem begins with a loose structure: two couplets form the first two stanzas, with a single line acting as the third stanza. From there, the poem contracts into two solid stanzas. This structural contraction makes the lines and words act like tectonic plates pushing against one another to not only reshape the poem, but also recalibrate the poem’s tone. The third stanza is an all-consuming sensory experience:

  Winds descend from the mountain
  They settle on the shore
  And make their voices go round
  To catch you
  Now that you approach dry land
  And you tremble like the cloud.

The placement of the phrase “To catch you” makes the phrase more emphatic, more emotional, and creates the sense of intense devotion. The final stanza opens with the command statement “Loosen your tongue and sing.” The speaker’s command diverts, however, into a celebration of nature: “The rocks will gleam again.” This statement transforms the speaker’s object of desire into a surreal otherworldliness, one that permeates the environments and establishes the rocks as a place where the speaker and their beloved can exist.

According to Asymptote Journal, George Sarantaris was part of the “Generation of the 30s,” a group of Greek modernist artists and writers. Unlike other writers included in the group, Sarantaris did not receive the attention many of those writers did during his time. However, Abyss and Song: Selected Poems proves that, despite the author’s lack of recognition during his time, Sarantaris’s poems possess an emotional timelessness, a linguistic legacy, and a philosophical sensuality. Just as importantly, Pria Louka establishes herself as an eloquent, informed translator, one whose name is sure to appear in many translations to come.

Nicole Yurcaba (Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and serves as Blue Ridge Community and Technical College’s Humanities Coordinator. She is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.