Yannis Ritsos-A Review

rits

Yannis Ritsos Poems–Selected Books

Translated by Manolis

Edited by Apryl Leaf

LibrosLibertad, Surrey BC

 

Review by Amy Henry

A careful hand is needed to translate the poems of Yannis Ritsos, and Manolis is the ideal poet to undertake such an enormous task.  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 honor 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’

                Footsteps

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.

http://www.blacksheepdances.com

 

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‘NOSTOS and ALGOS–A REVIEW’ by Cloe Koutsoubelis

nostos and algos cover

Awareness is the title of the first poem of this collection and not without reason.

The poet selects this poem as the first one but one wonders: awareness for what? Is it because this poetry collection is subject of the natural laws of decay, like tree leaves that turn yellow and fall at some moment leaving behind them the gaping void that lies under every poetry collection behind every creative form? Or is it awareness because, as the last verses claim, nothing stays forever?

The collection is dedicated to his parents who lived their last years in the village and the second poem of the book “Old Couple” is at that exact place with images such, olives, feta cheese, wine, salad under the grape vine, monologue of loneliness, epilogue of their lives. Agony for a son away in a foreign land but expectation, longing, and the everyday events transcend into moments of happiness and laughter, you forgot to make the salad.

What is the poet’s primer? Prime roll plays the sound of the letter t from the word tenderness. When one doesn’t open himself to love one has no reason for living. The slow spark that reverses the equation and turns into a wick and becomes a conflagration, or a night flower that turns into the kaleidoscope of the Universe are the underlying forces of this book. Eros and at the same time Death that lurk behind everything; the unstoppable law of the cosmos that controls the people’s lives and emotions.

I too grieve,
that night has passed by so fast

the poet says in Night Flower:
Heracleitos’ philosophy of the ever changing world, the continuous movement of things and people like a river that forever evolves and renews this is the backbone of the book Nostos and Algos.

For the poet the microcosm and the macrocosm are but a rose, a thicket of trees in the afternoon, the mound of a woman, a flock of sparrows, a bed-sheet that wrapped the body of the beloved, the simple events of everyday life, the brushing of teeth, the washing the face of a beloved person become a mystery into which he delves with willingness and humbleness.

Yet the poet is afraid that the mystery of these simple everyday events may be violated by the sacrilegious people of the cement city who make dust of every emotion and refinement, by the hierodules and pimps who turn every ideology into a profit thus flattening everything in their path.

For the poet everything vanishes, everything flows through his fingers; we arrange our date with Death at every moment, everything except of a smile that is whole, it can’t be divided, it can’t be analyzed, it is the moment that boils and bubbles.

Fate is predetermined. Our date with Death occurs every day. We betray ourselves and others, we yearn for things that belong to others, we move between high and low tide in currents that take us forth and back we fight at every moment the feeling of this futile life and the void.

Then, there must be
      another time
      there must be
      it must
the poet says in Tides

Deep philosophical, existential collection is this book by Manolis. The miracle passes and vanishes, the silent acceptance and the effort to understand, is but the vague oaring in a foggy day.

In the poems Turret, Heroes, Sunrise, the poet is sarcastic to the leadership that sends men to war like lambs to the slaughterhouse, for the sake of the generals, the bishops, the flags and the business of war.

In his last four poems, Lens, Craving, Branches and Insistence toward the end of each poem the words and you said — appear as if the poet talks to someone next to him and I can see no other way to end this beautiful book but the phrase of the last poem:

Again I shall try to transform
      the cricket’s song
      into a shiver.

~ Cloe Koutsoubelis, ENEKEN, No 33, Salonica, Greece, Fall-Winter 2014

~ . ~