Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Yanis Ritsos

review by Amy Henry

Yannis Ritsos: Poems
Translated by Manolis
Edited by Apryl Leaf

…in life his muse gave tongues to sky water stone mortality
…he dreamed of freedom, grace, drawing upon the well he’d made, guarding the source of stubborn faith to seek coherence in the blind mess others called reality.

From the poem “Monemvasia (In Memory of Yannis Ritsos)” by Jena Woodhouse

Yannis Ritsos’ prolific body of poetry made him one of Greece’s most beloved sons, although the scale of his work is nearly surpassed by the suffering he endured. Born in Monemvasia, Greece in 1909, his life was filled with family tragedy, personal illness, political persecution, and years of incarceration. Yet no amount of personal pity infuses his poetry; instead, his love for his homeland is what filled his heart, and from there, to his writing. As Dale Jacobson stated in the Great River Review, “In Ritsos, I found collective grief for the tragedies of history, and especially for social, not only individual, injustice.” Jacobsen noted that Ritsos’ encompassing humanity was a style especially unique and not often found in American poetry. Rather, “an intolerance toward a collective feeling” was more typical, with famous American poets focusing on “individual complaint” (Jacobson 26). Because of the political upheavals that touched nearly every Greek citizen in the twentieth century, he was able to speak for them: “Ritsos was able to create a poetry that argued we have survived only because…a solidarity remains among those without power, who have recognized loss and taken the next necessary step anyway” (Jacobson 28). Throughout his many works, his voice of shared feeling is always present, yet surprisingly empty of bitterness.

Ritsos was incarcerated numerous times in different prison camps by authorities determined to stop his writing that was so loved by his nation as well as other poets worldwide. By stealth and careful actions, he was able to keep many of his collected poems intact throughout various relocations. With his release, one pressured both by his need for medical treatment and the harsh cries for mercy by noted poets such as Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, and Louis Aragon in 1952, he was able to bring these hidden works to light. Despite his joy at freedom, he didn’t settle in and lay low. He remained active in politics as a Communist and continued writing as well as travelling throughout Europe (namely the Balkans and Russia), and throughout the 1960s his work was receiving wide acclaim, eventually being nominated for the Nobel Prize. (Bein)
What was it about Ritsos that so connected him with the people of Greece, and stirred such opposition from varying authorities? Likely it is because he was so vocal about injustice on all scales, at a time when silence on his part would have afforded him more freedom. For example, after being hospitalized in Crete, he wrote several newspaper articles exposing the deplorable conditions of the sanitorium, which eventually led to the patients being relocated. At another time in 1936, he wrote about the massacre of tobacco workers by police in Thesallonika , which led to that collection, Epitaphios, being banned.

Intriguingly, a new development regarding Epitaphios that had even stranger implications occurred in 1958. The composer Mikis Theodorakis had read Ritsos’ collection Epitaphios and was deeply moved. He had actually met Yannis Ritsos previously when both had been imprisoned on Makronissos. Later, both men moved on in life with Theodorakis studying music in France and Ritsos continuing to write. Conflict occurred when another composer, Manos Hadjidakis, had set Ephitaphios to music. Immediately, “an unhappy Theodorakis promptly returned home, started his own orchestra, and with Grigoris Bithikotsis as soloist produced a recording of Epitaphios based on the popular rembetiko.” From this point, a competition was created between the two composers, and Greece’s music lovers heatedly debated which version was preferred. Eventually, Theodorakis’ version became more famous, and Epitaphios became known as the music of revolt and protest (Comerford 9). Incidentally, his score for Zorba the Greek cemented his legacy in Greek history, and Theodorakis was also nominated for a Nobel Prize.

Ritsos eventually ended up imprisoned again in 1967, and those who either recited or sang his verses faced arrest as well. As before, the literary world took note and made an issue of his imprisonment, which ended when the leaders of the coup under Papadopoulos were detained. Again, rather than simply caving to the political coup of the time, he maintained his alliance with resistance efforts at great personal cost.

One poet, Minas Savvas, had the opportunity to interview Ritsos in 1975 at a time when he was enjoying freedom while his former tormentor General Spandidakis was under trial. Ritsos received him in a modest home to discuss the translation that Savvas intended to complete. In the interviews Savvas conducted, Ritsos revealed himself as a man of unimaginable magnamity. When questioned about his lack of bitterness, Ritsos responded that “Bitterness ages us.” He goes on to explain how he survived his numerous tribulations: “I learned in the course of time that the mind is a life buoy. Work has rejuvenated me and continues to rejuvenate me…work defeats hardship” (Savvas 242).

Besides the works themselves, Savvas discovered a poignant hobby that Ritsos had undertaken: the painting of rocks and pebbles. Ritsos explained, “It’s a hobby I started in Makronisos on the beach after all those hours and days, I noticed that every pebble and rock has a statement to make.” Many times Ritsos acted as interpreter to these pebbles and rocks, as stones are a repeating motif in his poetry. Savvas notes the link between the pebbles and poems in that “under his [Ritsos] penetrating gaze, the simple things speak with a mystification and a new, refreshing, thought-triggering complexity” (Savvas 241).

This complexity is initially hidden in the simplicity of Ritsos’ poems, which alternate between extremely brief and lengthy. The secret to this seems to be the layers of tangible and intangible meanings. Jacobson stated that Ritsos’ poems “operated as if the rules of the universe were not governed by laws of physics, but rather by psychological laws capable of startling shifts, revelations we didn’t know we knew, like ambushes in a dream” (Jacobson 26). One could take notice of the physical details and if they stopped there, they may think they understand Ritsos. But only by digging further can they capture both elements. For example, a statue may speak as a relic of fame, a mere artifact, or a snapshot of another time. Yet, in further investigation more than history or the fame of a single personage is revealed. They act as a “life-affirming reminder”, as Richard Collins noted, and silently reveal more about those who took the time to create them and what exactly they wanted to commemorate. Collins stated, as he observed that statues appear frequently in Ritsos’ poetry, “if they have no life of their own, they remind readers that they are the ones who are alive.”

Collins also explores the subtle elements that underlie even the shortest of Ritsos’ poems. In his essay “In the Ruins of an Ancient Temple”, Collins explicates the poem of fifteen lines in a comprehensive way that could fill pages with its meaning. The methods he uses can also be applied in explicating other poems to excavate the deeper meaning. For example, simply taking note of what each character is doing sets a tone, in this case of ordinary people with their own workaday actions to perform. Then he notes how metaphors are placed that move the past forward to modern time, just as a woman hangs clothes on a statue to dry. The statue is thus “like” a clothesline, except that it was intended to immortalize someone of fame. Putting it all together shows how this simple land, filled with vestiges of an ancient time, both embraces and ignores their heritage because they are busy living-not beholden to a stony past.

Ritsos takes the forms and devices of color, movement, and sound and combines these with the unique qualities of the Greek landscape, with the white of rocks interspersed with dark visions of the sea and blood. Because of his experiences, the themes of war, suffering, and survival are frequently present. Translating such poetry requires a special hand, one that Edmund Keeley noted in his essay “Yannis Ritsos and Translation”. Keeley made two important prerequisites for translating Ritsos accurately: one, Ritsos himself could not simply choose a few poems of which to permit translation, as all were subjects of his passion, and thus any translation must comprise a full body of his oeuvre. Secondly, Keeley sets the criteria for a Ritsos translation: “any poet worthy of a translator’s full devotion…obviously has an abiding affection for what work he has selected for publication” (Keeley 42). Thus the new translation by Manolis, himself a noted poet of Greek nationality and with personal warmth for Ritsos from his youth onward, feels especially appropriate. He has undertaken the tremendous work of translating the majority of Ritsos’ poetry in his new volume, Yannis Ritsos, Poems.

Born in Crete, Manolis’s youth was intermingled with the poetry of Ritsos. Once a young man moved by the Theodorakis version of Epitaphios, he’s now a successful poet in his own right who is still moved to tears hearing the refrains of those notes from half a century ago. His Greek heritage, with its knowledge of the terrain, people, history and cultural themes, makes his translation all the more true to what Ritsos intended. Having visited the very places of which Ritsos wrote, he knows how the light and sea shift, and how Ritsos imagined those changes as being a temperament and personality of the Greece itself.

The parallels in their lives are uncanny: when Ritsos was imprisoned, Manolis’ father also was imprisoned on false charges. Both men dealt with the forces of dictators and censorship, and experienced the cruel and unreasoning forces of those times. In fact, they even lived for a time in the same neighborhood. In his foreword to Poems, Manolis relates that he viewed him as a comrade, one whose “work resonated with our intense passion for our motherland and also in our veracity and strong-willed quest to find justice for all Greeks.”

In Poems, Manolis chose to honour Ritsos first by not just picking and choosing a few titles to translate, although that might have been far easier. Instead, he undertook the complex task of translating fifteen entire books of Ritsos work-an endeavor that took years of meticulous research and patience. It should be noted that along with the translation, edited by Apryl Leaf, that he also includes a significant Introduction that gives a reader unfamiliar with Ritsos an excellent background on the poet from his own perspective.

Dated according to when Ritsos composed them, it’s fascinating to see how some days were especially productive for him. These small details are helpful in understanding the context and meaning. For example, in Notes on the Margins of Time, written from 1938-1941, Ritsos explores the forces of war that are trickling into even the smallest villages. Without direct commentary, he alludes to trains, blood, and the sea that takes soldiers away, seldom to return. Playing an active role in these violent times, the moon observes all, and even appears as a thief ready to steal life from whom it is still new. From “In the Barracks”:

The moon entered the barracks
It rummaged in the soldiers’ blankets
Touched an undressed arm Sleep
Someone talks in his sleep Someone snores
A shadow gesture on the long wall
The last trolley bus went by Quietness

Can all these be dead tomorrow?
Can they be dead from right now?

A soldier wakes up
He looks around with glassy eyes
A thread of blood hangs from the moon’s lips

In Romiosini, the postwar years are a focus (1945-1947), and they have not been kind. The seven parts to this piece each reflect a soldier’s journey home.

These trees don’t take comfort in less sky
These rocks don’t take comfort under foreigners’
These faces don’t’ take comfort but only
In the sun
These hearts don’t take comfort except in justice.

The return to his country is marked by bullet-ridden walls, burnt-out homes, decay, and the predominantly female populace, one that still hears the bombs falling and the screams of the dead as they dully gaze about, looking for fathers, husbands, and sons. The traveler’s journey is marked by introspection and grim memories reflected on to the surfaces of places and things he thought he knew.

And now is the time when the moon kisses him sorrowfully
Close to his ear
The seaweed the flowerpot the stool and the stone ladder
Say good evening to him
And the mountains the seas and cities and the sky
Say good evening to him
And then finally shaking the ash off his cigarette
Over the iron railing
He may cry because of his assurance
He may cry because of the assurance of the trees and
The stars and his brothers

An entirely different feeling is found in Parentheses, composed 1946-1947. In it, healing is observed and a generosity of spirit exerts itself among those whose hearts had been previously crushed. In “Understanding”:

A woman said good morning to someone –so simple and natural
Good morning…
Neither division nor subtraction To be able to look outside
Yourself-warmth and serenity Not to be
‘just yourself’ but ‘you too’ A small addition
A small act of practical arithmetic easily understood…

On the surface, it may appear simple, a return to familiarity that may have been difficulty in times of war. Yet on another level, he appears to be referring to the unity among the Greek people-the ‘practical arithmetic’ that kept them united though their political state was volatile. Essentially timeless, his counsel goes far beyond nationalism.

Moonlight Sonata, written in 1956, is an impossibly romantic and poignant lyric poem that feels more like a short story. In it, a middle-aged woman talks to a young man in her rustic home. As he prepares to leave, she asks to walk with him a bit in the moonlight. “The moon is good –it doesn’t show my gray hair. The moon will turn my hair gold again. You won’t see the difference. Let me come with you”

Her refrain is repeated over and over as they walk, with him silent and her practically begging him to take her away from the house and its memories:

I know that everyone marches to love alone
Alone to glory and to death
I know it I tried it It’s of no use
Let me come with you

The poem reveals her memories as well as his awkward silence, yet at the end of their journey, she doesn’t leave. Ritsos leaves the ending open: was it a dream? If not, why did she not go? What hold did the house have over her? Was it just the moonlight or a song on the radio that emboldened her?

In 1971, Ritsos wrote The Caretaker’s Desk in Athens, where he was under surveillance but essentially free. At this time he seems to be translating himself-that of how he was processing his own personal history. Already acclaimed for his work, perhaps he was uncertain of his own identity.

From “The Unknown”,

He knew what his successive disguises stood for
(even with them often out of time and always vague)
A fencer a herald a priest a ropewalker
A hero a victim a dead Iphigenia He didn’t know
The one he disguised himself as His colorful costumes
Pile on the floor covering the hole of the floor
And on top of the pile the carved golden mask
And in the cavity of the mask the unfired pistol

If he is indeed discussing his identity, it’s with incredible honesty as to both his public persona and his private character. After all, he’d been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 (and eight more times) and he was likely weighing, in his later years, all that he’d endured.
The beauty of this particular translation is that, while subjects and emotions change over time, they still feel united by the underlying character of Ritsos. Some translators leave their own imprint or influence, yet this feels free of such adjustment. It’s as if Ritsos’ voice itself has been translated, with the pauses, humor, and pace that identify the subtle characteristics of an individual.

Amy Henry is a writer and book reviewer who also reviews books for her website