Three Poems from Yannis Ritsos’ Diaries of Exile
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.
Today Sampsonia Way presents three poems from Diaries of Exile.
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?
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.
After the rain the buildings and the stones
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.
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.