Three Poems from Yannis Ritsos’ Diaries of Exile

by Olivia Rose Mancing    /  July 24, 2014  / No comments

The celebrated Greek poet Yannis Ritsos was both lauded and hated for his writing during his lifetime. Though he was nominated for the Nobel Prize twice and won the Lenin Peace Prize, his work was burned and banned several times between 1936 and 1970. It also put him in exile and, later, under house arrest.

Diaries of Exile, which was released in English this year, is a series of three diaries-in-poetry that Ritsos wrote between 1948 and 1950 while a political prisoner of the Greek Civil War, first on the island of Limnos and then at the infamous camp on the island of Makronisos.

This volume has been translated by Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keeley and is short-listed for the 2014 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.

Today Sampsonia Way presents three poems from Diaries of Exile.

November 6

Evening. The bell for the evening meal.
Shouts from the boys playing soccer.
Was it yesterday?-I don’t remember;-a stunning sunset
so violet, so gold, so rosy.
We stood there. We watched. We talked
alone, alone, tossing our voices into the wind
so as to tie things together, to unbind our hearts.

A letter arrived in the yard:
Panousis’s son was killed.
Our talk nestled against the walls.
The sunset suddenly nothing.

The night had no hours. The knot loosened.
Panousis’s aluminum plate grew cold on the table.
We lay down. We covered ourselves. We loved one another
around that untouched plate that no longer steamed.

Around midnight the black cat came in through the window
and ate some of Panousis’s food.
Then the moon came in
and hung motionless over the plate.
Panousis’s arm on the blanket
was a severed plane tree.

Well then-must we really be so sad
in order to love one another?

January 25

For a moment we took refuge
against the latrine wall.
The wind was cutting.
An old man stared at a cloud.
I looked at him smiling
in the light of that cloud-so peaceful,
so far removed from desire and pain-
I was jealous.

Old people agree with the clouds.
And it’s taking us a long time to get old.

May 11

After the rain the buildings and the stones
change colors.

Two old men sit on the bench. They don’t talk.
So much shouting and so much silence remains.
The newspapers age in an hour.

Stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed
the monotony of change-stressed;
unstressed, stressed, strophe, antistrophe
and neither rage nor sorrow.

Evening lights out;
just as heavy for the one who struck
as for the one he struck.

The men sit on the stones
pare their nails.
The others died.
We forgot them.

  1. About the Translators
  2. Edmund Leroy Keeley is an author, translator, educator, critic, and Professor Emeritus of English at Princeton University. He was born in Damascus, Syria, in 1928 and lived in Greece from ages 8 to 11. He is a prize-winning novelist and a noted expert on Greek poets C. P. Cavafy, George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis and Yannis Ritsos, and on post-Second World War Greek history. Read more here.
  3. Karen Emmerich is an assistant professor of comparative literature at the University of Oregon, and a translator of Modern Greek poetry and prose. Her translations include Rien ne va plus by Margarita Karapanou, Landscape with Dog and Other Stories by Ersi Sotiropoulos, and Poems (1945–1971) by Miltos Sachtouris. She is the recipient of translation grants and awards from the NEA, PEN, and the Modern Greek Studies Association. Read more here.

Copyright Yannis Ritsos 1975. English language translation Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keeley, 2013. First Archipelago Books Addition, 2013. This excerpt was used with permission from First Archipelago Books.

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