Friday, December 12, 2008


Yannis Ritsos

Fallen—face down, jaw to the ground, his neck
clamped between the other’s knees—his face turns blue,
veins swell at his temples. No movement.
Then a twitch—is it a final convulsion? Close your eyes. No, no.
Merely beautiful surrender. The body relaxes. Little by little
a smile spreads across the face, like someone looking at the sea
from a window (a somewhat narrow window, it’s true) or like
a severed head, dignified—still in control of its expression;
yes, yes, a smile spreads. The red knife is in the tray.
On either side a pot of flowers.
His eye teeth sparkle in the sun—gold, elongated,
two small bayonets guarding the mortal remains
at the gate to ancient, cunning immortality.

May 25, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

Simple and Incomprehensible

Yannis Ritsos

Nothing new—he says. Men are killed or simply die.
Teeth, hair, hands, mirrors—they grow old.
The lamp's glass chimney broke—we patched it with newspaper.
Worst of all, by the time you learn something is worthwhile, it's already passed. Then
an immense silence. Summer arrives. Trees
turn tall and green—oh so provocative. Cicadas cry out.
In the evening, the mountains turn blue. And from them,
men of shadow descend, limping as they make their way down (in truth, only pretending to limp).
They throw dead dogs into the river. Afterwards, full of sorrow and justifiable anger,
they fold their burlap sacks, scratch their groins, and contemplate the moonlight on water. There’s just
that one inexplicable thing; pretending to be cripples, without anyone to witness them.

May 25, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

Method for Optimism

Yannis Ritsos

Vindictive—all the dark rumors dredged up—he gave them emphasis,
generalized them, somehow making them both arbitrary and conclusive at the same time—a method
deep, obscure, no doubt carefully thought out. Everything dark, nearly black—
the furniture, faces, windows, time. And yet his appearance
remained bright, splashed with some secret happiness—perhaps from his talent
to see in the dark, to make out the darkness itself, to see far down
to the four brass shell casings glowing on the large bed
where two beautiful corpses lay as though making love.

May 26, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

Monday, December 8, 2008


Yannis Ritsos

Days went by. The ship’s sail snapped in the wind.
The rope wore through. We gave up watering the trees.
They withered in no time, leaving neither fruit nor leaf.
Women grew old. Tiny snails
made their way up the walls. When at last we descended
to clear out the well—there was nothing there
but decayed dampness and a heap of rusty buckets.
We removed them. But the water had dried up.

May 29, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

With These Stones

Yannis Ritsos

An unexpected wind blew. The heavy shutters creaked.
Leaves were lifted from the ground. They flew away, flew away.
Until only stones remained. Now we must make do with these—
he kept repeating—with these, with these. When night descended
the great, inky mountainside, he threw our keys into the well.
Ah, dear stones—he said—one by one I'll chisel
the unknown faces and my body, with its one hand
tightly clenched, raised above the wall.

May 30, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Yannis Ritsos

Saturday, Sunday, Saturday again—and before you know it, Monday.
A quiet dusk without color, or trees, or chairs.
We have nothing to spend. The old pitcher on the dinner table;
the plates, the glasses, the sad hands, the deserted—
the spoon rises; another mouth finds it—but which mouth?
Who eats? Who grows quiet? In the open window
a small, forgotten moon swallows its own spit.
It's not that we're no longer growing fat, but that we're no longer hungry.

June 4, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Widening

Yannis Ritsos

We were to remain over here—who knew how long. Little by little
we forgot about time, lost track of the difference between months, weeks,
days, hours. Perhaps it was for the best. There were oleanders
far below, cypress trees above, and stones above that.
Flocks of birds passed overhead; their shadows made the ground dark.
In my day, the old man said, it happened just like this. The iron bars
were already in the windows; I could see them long before they were installed. Now,
seeing them every day, I begin to think they’re not there. I no longer see them.
I wonder if you see them?—Then, the guards called out and opened the door.
They brought in two wheel-barrows loaded with watermelons. The old man continued:
Ah, as long as eyesight remains, you can’t see a thing.
You peer into the void, as they say—whitewash, sun, wind, salt—
you enter the house—without stool or bed—you sit down on the ground;
small spiders walk across your hair, across your clothes, into your mouth.

June 5, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

Monday, December 1, 2008

Without Counterweight

Yannis Ritsos

Yuck!—he said—disgusting. He closed his ears, his nostrils, his eyes.
What? What do you hear? What do you see? Seven bullets, eight bullets.
Even the murderers murdered, and other similar things
here and there. Toward what will you turn? What will you offer instead?
All the flags torn into strips through time
and not one on a balcony overhead will be lowered to half-mast.
Old newspapers drift on the water, right beside the drowning victim.

June 5, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]


Yannis Ritsos

Everyone inside large earthen jars—each one in his own.
They eat, sleep, shit, give birth, die inside the jars.
Sometimes they read an old newspaper—a new one never arrives.
Murdered, murdered—you know—you'd like to murder the jars. Only
a large, rose-colored bra soaking up the sun on the barbed-wire.
Large flies strolling round and round on Beckett’s jar.

June 5, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

Friday, November 14, 2008

Twice As Guilty

Yannis Ritsos

So? — he said — is our pride (if there is any?) to be based
on the mistakes of others and not upon our own virtues? —
what justification? Ah dear teacher, how well we were acquainted
with your act: justice, freedom. And that otherworldly smile
of yours (or so we referred to it) — when the doors opened and the crowd poured out.
They ran close behind you, cheering, leaving their house open
to the sun, the wind, the thieves. And when, the following night,
the thirteenth man lifted his glass, we finally realized
it had all been prearranged. The dead lay in their beds,
and beneath the beds, your cardboard shoes —
red, majestic, with small mirrors glued all over them.

June 6, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Bell

Yannis Ritsos

Who hung this black bell (and when?) directly above the table
from the center of the ceiling? — was it months ago? — years ago?
Bent over our plates we hadn't noticed. We had never raised
our heads, not even a little — why should we have? But now
we know — it's there, immovable. Who was the first to see it? Who told us about its presence,
since we never spoke of it? Perhaps, one night,
as we drained the last drop of wine from our cup, our eye
caught a glimpse through the cloudy glass. Immediately
we bent our heads back down, farther than before. Hungry or not, we ate, expecting
the bell to be struck at any moment by some giant and invisible hand —
nine or twelve times, maybe only once, but boundlessly and undisciplined,
and we kept track of the numbers within, lest we grew too fond of its ringing.

June 14, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]


Yannis Ritsos

So much time had passed. What we had brought with us from home
had holes, wore out, broke.

The sound of a door slamming on a sunlit day,
the voice that asked in the hallway, "How long will you be gone?"
the ivory comb a woman ran through her hair in front of a mirror,
the cigarette we shared by the window one spring evening
reaching for the tail of the Little Bear constellation,
the shadow of two hands beneath the lamp, falling between two plates of fruit —

we brought so many things with us in our bags —

the white socks worn one summer at the beach,
the white pants and athletic vest that made the torso of April look sharp,
the little pair of scissors our sister used to trim her nails on the window ledge,
and even the refracted light that trembled upon her cheeks and her hands.
Everything frayed, fell to pieces, wore out.
The scissors rusted. Their points broke off.
They looked like a dead swallow when laid upon the stone
beside the razor and the sea foam.
We hardly took notice, trimming our nails and our callous.
They were like a rusted key, no longer needed because the locks were broken.

We carried our belongings with us in our bags and suitcases.
Everything had holes, wore out. Not one thing was spared.

Nonetheless, now and then, when evening arrived
and the Little Bear, its lights hanging at the end of the prison tent,
dug its shallow den into the dry ground with its claws,
Petros or Basilis or old Antonis
rumaged through their bags, searching for a lost cup or spoon,
their hands moved slower and slower until they forgot what they were searching for
and the air encircled them motionless like olives in a jar
and the silence was audible like a millstone grinding water.

Then suddenly, we heard long forgotten sounds —
as if the scissors were cutting paper for gifts on Christmas eve,
as if the ivory comb was running through a woman's hair,
as if the toe nail we held up was a cigarette
we were offering to share with the moon.

We suspected there still might be hidden, deep in our suitcases,
beneath unwashed shirts and socks full of holes,
an embroidered towel from our far away, quiet homes
with the shadows of our beloved's hands upon it like two dried grape leaves.

It was very strange. And we wanted to cry.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 295-296]

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Common Fate

Yannis Ritsos

From one rented room to another — a suitcase,
a table, a very old bed, a chair;
the straw mattress stained by bed bugs and by sperm.
No one had a house of their own — everyone was constantly moving.
Our common fate — he says — it's reassuring. Just like this tree,
stationary, calm, blossoming, in a world of its own;
completely preoccupied with its flowering — it looks at nothing —
reflected in the large, inexplicable, glass door.

June 14, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]


Yannis Ritsos

Dressed in black and the ethereal — her footsteps went unheard.
She walked through the portico. No lights on. As she climbed
the stone steps, they shouted, "Halt!" Her face
a white mist in the darkness. Beneath her apron,
she was hiding a violin. "Who's there!" She didn't speak.
She stopped dead; hands raised, with that violin
clutched between her knees. She was smiling.

June 15, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

The Crab

Yannis Ritsos

And all at once everything scuttled off — shapes, trees, the sea,
events, facts, poetry — far off, very far off,
to a distant shore — he could both see and not see them. Would they
leave and abandon him like this? Immovable, death
dwelt with him, to the edge of his toe nails. At night
he heard the huge, immovable one within him. Always there,
before sleep and after waking, it went on
brushing his teeth with the old, shedding brush,
displaying the last smile — clean, white, certain.

July 27, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

The Hands of Comrades

Yannis Ritsos

Our hands remained bare.
Our hands were scraped a thousand times
upon the unshaven jaw of the wind,
a thousand times they caught on the barbed-wire,
a thousand times they brushed up against
the icy railings of Death.

Our hands grew calloused from the pick-ax, from the stone, from the struggle,
from rubbing our palms together so often.
But now they hold certain things better.

The wind through the house and our mother's shadow
had been two soft gloves, two woolen gloves,
that kept our hands warm — but they kept us
from ever holding someone else's hand against our skin.

Once those gloves were torn—
we found them useful as bandages for our wounded comrades,
we found them useful as dishrags for soup spoons and cauldrons in the mess hall.

Our hands remained bare.
They learned about work, about silence, about scars.
They went up and down countless times, the iron-rooster of anger.
They went back and forth with a knife, slicing the round loaf of patience.
They pounded against our foreheads, the walls, and the night.

Now, completely bare, our hands rest on our knees,
like the sun that rests on the mountains,
like the mountains that rest on the sea,
like the hearts of comrades that rest on their beliefs.

These are the hands of Communists.

When they clasp your hand, you suddenly understand how all the cities can be lit with electric lights behind the night.
When they lug buckets of seawater straight up steep slopes
you understand how tomorrow and the sun and the sea are from their hands,
you understand why the burlap bags full of stones move light as air in their hands —
because, always, Freedom carries at least half the burden.

These are the hands of comrades.

These bare hands, their blue veins
are like railway lines on a map of the world.
Even though the lines of good fortune in their palms have been censored,
it's in these bare hands that the future of the world is kept safe.

These are the hands of Communists.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 297-298]

Monday, November 10, 2008

A. B. Γ.

Yannis Ritsos

Three large letters
written in whitewash along the spine of Makrónisos.

(When we arrived by ship,
twisted-in among our bundles and suspicions,
we read them from on deck
under the curses of the police, we read them
that quiet morning in July,
in the salty air with its odor of rigani and thyme
there was no way of knowing what those three white letters would come to mean.)

Concentration camp Alpha.
The Beta Camp.
The Gamma Camp.


And the Aegean Sea was blue as always
completely blue, only blue.
Alpha —
Ah, yes, we spoke sometimes about a poetry of the open Aegean,
Beta —
about health's bare chest tattooed with an anchor and a mermaid,
Gamma —
about the sea-light that weaves curtains for the seagulls.

A. B. Γ.
300 killed.

We spoke, it's true, about a poetry of the open Aegean —
the crab that dreams upon the sea-damp rock,
against the golden-hued sunset
like a small bronze statue of the Ocean.

A. B. Γ.
600 killed.

(The glass-like shrimp darts through the shallows at the shadow of the morning star,
golden and blue summer casting pine cones at the sleeping girls at midday,
the old pines scratching their backs on the whitewashed fences.)

A. B. Γ.
900 killed.
Long live
King Paul!

(And Panagia of the sea draped in smoke at dusk
will walk barefooted along the sandy beach
tidying up the houses of the tiny fishes
attaching a starfish to her moonlit braids.)

A. B. Γ.

A. B. Γ.

(We spoke of a poetry of the open Aegean, yes, yes.)


And the sea is still blue as always
and the American fleet travels on the Aegean
peaceful, peaceful, beautiful,
and the stars light tiny fires each evening
the Angels will use to cook Panagia's fish soup.

A. B. Γ.

A. B. Γ.

While beneath the stars there passed
ships loaded with political prisoners
and bags filled with amputated legs
bags filled with amputated arms
bags filled with the dead
the storms in the lights of Lavrion boil over.

(The open Aegean landscape
golden and blue.)

A. B. Γ.

On these rocks the 300 of concentration camp Alpha were shot.
This sea wrack is from tufts of torn out hair and scalp
off the skull of a comrade that refused to sign a statement.

A. B. Γ.

The barbed-wire.
The dead.
The insane.

A. B. Γ.

(Blue, the sea — completely blue.
Golden open Aegean landscape.
The seagulls.)

A. B. Γ.

Black, completely black sea.
Black, completely black landscape.
The barbed-wire.

A. B. Γ.

Black, completely black landscape with clenched teeth,
red, completely red landscape with clenched fists,
black and red hearts lost in their blood
and a red sun lost in its blood.

A. B. Γ.

The barbed-wire.
The prisons, black inside the night.
And the cries from the prison, black all night.








They are asking for the bread that was kept from them.
They are asking for the sun that was stolen from them.
They are asking for the life that was cut off.

From the prisons of the night
all night.









The dead are seeking their lives.
The insane are seeking their sun.
The lame are seeking their legs.
The blind are seeking their eyes.
They are all seeking their freedom.

A. B. Γ.

From the beginning we were learning the alphabet.
From the beginning we were learning fear and pain.
From the beginning we were learning life and death.

A. B. Γ.

A. B. Γ.

A. B. Γ.

Seeing that we learned, comrades, how to die
we also learned how to live, comrades.
Freedom is near.

A. B. Γ.


A. B. Γ.


A. B. Γ.

Alpha-beta — just a little longer, just a little longer.

August - September, 1951

A. B. Γ. being recited in Greece

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems:
Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 299-304]


Yannis Ritsos

Life? — a wound in non-existence.

July 27, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]


Yannis Ritsos

Tall eucalyptus trees and a wide moon.
A star shimmers on the water.
The heavens white, silver.
Stones, ravaged stones, all the way up.
Nearby, in the shallows, a fish
is heard jumping, a second, a third . . .
Grand, ecstatic orphanage — freedom.

October 21, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]


Yannis Ritsos

Don't forget me—he said. I walked thousands of miles
without bread, without water, over stones and thorns,
because I wanted you to have bread, water, even roses. Beauty,
I never have forsaken it. My whole life I doled it out.
I even gave away my own portion. Utterly poor. With a small field lily
I lit our way through the wildest night. Remember me.
And please forgive this final sorrow: how I wish
to harvest one more ripe ear of corn using the thin
sickle of the moon. How I wish to stand at the threshold and look out
and chew on the wheat, grain-by-grain, with my front teeth
marveling at and blessing this world that I am leaving,
marveling at The One climbing the hill through the golden last light. Look:
on his good sleeve there is a purple patch—though barely
visible. How I wish more than anything to show you this.
And perhaps for this alone I'll deserve to be remembered.

July 30, 1987

This translation was first published in Luna: a journal of poetry and translation (vol 8)

from Negatives of Silence (1987) [Αργα, Πολυ Αργα Μεσα Στη Νυχτα ---pg 93-94]

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lots: 10

Yannis Ritsos

The church's clock
the whitewashed houses
so many many leaves
even inside the inexplicable
and on the chair in the garden.

from Lots (1977) [Collected Poems: IGamma ---pg 270]

Monday, October 20, 2008

Lots: 9

Yannis Ritsos

The tree walks by
from the leaves that fell
from the birds that left
from the rope
without the horse.

from Lots (1977) [Collected Poems: IGamma ---pg 270]

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lots: 8

Yannis Ritsos

Stones and words
words and stones

from Lots (1977) [Collected Poems: IGamma ---pg 269]

Lots: 7

Yannis Ritsos

The ship departed
the whistle remained
in the room all night
on the white sheets
completely naked
after love making.

from Lots (1977) [Collected Poems: IGamma ---pg 269]

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Lots: 6

Yannis Ritsos

Don't take too long
at the urinal
the others are waiting
by the roses.

from Lots (1977) [Collected Poems: IGamma ---pg 269]

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Lots: 5

Yannis Ritsos

Under the lamp
he lit his cigarette
the match wasn't visible
the statue's hair
turned blue.

from Lots (1977) [Collected Poems: IGamma ---pg 268]

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Lots: 4

Yannis Ritsos

A pregnant woman
at the window
below the window
the sea
with scattered lemons
with drowning victims.

from Lots (1977) [Collected Poems: IGamma ---pg 268]

Monday, September 15, 2008

Lots: 3

Yannis Ritsos

In the beginning the egg
in the end the bird
later the song

from Lots (1977) [Collected Poems: IGamma ---pg 268]

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lots: 2

Yannis Ritsos

Blue mountain
red river
the bird on the cloud
all lies we were told
all lies we tell.

from Lots (1977) [Collected Poems: IGamma ---pg 267]

Friday, September 12, 2008

Lots: 1

Yannis Ritsos

Colored yarn
on the floor
and the knitting needle
stuck in the wall—
you're too late.

from Lots (1977) [Collected Poems: IGamma ---pg 267]

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 19

Yannis Ritsos

HOW LOUD the birds are when they talk in their sleep.

They're like children who cry out all night long deliriously their songs as though they were reciting them for an exam.

We can't sleep, we hear our songs like bees buzzing around the chamomile of the stars and around our hearts.

The grown ups say we are lazy.

But we know about work—we stay awake until dawn working the large blue field so we wouldn't have to miss the sun's garden over the garden's of men.

Even though they call us lazy, we know about fatigue, we know what it is to plow, from the beginning, the largest field that each day the nettles overgrow.

We know how very tired the small gold hands of the sun beams can get, building those joyous cities of flowers, with the open balconies of the roses, with the lofty bell towers of the lilies.

Others see only sun beams and flowers.

They don't know about our kind of fatigue or our tears.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 350]

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 18

Yannis Ritsos

WHEN PANAGIA passed silently under the trees, no one heard her.

The dogs didn't bark in the courtyard.

Only crickets greeted her, and a large star struck like a chord of some unknown song that the children only heard in their sleep and turned from one side to the other smiling.

Today in the fields, small golden lilies came up and the shepherds who found them kneeled and prayed.

It's true, the old blind man's sight returned, and the crippled walked, and before the eyes that have shed so many tears and looked night directly in the face, a small almond tree burst into bloom.

And that same night their sleep became a swallow's nest built under the brace of an old church bell.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 349-350]

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 17

Yannis Ritsos

17. THE EARTH was watered with light. You can't tell the light and the earth apart.

We are our dreams.

The windows opened and the flowers marched in like a cheerful army with red drums and golden trumpets, coming back from yesterday's garden to today's kindness.

The fence was so covered in green, you could no longer see that it was a fence.

In Spring's blond braids small blue lilies sprang up.

And as much as they cried the day before yesterday, they remembered today that they're still young and they laugh because they cried.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 349]

Monday, September 8, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 16

Yannis Ritsos

MOTHER, don't be angry with us for not wanting to stay in the house.

The sun calls us out.

We'll dress you in a dress of roses knit by Spring herself using the tiniest beams of light for for needles beneath the almond trees. We'll set you in front of a mirror so you can look, laugh and get to know us.

Then little swallows will perch on your fingers, but still you won't laugh at this.

Mother, how can we roll away the stone blocking your door?

And yet, in the panes of our windows shines the painted face of dawn and all around like a frame the blossoming apple trees on the mountainside.

We jump out the windows.

The sky blossoms inside us smiling and wherever we stand we stand in all places.

Mother, why be so bitter, let's go into the garden so we can teach you to spell from our lesson books the alphabet of the sun and little by little you'll learn to read the flowers.

We'll toss you onto the back of a wild goose and your dress will flutter in the air like a banner high above the green fields.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 348-349]

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 15

Yannis Ritsos

WE DON'T love, at this time, the books with their verses like slim monks.

We do not love our distant cousins that arrive from the capitol and wear double vests and who always have colds.

We walk without shoes on the hot ground, undress beneath the plane trees and wrestle, we play war throwing stones, we release kites and bathe in the river together with the blackbirds and the partridges.

We have hidden a bumble bee in our school bag and listened to it buzz during arithmetic.

We hardly remain in the house an instant.

We go out to the fields and check our traps.

Upon the threshing floor the haystacks shine like naked breasts and the horses race at midday, trampling the ears of grain and getting lost in the woods.

When evening comes, the horses return to the farmyard tame and the lazy tortoises pick daisies in the silent fields.

The hour smells of sweat and retsina as the evening smoke rises over the roofs and we stayed on the road a while gathering stars to show our mother that we also did something and that their concern about our day was not in vain.

Still the grownups don't know what we look at , they don't know our harvest nor are they able to eat of our wheat.

Nevertheless we caress our mother's tired hands all the while watching, far off, the Great Bear in its golden pelt.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 347-348]

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 14

Yannis Ritsos

THE GIRLS lather the sun's head, and he curses like a spoiled boy when they thrust his head into the wash basin in order to rinse it.

Thousands of soap bubbles rise into the air, like tiny rainbows above the horizon of a spellbound butterfly.

The pigeons chase after the bubbles.

The light gestures, scolding the just waking swallows.

It's amazing the grownups remain asleep with so much racket.

We'll thrust a cicada under grandfather's nostril so he can smell our same spring and the end of his cane will bloom like a miniature cherry tree.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 347]

Friday, September 5, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 13

Yannis Ritsos

WE WILL use the globe, the one the teacher uses to teach geography, as a ball and roll it through the green countryside in the chamomile.

At night we climbed to the village cemetery and secretly looked for skulls, filling them with grasses and flowers.

In the empty eye sockets we placed two roses.

Now everything is bright and colorful.

Even if it wasn't summer according to the calendar, we knew it would soon be here.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 347]

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 12

Yannis Ritsos

THE WORLD is filled with flowers and birds.

Their light-hearted voices ring through the countryside.

Bells on the necks of donkeys.

Bells on the ears of the sun.

Bells on the points of leaves.

Bells on the braided hair of girls.

All dance in the light and ring.

Grandfather comes out into the sunshine and weaves out of green branches small baskets used to gather berries and pigeon eggs.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 346-347]

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 11

Yannis Ritsos

TODAY a young girl sang from the top of a poplar tree, sea ribbons in her hair.

Out of her song flew small birds, filling the courtyards and covering the roofs.

The birds sat on the shoulders of children.

Grownups, getting tangled in the sun's nets, staggered like hatchlings.

Roses went crazy, doing somersaults in the water.

O Christ, what drunken light, breaking on the window pane, flooding the rooms, not leaving a single shadow for mother to shade her eyes.

So she'll wave her handkerchief in the air and dance the dance she danced when she and father were young— an island dance with the scent of the sea and boats loaded with oranges.

Father will pretend to have forgotten the steps and smile as he strikes his heel in the air.

And we — children, birds, flowers and stones — will follow after them dancing, as far as the threshing floor of the sun, singing of those never-fading days when grownups danced with their children, the same dance every spring.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 346]

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 10

Yannis Ritsos

O CHRIST, why do you wear that long mournful dress and those thorns on your head? Wouldn't flowers be better?

Were you worried the door to heaven wouldn't open if you put poppies in your messed up hair?

Don't laugh because I have a bandage on my head.

I fell into the bushes the day before yesterday chasing butterflies.

Come, let's go to the field hand in hand like children and I will teach you to play the flute.

They wouldn't look good on you, those wrinkles on mother's face when she sets down her work for a moment and watches the new moon through the window.

Let's go cut your sorrowful hair. We'll use the large shears they use on sheep.

You'll see, God will love us. He'll let us sit at his feet. And He'll smile sweetly as we place daisies in his long mustache.

And when it gets dark, we'll hitch crickets to his tiny carriage and we will ride through paradise while the angels light the stars that shine down upon all the other children remaining below.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 345-346]

Friday, July 18, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 9

Yannis Ritsos

TONIGHT we fall asleep in Spring's lap, resting our head against her heart.

We hear heartbeats and birds breathing in our sleep.

In the morning, when we wake, we see the sky strolling about our room like a bird of blue with golden eyes feeding on leftover bread crumbs of shadow.

Then, in a flash, we wash and get ready for the day.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 345]

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 8

Yannis Ritsos

AT NIGHT the almond trees pass beneath our windows slow and sad in their white dresses, like those pale girls from the orphanage returning from a short, Sunday outing, nearly asleep, holding hands two by two, not speaking, not looking up to the stars sprouting one by one in the shadows, distant and happily.

Tomorrow we'll tell the almond trees to go to the beach and wash the dust of our sadness from their faces.

In the evening, when they return cheerful, they'll give us our first words washed clean in the sea, and we'll cry in the open windows for the joy of being able to cry.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 344]

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 7

Yannis Ritsos

WE SLEPT when we weren't tired. We ate when we weren't hungry.

We kept time using the wristwatch given to us on our name day, forgetting the clock of the garden that always pointed to summer.

Now we want to place the wristwatch close to our pulse, checking the time when the hour hands of shadow begin to point across the golden green face of the lawn.

There's still time for us to cut some poppies so our hands won't grow old within the monasteries of books.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 344]

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 6

Yannis Ritsos

LIKE the heart of a tiny swallow that trembles in the palm of daybreak your memory begins along with the first green leaf.

You remember how you sat and stared into the large round eyes of grazing cows, seeing a miniature rural landscape: the plain like a vast green tray, the small church with cypresses, the white arc of doves over the forest, the harvesters with bundles of wheat and with yellow handkerchiefs.

You didn't know the architecture of the roses, nor the mechanics that birds used to traverse the sky.

You simply said good morning to the roses and to the birds, as you might say good morning to girls.

Then daisies opened small windows and leaned out over the sills to greet the morning as it passed down the street without the burdens of shadow and memory.

Later on, you learned to greet people by taking off your hat, and to say "Thank you" to the flowers only when there was no one around to hear you.

You wished to grow up quickly, to put on long pants, to learn to write so you could stop saying "Thank you," to construct a rose where a sad ray of light sleeps in an empty arch of fragrance.

Now you ask to deliver once more over the same lip that same "Thank you" after so many years of forgetting it.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 343-344]

Friday, June 27, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 5

Yannis Ritsos

WE HAD made a cart out of a walnut shell. We used a spool for wheels. We harnessed up two ants and heaped it full of clover. Please don't tell anyone where we are going.

The echo in the well listens and the caves repeat the sound our voices.

The sun burns the stone and a number of smokestacks send up plumes from the white cities of chamomile.

Wagtails steal our straw hats and wear them.

Now seated on the highest balcony of our mulberry tree they make fun of us. And we make fun of the wagtails.

We enter the whitewashed pen that is filled with weeds and a wooden cross, and we look for wild violets to braid into a crown for the girls' hair.

The road from here to there is straight, and the mule drivers sing grape harvesting songs under the immense midday heat of the sun.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 343]

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 4

Yannis Ritsos

BRING OUT the wooden pony with the red saddle, we'll pursue the shadows of waters before evening catches up with us with its long fairy tales and wintry fires.

Time doesn't apply when the sun hangs gold fringes on the doors of the forest.

Bushes take their green aprons off and bathe secretly in the river.

Afternoons, when the grownups slept, the children left the houses, rolled in the grass, bit the chaste-tree leaves and embraced the trees.

Everywhere, the woods was scented by naked women.

Large butterflies revealed the secrets of spring and lizards with emerald eyes eavesdropped strangely from behind the stones throughout the night.

We didn't notice the fences.

We prayed later that the jackdaws wouldn't say anything to our mothers about what happened among the resin-dripping trees.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 342-343]

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 3

Yannis Ritsos

NOBODY knew that we whispered in the ear of a butterfly.

Nobody remembers how it spoke to the dawn or that the flowers knew its voice or that the birds raised banners and trumpets and marched past like toy soldiers upon the road of morning light.

We almost remember when spring opens the windows and rustles the sheets of sleep with light.

The sea appears from somewhere.

Even the field draws closer like a green tortoise just waking.

Later the field goes back to being a field, and we the children that play in the field.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 342]

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Midday Summer Dream: 2

Yannis Ritsos

LAST NIGHT the children didn't sleep at all. They had placed a number of cicadas in their pencil box, and the cicadas sang from beneath their pillows a song the children knew from long ago but that was forgotten each morning.

Golden frogs, sitting up on their toes and not noticing their shadows on the water, were like tiny statues of solitude and tranquility.

Then the moon tripped on a willow tree and fell into the thick grass.

A great flurry of leaves flew up.

The children ran and picked up the moon in their round hands and all night they played in the fields.

Now their hands are golden, their feet golden, and wherever they step they imprint small moons in the moist soil.

But lucky for them most of the grown ups didn't suspect a thing.

Only mothers were a bit suspicious.

So the children hid their hands, their golden hands, in empty pockets to avoid being scolded by their mothers for secretly playing with the moon all night long.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 341-342]

Midday Summer Dream: 1

Yannis Ritsos

WE RODE the wings of swallows gathering flowers from the sky.

For us the summer wind had no secrets, as we walked barefooted on the grass and spoke to cicadas in the language of sun.

The fire burned completely and became fire again.

We wove flower rings and pretended to marry trees, the air, the first silence.

Every pebble knew us just as we knew ever star that slept in water.

At night, the acacia trees passed by outside outside our windows, they reached across our open windowsill and left a flowering branch in a glass.

We drew the cheerful god of the vineyards back to the large green fields, his beard dripping juice, his feet like those of the goat, and his glance like that of Christ, compassionate and kind.

Yesterday and the day before that, all night, we tried to count the stars.

The stars are so numerous, as numerous our hearts, only our hearts are even more numerous than the stars.

from Midday Summer Dream (1938) [Collected Poems: Alpha ---pg 341]

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 64

Yannis Ritsos

He saw the shadows of birds
upon the grass
he tried to measure the distance
between the bird and its shadow
an uncertain distance
later on
he set his keys on the table
closed his eyes
gave up measuring
he smiled to himself
inside the immeasurable
the obedience and devoutness
of mortality.

Athens—June 8, 1980

note: This is the final poem of this sequence. The Shadows of Birds, like other such sequences that Ritsos wrote, resembles a string of beads or a deck of cards, the small poems producing a cumulative effect as they arc through different themes and the poet's daily preoccupations. S.K.

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 374]

The Shadows of Birds: 63

Yannis Ritsos

Distant indecisive
hushed conversations
the head-lamps of miners
benches in the deserted square
a soldier
a soccer player
night comes
with monstrous fake
he hammers in a nail
he hangs up his clothing
lies down
the poem is left naked
at the corner of Koraki
and Papanastasio.

Athens—June 4, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 373]

The Shadows of Birds: 62

Yannis Ritsos

He dug a hole in the ground
planted the three nails
it was already summer
so many student rooms
stood vacant
nights on the avenues
the trees and two green lights
played leading roles
perhaps that's why the statues
squinted their eyes
when watching
the hookers
the sunburned sailors
the three young performers
one dressed as Iphigenia
another as Electra
the third as Persephone.

Athens—June 3, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 372-373]

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 60-61

Yannis Ritsos

Gray morning
Thessaloniki gray
two boys with bicycles
one without
the old woman with a basket
the fisherman stone-still
one ship two ships
gray to the fifth
gray woman
shelling chestnuts
one bites into an apple
gray —
oh saint of gentleness
after death

The others talked
scheme after scheme
Petros got mad
made a gesture at the sky
the rain picked up
the large posters were soaked
it poured off the band shell
in front of the microphone
the rain
recited your poem
not half bad
but rather beautifully
with small pauses
without running everything together
while the sergeant
and the five soldiers
left in the open jeep
for the airstrip.

Thessaloniki—June 2, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 370-371]

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 59

Yannis Ritsos

Beneath the trees
an evening of secretive birds
and their tiny whispers
a bed sheet
stretched out on the street
very white
still the boy from the restaurant
placed a glass of carnations
on the table
and another
climbed from the lake
sat at the empty seat
and ate
with the usual quiet motions
as you add up the dead
and forget.

Agrinion—June 1, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 370-371]

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 58

Yannis Ritsos

The musicians left
the last spotlight was shut off
over the stage on Stadio
there were only
flocks of paper birds
paper boats
and we with that restraint
hands in our pockets
so many stars on the street
so many cigarettes
Vassilis Panos Giannes
after midnight
the silent and the dead
folded blankets
under their arms
cast a glance down Stadio
and left once more.

Agrinion—May 31, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 370]

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 56-57

Yannis Ritsos

Faces hands feel their way
eyes feel their way secretly
they had promised the others
on the street they lit matches
looked at their watch
already it was evening
an evening with posters and rental signs
with lit up street lamps
and the youngest dead
at the bus stops
along with Paskos
barely old enough to grow a mustache
what do you want? — he said —
I no longer sleep with women
I kicked the dry branch
I entered the house
very white very dark
not even one lamp.

The moon in the puddle
passing headlights of automobiles
trees suddenly splashed with light
a fragrant dampness
all stopped
at the same time
nothing their return unforeseen
only that beneath the plane trees
red chairs are present
red tables
and lamps in leaves
and still fluttering from the balcony
your mother's black handkerchief
my child — she said —
he embraced the tree
and wept.

Agrinion—May 30, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 368-369]

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 55

Yannis Ritsos

They had left years before
and returned afterwards
as strangers
without luggage
without bandages
Saturday evening in the square
soldiers high school kids
small girls
lovers and the man
with undone laces
stumbling over invisible stones
the train grows late
the dead waited around
tossed their cigarettes on the street
the mud puddles
were all shining
from a single moon.

Agrinion—May 30, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 368]

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 54

Yannis Ritsos

Water and coal
song and stone
the bird and its cage
it and its shadow
in love
everything falls
for the unattainable—
O deprivation O negation
antistrophe acceptance

Kalamos—May 26, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 367]

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 52-53

Yannis Ritsos

On the beach
torn nets
urchins and herring bones
yellow gourds
an oar
yourself and the sea
and overhead a seagull—
on his shoulders we place
the happened-upon words
and Euphranor's chisel.

note: Euphranor of Corinth was a 4th-century BC Athenian sculptor and painter

Calls of birds
Calls of swimmers
both blue green
daisies on the hill
undergarments on rocks
and those that blend into the off-white
calm inconspicuous
until night comes
then from your window
you listen
to the discourse of stars.

Kalamos—May 25, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 366-367]

The Shadows of Birds: 51

Yannis Ritsos

A pot of geraniums
at the gas station
a young man
with black hair
and muscular arms—
O what nurtured gentleness
what promised dreams
that pass by and depart
immovable within us.

Kalamos—May 20, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 366]

The Shadows of Birds: 50

Yannis Ritsos

The day was filled with cicadas
an old water diviner
carried a basket
of fresh white eggs
he wasn't selling them
he took them to his son
on the hill
where the woodcutters
fell large trees
near the river
all night
the homeless birds called out
the women who listened to them
found their beds filled with
large pinecones
and daisies.

Kalamos—May 19, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 365-366]

The Shadows of Birds: 47-49

Yannis Ritsos

Outside the wooden huts
a pack of dogs
tearing apart the dolls
of dead children—
meaning is evasive
in the clamor of the day
in the clean undergarments
hung out to dry on the rooftops
while Nikias
waves a white towel
from a window
and is lost inside me.

Athens—May 18, 1980

The quicksilver of the moon
went down slowly
a violin case
left by musicians
remained on the chair
two sailors stayed late
behind the statues
where the lights of passing trains
transfixed them.

Everything was done
without arbitrators
their hats
hung in a line
in the corridor—
the sun was shining
a gas station attendant talked
with a girl—
these and those
concealed the most essential
but I searched for it.

Kalamos—May 18, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 364-365]

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 44-46

Yannis Ritsos

The wing on the right
the other on the left
Saturday mid-afternoon
springtime leaves
the locked-up mirrors.

Athens—May 17, 1980

The cup of coffee
the teaspoon on the plate
three cigarettes
he tapped the table with his fingernail
tap tap and then another
will the drowned man
ever answer
from the garden well?
unless he's the one
who's tapping the table
with his one fingernail?

Athens—May 17, 1980

Scorpions on the floor
tiny wheels
drips of wax
the house smells
of feather down and perfume
the women
stand in front of the mirrors
using the combs of
the murdered.

Athens—May 17, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 362-363]

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 43

Yannis Ritsos

In the piazza of the church
the beautiful the downtrodden
a moonlit night
with his crutch he struck
his shadow on the marble—
the Metropolis clock
without any suspense
struck Twelve
unpoetic and

Athens—May 16, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 362]

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 42

Yannis Ritsos

Discreet lights of avenues
beneath the trees
a bicycler talks
with a soldier
a drinking glass breaks
on the pavement
the orange juice sketches
a broad-shouldered angel
with one foot missing.

Athens—May 15, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 361-362]

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Shadows of Birds:41

Yannis Ritsos

I'm not listening to you—he says—
I find the hill beautiful
the tree beautiful
the shadow of birds on the grass
and myself
beautiful—he says—
in the water or in the mirror
whatever you say
my part isn't diminished
in the river
or in a rose.

Athens—May 14, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 361]

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 39-40

Yannis Ritsos

He laid his hand
on his knee
close to the river
a large strong
the river flows
filled with eels.

Something large
causes us to be quiet
something nearly unallowable
won't look us in the eye
a little derision on its lips
a little bitterness
it's May
and the street is full of
itinerant fruit sellers
and paper boys.

Athens—May 13, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 360-361]

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 34-38

Yannis Ritsos

The shadow of your body
upon the earth
takes up more room
than your body
I dress in your shadow
dark invisible
photographic negative—
tomorrow it will appear
all in white
with a black fingerprint
outside the frame.

They gather in his hair
winds bulls sparrows
an oak tree
its roots out of the earth
wind around his shoulder
cross the river
leaves fall from his lips
onto the water
cover up my reflection.

three porters
large timbers on their shoulders
with the sea in the background—
in secret fellowship
with the lights of the bar
with the departing ships
with the sad young boys
with the women in make-up
the one wearing
a long purple dress
is outlined keenly
on the white pavement
perhaps through a fault of my own
or for my own benefit.

Two old black pots
from a soldier's mess kit
among the nettles
near a heap
of white cuttlefish bones
and the shifty lizard
its one eye half-closed
is instructional
in this chance encounter.

Athens—May 12, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 358-360]

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 29-34

Yannis Ritsos

Time passes
colors fade
already a swarm of bees
obscures your face
your breast
I hear the buzzing of bees
of their shadows
when it pierces the regularity
of the music.

We waited—
it was almost too late to shave
but he went to the bathroom
healthy good-looking
with wet hair
dishevelled only partly combed
shining here and there
perhaps from the gleam of the mirror
only at the very tip
on his left ear
a white dab of dried lather
betrayed our impatience
and his own guilt.

Kalamos—May 11, 1980

The young people stripped
stayed a while in the sun
then lunged into the sea
the day was a blaze
it no longer had
or telephone poles
on the only stone
a pair of black sun glasses
that nobody wore.

The boys grew
their clothes became so tight
the bloom of their bodies
was revealed—
in chance encounters
at night
on the lighted streets
after they had wished us a good evening
they acted as if they had sinned
or as if we sinned against ourselves
looking with bowed heads
at their brown shoes.

He now knew
the other didn't have to
wait alone for night to come
in front of the three statues
he threw his jacket on one
his pants on another
his shoes on the third
and naked he pretended to be
the perfect statue—
except for that small glint of saliva
at the corner of his mouth.

A small white shirt
forgotten in the changing room
the wasp's tiny earthen turret
on a column
the guard on Stadiou Street
took a sour apple
from his basket
bit it
stood looking at the sunset
from the last shuttle
I watched him
the wasp and I.

Athens—May 11, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 355-358]

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 26-28

Yannis Ritsos

Despite your willful refusal
what do you consider beautiful?
three clothes pins on the wire
two women's slippers
in front of the bathroom door
or this one hand
raised to the forehead

May 9th the murdered
May 9th the flags
and Tasos Tousis
upon the wooden door
in the middle of the street
and the mourners
and an ant that walks
across his forehead
the slow wandering ant
that adds poetry
to the history of
May 9th.

Small islands float
though the golden evening
perhaps clouds
perhaps ideas—
on one a chair
on another an oil lamp
on a third nail clippers
that belong to the young acrobat
that are nickel colored
I hid them in my pocket
looked far off to the mountain
the silver colored mountain
silver like me.

Athens—May 10, 1980
Kalamos—May 10, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 354-355]

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 25

Yannis Ritsos

Maybe deaf-mutes — we said—
speak in a different manner
hear in a different manner
for instance
an insect sometimes stops
but doesn't fly off
suspecting us of
a secret intimacy
or how forgotten toast
burns in the kitchen
but blackens the entire house
with its odor.

Athens—May 9, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 349-353]

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 16-24

Yannis Ritsos

The field covered
with small yellow apples
the shadows of birds pass
over the apples
old newspapers
float on the river
among the ducks
and opposite the mountain
in love—
I shall arrive.

They stare at others
they glance at him
the town is pale
barbers grocers
stationers painters
two dancers
like one huge electric refrigerator
each and every night.

You went away
the night
flooded with horses
red and black ones
coffee-colored ones
and one that was white
entirely white.

The moon had
covered your hair
with golden leaves
I took them
secretly placed them
beneath my pillow
I didn't go to bed
I undressed your shadow.

Where did all these bubbles come from?
they burst on your fingertips
they left letter shapes
and other designs on my papers
a few like tiny television
one like a statue in a park
of a young pianist.

He bends one knee
lights five matches
led us astray
nevertheless I
have my shoes
well polished
I retreat before
he witnesses his victory.

Evening bar
dimmed lights
tall stools
a paper bag
of violet peaches
a red hand
on the nape of my neck
precisely because of this
I listen much more deeply
to music.

Clop clop clop
the stars fall down
General Kolokotronis on his horse
Kolokotronis at Palamidi Castle
A stone rolled into the sea
made a great splash
the door opens
I go inside
and stand before your portrait
I take off my shirt.

Mutual forgetfulness
he and death
after the rain
the women went out
to gather snails
they cooked them
for their supper
through the sky light
a yellow cloud entered
I didn't say a word.

Athens—May 8, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 349-353]

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 8-15

Yannis Ritsos

I saw the shadow of the bird
I didn't see the bird
because it was within me—
c o m r —it said
c o m r a d e —I finished
it spoke to me
you and I
are alike.

You asked the water
you asked the tortoise
you knew
they wouldn't answer
your question that
they were the answer.

A bucket of dirty water
the mirror in the elevator
an umbrella
drops of blood on the marble—
so many gutted fish
the words they didn't speak.

The women weren't around
I cut a rose
and put it on my jacket
later in the evening
the women came back
I said your name inside me
I have the rose.

I wanted to say to you
I forgot
always I forget
that which I want
however the mirror
in the barber shop across the way
is blue
and the bicycler
jumped on his bicycle
and rode away with
this blue.

a rembetika song
the soldier
lights his cigarette
the woman
came back without a sound
things you can count on
even if you changed them around
they wouldn't change.

Surely they left the trowel
on the top step
on purpose
I didn't step on it
I opened the door
I opened the window
with the circus was across the way
the lion might hear me
if I whistled
therefore I'll be handsome
with a black watch
on my left wrist.

In his pocket
a tiny river
five green leaves
and the stolen lipstick
with which a girl
first colored
his lips.

Athens—May 7, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 345-349]

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 5-7

Yannis Ritsos

in the empty room
the work boot standing upright
the other bent over to one side—
what passion do they point to?
what future?
the one standing upright
the other bent over.

He held
a leaf in his teeth
the river sang
a lizard glanced
I listened closely for
the breath of the horizon
I couldn't measure it.

The cement worker the carpenter the bricklayer
work in the heat of the sun
the house goes up—
out of clay
he fashioned
the statue of the bird—
it didn't peck at the grass
or fly away
yet it sang all the same.

Athens—May 6, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 344-345]

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 4

Yannis Ritsos

I hear a rabbit
nibbling leaves
its eyes light up
the night—
where I've found
I have a friend.

Athens—May 5, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 344]

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 3

Yannis Ritsos

A backpack
hung in a tree
I searched through it
neither bread nor feathers
hung it back up
the hunter didn't show up
a bird
landed on my shoulder
and spoke to me:
If you flap your wings
I'll take you to him.

Athens—May 5, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 344]

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 2

Yannis Ritsos

A small flower girl
gathering jasmine blooms
from the green pine needles
one by one—
little did she know how well
she struck the boundless
for the two of us.

Athens—May 5, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 343]

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Shadows of Birds: 1

Yannis Ritsos

A sparrow walked by
across the flat roof
its one leg clean
the other muddy—
ahh this wonderful world—he says—
with its one thing and the other.

Athens—May 5, 1980

from The Shadows of Birds (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 343]

Thursday, May 1, 2008

ID Card

Yannis Ritsos

The man that moves through immovable time with his hat
pulled down over his eyes and a piece of ice in his mouth—you recognize him
by his right hand which he keeps in his pocket
as though it might be wooden or hiding a brand new glove
or clutching an ID card he hopes he never has to show.
Though perhaps it's only the nail used to hold up that painting of the sea,
the one with the life preservers and the large lemon tree.

Athens, May Day 1972

Note: Ritsos was born on May Day. What could be more fitting?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Twelve Chapters for Doftana: 12

Yannis Ritsos


From Doftana's dread gate sets out the chants of
"Lenin" of Bikas lifting the mountain in the air.

From here they went out to the socialist factories with their wide backs
growing wider with their breathing, Romania.

From here they went out to the mines their blackened faces
revealing bright smiles and white teeth.

From here they set off singing
the collective farms of Domprotsa with their sleeves rolled up.
From here the corn marched out in golden armies
their peaceful tassels waving gloriously .

And now upon Doftana the red flag waving
like an upright vein in which flows the blood of communists,
the blood of new lives that ascend the world's heart
Flushing the cheeks of our brothers with two healthy wheels.

May 15, 1958

from The Architecture of the Trees (1958) [Collected Poems: The Timely ---pg 353-354]

Monday, April 28, 2008

Twelve Chapters for Doftana Prison: 11

Yannis Ritsos

Outside the walls of Doftana, the trees stroll about.
Farther below the rivers stroll about. The flowers
gather together in groups and their colors sing.
In the Doftana cemetery, the roses
are like stopped cries on the portico of triumph.

Here, groups of vanguards with their kerchiefs of brilliant red,
groups of young men with forests in their eyes,
groups of young women with five-petalled stars in their hearts
leave their food on the grass
and sing along with the rivers. Because lamentation has no place here.

Our comrades departed so that we would learn to laugh.
These flowers keep safe the design of their dreams.
These trees reproduce their upright stance.
The light reproduces their eyes.

This refreshing wind that we breath
is filtered through the great lungs of communism.

Even I reproduce them, as these lines straight from the Doftana walls,
straight from all the prison walls in the world.

from The Architecture of the Trees (1958) [Collected Poems: The Timely ---pg 353-354]

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Twelve Chapters for Doftana Prison: 10

Yannis Ritsos


Through these square holes in the ceiling
they looked death straight in the eye
looked the night straight in the eye
looked the sun straight in the eye.

Here human daring studied martyrdom.
Here, in the damp and in the dark, the stars of Marxism were lit.
Here, on the tiny sheet of paper loosened from a cigarette
were written the articles of dialectics.

Here was founded the first Romanian University of Revolution.
Here the dead still descend with open eyes the wooden spiral stairs
and go out at night in order sow the wheat and daisies.

from The Architecture of the Trees (1958) [Collected Poems: The Timely ---pg 353]

Friday, April 25, 2008

Twelve Chapters for Doftana Prison: 9

Yannis Ritsos

On the walls the ancient cries turn to stone.
On the air the sound of old chains hangs—
heavy steps, steps inside the well of silence,
and again the cold iron
again the cornmeal bread
again the clay plate like a starving mouth
again the fear wedged between the teeth of night
again the hope amidst the wounds
again the two crossed keys
the crossed bones
and always the promise granted to the world
the promise of communism opposed to death—

As when silence collapsed exhausted on the ground,
a comrade's eyes opened to the sacrifice
were two large bells that struck 12.
From that moment it began to dawn in the world.

from The Architecture of the Trees (1958) [Collected Poems: The Timely ---pg 352-353]

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Twelve Chapters for Doftana Prison: 8

Yannis Ritsos

Framed letters from prisoners.
Framed poems. I know the handwriting.
I see the hand of Tataki and Belogianni.
The letters of prisoners are all the same.
Prisons around the world are all the same.
Even resolve and its smile colors every lip the same.

Poems scratched upon walls using fingernails,
the repetition of certain words—always a red dawn at the end of every night,
red words, red blood, eyes red from vigilance,
friendly repetitions—like heart beats repeating,
like iambs in a demotic song repeating,
like sobs of grief repeating
like cheers at an October parade repeating.

It's the blood of fighters that makes the first real poem.

These inscriptions made by fingers and hung so modestly on the white wall
comprise a national gallery of the honorable. Today, my own inscriptions
in the archives of Athens Insurance, perhaps its precisely these,
my most beautiful poems, that I can offer to you, my comrades.

from The Architecture of the Trees (1958) [Collected Poems: The Timely ---pg 352]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Twelve Chapters for Doftana Prison: 7

Yannis Ritsos

Photographs of tortured faces.
Faces like ships in the night with two lights.
Faces as silent as memory.
Faces as deep as expectation. Unshaven faces—
behind beards their smile
like a skittish bird in a bare tree.

The profound face of Andre Dernat,
the face of Jannis Herdak—behind his sorrow
a thought shines like dawn behind ruins.

The face of Ion Fonaghi with his 29 years
like 29 cypress trees in open country in spring.
His mouth a clenched triangle of resolve. Upon his glasses
the reflections of two mute windows opened in the future.

Silent faces, dear comrades,
brotherly faces of heroes and martyrs,
serious with thought, with hope and certainty,
faces serious and timely
like ripe fruit on the tree of freedom.

from The Architecture of the Trees (1958) [Collected Poems: The Timely ---pg 350-351]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Twelve Chapters for Doftana Prison: 6

Yannis Ritsos

In the sweat shop where the hard labor was done,
I touch the grindstones, the anvils, the hammers,
I touch your hands, comrades, in the iron. The grindstones
were spare wheels for each broken-down dream.
This hammer hammered out darkness upon the anvil
forging a small sculpture of a smile. Upon this anvil
is wrought the secret monogram of freedom. This hammer
brings down the final verdict: the wheaten sun of the loaves will rise
above every table, the song will rise
to the blossoming lips of men.

Here small objects, modest, carved in wood and seeds,
silent boxes and birds as if brought here from Makronisos,
whittled forms kept secret from the guards.
Those saintly, human fingers, their craftmanship, are not forgotten—
small objects, mute, thoughtful, all made holy
by the great silence of resistance. And in the bowl
that wooden globe with the proletariat in chains,
as though rounding the belly of the earth while at the top
the worker breaking his chains.
. Common allegories, crude,
scratched into wood, with the beautiful exaggeration of the unschooled,
with the untrained attention of those trained in courage.

And I saw the world that will move within the bowl
propelled by the flourish among the hopeful
like a new planetary will within the firmament of sacrifice.

from The Architecture of the Trees (1958) [Collected Poems: The Timely ---pg 350-351]

Twelve Chapters for Doftana Prison: 5

Yannis Ritsos

I walk around, I touch, I smell, I listen.
Behind every one of my steps, a second like an echo.
Here everything is austere, determined, assured.
The nakedness of pain and of loyalty is here.
Here everything is re-baptized and given their true names.
Here history takes off its shirt,
reveals its wounds and its glory.

Because of this, we speak without hesitation,
we say, "I love," and we say "we shall overcome,"
we say, "happiness is possible" because love is safeguarded
in the eyes from one comrade to another,
because words can sometimes be stones that build a bridge
spanning the steep banks of solitude.

And this lamp in Ilya Pintilie's cell
still holds a rough light from nights in isolation
in its small clouded glass
like a fist of light that strikes darkness right in the chest.

from The Architecture of the Trees (1958) [Collected Poems: The Timely ---pg 350]

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Twelve Chapters for Doftana Prison: 4

Yannis Ritsos

Comrades, I touch the iron of your beds
I hear your living pulse in the ice cold iron.
I touch your wounded clothing and hear
in every stitch of thread your deep sighs.
Because a comrade's clothing has a secret voice,
a bitterness, a history, a smile.

This wool cap hanging on a nail in the cell
is a dome that shelters a free thought,
a dome for life's new temple; in its hollow
is the imprint of the blood and sweat of a comrade.

This cup is a dome for our own church;
inside the dome a fresco of the blood and sweat—
beautiful, deep, broad-chested tortured,
almighty communism.

from The Architecture of the Trees (1958) [Collected Poems: The Timely ---pg 349]

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Twelve Chapters for Doftana Prison: 3

Yannis Ritsos

I know these iron beds with no mattresses
this iron that frost flows through
like fear through a man's veins.
I know this damp smell like a snake crawling
this smell from worn out wool clothing
like air trapped in history's armpit.

I know the feel of iron on my wrists
like a song at night suddenly cut-short.
I know the cell's darkness and the raised hairs
like a wild animal's approach.

I know this silence that comes before torture,
this silence within torture, when all the air
trembles like an injured question that has no answer.
I know this silence, its scarred face.
This silence that comes after torture.
This silence, its bloodied forehead.
This silence, its broken teeth.
This silence that stands upright like an absolute cry: Freedom or Death.
And afterwards, this silence that begins to smile with its bloodied mouth.

from The Architecture of the Trees (1958) [Collected Poems: The Timely ---pg 348-349]

Friday, April 18, 2008

Twelve Chapters for Doftana Prison: 2

Yannis Ritsos

Upon the black plaque at the entrance
were two keys, crossed and painted white
like a pair of crossed bones.
Inside time's silence, the weighty sound of chains.
An immense iron skeleton stood before the sun's chest.
Iron shackles on the necks, on the hands, on the feet of comrades.
Iron eaten away by rust. These footsteps untouched by rust.
Your hear them, wounded and confident, passing by
on the other side, distant, in the fresh grass of immortality.

A long corridor, circular like despair
that returns everything to its own steps, like the sob
that walks upon its footprints, like the truth
that paces in circles in the barricaded throat. The truth
that digs beneath walls when you barricade it
a communication tunnel with the sun: if you block it the earth
jumps up to the sky. If you block it within the throat
it pierces a hole in the iron and the throat and the wound
it is a mouth that cries out for justice.

An immense iron skeleton like a bar upon time's door.
Two keys crossed like the grates on hope's highest skylight.
Two crossed bones. The bones of martyrs
made into keys in order to open the world's doors.

from The Architecture of the Trees (1958) [Collected Poems: The Timely ---pg 347-348]

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Twelve Chapters for Doftana Prison: 1

Yannis Ritsos

Here the rain's speech stops.
Here the glass barbed wire of a fruitless sorrow stops.
Here the fortune teller of silence stops
in the open palm of a yellow leaf. On this leaf
I saw the dry veins of a dead sensitivity branched
like the octopus of an underhanded courtesy pressed out of history.

Here the delicate hesitation stops.
Here the moaning of the sick stops.
Here words lose their uncertain sound.
A wall becomes a wall.
A comrade becomes a comrade.
The world is kept inside the comrade.

Thought is vertical—a line drawn across the ground
extending into the sky like a blade
drawn across bread, like the resolve of justice
drawn across the hearts of the wronged, like
the belief in communism drawn across the blood of heroes and martyrs,
like the sun's sword drawn across the night's heart.

Note: Doftana is a Romanian prison. Built in 1895, it was used in the 1930s to detain political prisoners. It is situated close to the village with the same name, in the Telega commune. During the communist regime it was transformed into a museum, which has since been deserted, due to lack of funds. The facility is currently used as a paintball arena; there is no evidence that the irony of this was intentional. Yannis Ritsos visited the prison in 1958

from The Architecture of the Trees (1958) [Collected Poems: The Timely ---pg 347]

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Yannis Ritsos

In the midst of so much noise
pockets of silence. We hear distinctly
the soundless depth. Time expands.
Old men pass over the bridge with canes.
Two bicyclers take the hillside trail.
The great birds arrive.

from Correspondences (1987) [pg 8]

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Yannis Ritsos

If you go up there I'll wait down here—she said to him—
in the olive shade, in the sheep shade, of our small field:
I'll raise your children—you needn't be worried—see to your work:
Only, now and then, send us down
some bitter almonds, some asters, some feathers,
or, if it's all you have, a bitter and astringent cypress cone.

Even bitterness would be welcome from your open hands—she wrote—
on the best side of the linen chest, I kiss your empty cigarette packet:
I keep a crumpled paper from your gift, my dear and yours truly,
and here I bundle all my hardships together and lighten them, my son.
Only if it's not much trouble, could you send me a package of sugar
so I can bake you the Easter bread that you like.

After they closed the door, they had no idea what to say. So many years
he was away with her waiting. "I'll fix you some tea,
and heat up something to eat," she said, thus the misery in her joy,
thus the awkwardness and the fear. She returned before long with a tray.
And within the steam of the cup sat a delicate bird with folded wings.
Their eyes didn't meet there. They returned and were watched.
He smiled and she began to cry.
Outside, the wind, the sea, the trees hissed angrily.

from Small Dedications (1960-1965) [Collected Poems Delta' -- pg 144-146]

Monday, April 14, 2008


Yannis Ritsos

Morning sleep, punctured by the voice of cicadas and birds.
Light fights its way into the room. The woman got up noiselessly,
closed the windows, just as he wished. "It's early.
You're still sleepy," she said to him and covered him with the sheet. The sea
climbed from his toenails up to his Adam's apple
with slow, blue, internal steps. And an instant later
the smoke of fields and the hooves of horses are heard in the street.

from Small Dedications (1960-1965) [Collected Poems Delta' -- pg 143]

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Yannis Ritsos

Two doors opened straight into sky.
Into the narrow passage cluttered with farmer's baskets
of clematis sticks and leaves. Childhood names:
apricots, peaches, grapes, pears, figs,
all of their peculiar aromas coloring
a large, revolving glass sphere
like the colored globe in the closed school office,
and from outside the mischievous cicadas will recite
their poems each one the same—and above criticism.

from Small Dedications (1960-1965) [Collected Poems Delta' -- pg 142]

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Early Morning Breathing

Yannis Ritsos

The up and down of sparrows builds the day.
Windows let in the light like ships.
The bee slumbers upon a leaf.
The woman doesn't leave the house. Just her sandals.
Forgotten since yesterday evening at the coast
they breathe calmly, a yellow butterfly in blue light.

from Small Dedications (1960-1965) [Collected Poems Delta' -- pg 141]

Friday, April 11, 2008

Childhood Memory

Yannis Ritsos

Summer noon, the grownups were asleep.
A water bucket tipped off the steps onto the tiles of the corridor.
And then, beneath the corridor, at the very spot
that the bucket poured out, a cool storage room opened up
after being forgotten for years. Within were birds
taking refuge with tiny violins and tiny linen towels,
those starched linens of an old and sorrowful tidiness,
two broken chairs, a basket of grapes,
a pair of red sandals, a tall glass,
chalk, a school bell, and the tiny woodworker
that sawed the cicada's great stairway. Before long
a light breeze began to come from within
furrowing a trace of the sea and poetry's forehead
with that lame, neglected, and childish scowl.

from Small Dedications (1960-1965) [Collected Poems Delta' -- pg 140]

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Unanticipated

Yannis Ritsos

The door opens. In bounds Eri. Two antlers
placed behind her ears. "I am Spring!" she says.
Outside a noise is heard. A small motorboat
coming back from the sea, enters our garden,
glides over the roses, steers through the window
and bumps into the chandelier. The crystals chime.
Eri laughs. She looks at her father,
leaps up on his knee, and, using her two fingers, picks
a smile from his mouth — a red smile
like the wild rose, unprepared and startled,
that peeks out through the railings of his verse.

from Small Dedications (1960-1965) [Collected Poems Delta' -- pg 139]

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Cheerful Morning Madness

Yannis Ritsos

The tall yellow flower vase, the black servant figurine,
the basket with letters, the hand-pump with insecticide,
the cabinet filled with toys and games, ten dolls—
one must have a bit of a headache—it's holding its forehead;
the red dog, the deer with a swallow's nest
lodged in its antlers; the shopping bag with apples;
the blue shirt on the chair's shoulder;
the odor of coffee rising up from the street;
the toy soldier with the drum; the white linen sheets
sending out signals.
Quietly the curtains part,
in floats a boat; it moors alongside the bed.
Outside, from the sea-shore, the voices of fishermen are heard,
the laughter of young swimmers. Somewhere around here
a small prankster is hiding with a mirror
casting gleams of the sun onto the objects,
onto a table leg, onto the little cup, onto the drinking glass,
onto the large wall calendar, where it lingers cheerfully
on the 5th day of September, right next to Eri's yellow teddy bear.

from Small Dedications (1960-1965) [Collected Poems Delta' -- pg 138]

This poem is a good example of Ritsos' use of a catalog or list—what Amy Mims has wonderfully termed his "objectitis." The date is curious and probably significant. It is not Eri's birthday nor Ritsos', perhaps it's just a sly way to get a date into a book of poems that is, atypically for Ritsos, undated.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

If I Knew

Yannis Ritsos

Yellow sky, black moon.
If I knew what shirt you were wearing,
if I knew where you were sitting,
the sky and my voice wouldn't be the same.

from Small Dedications (1960-1965) [Collected Poems Delta' -- pg 137]

Monday, April 7, 2008

Hour of Crystal

Yannis Ritsos

One glass-panelled door opposite another.
The polished wash-stand in the corner of the kitchen. The mirror
shines out of an entirely green and square smile.
A small breeze slips beneath the footbridge.
The three canaries we set free this morning won't leave.
They sit in the chairs and stare at the glasses.

from Small Dedications (1960-1965) [Collected Poems Delta' -- pg 136]

Sunday, April 6, 2008


Yannis Ritsos

A star shines in the early evening like light through a keyhole.
You place your eye against it and look inside. You see everything.
Behind the locked door, the world is all lit up.

It's up to you to open it.

from Notes On The Margins Of Time (1938-1941) [Collected Poems A' -- pg 491]

This translation originally appeared in Great River Review (Fall/Winter 2001-2002) in a slightly different version.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Bird

Yannis Ritsos

In a tree, a bird leaves a small string of song, and later a second
—tying spring's apron around her waist—
its head turns slightly, looks attentively, remains contented
but all of a sudden dives into the blue, disappearing into its song.
Where are you looking? Do you still see it? Show me.

from Small Dedications (1960-1965) [Collected Poems Delta' -- pg 135]

Friday, April 4, 2008

Gentle Evenings

Yannis Ritsos

A leaf falls in the night. Silence is heard.
An insect buzzes in the Great Bear's ear.
The moon appears—small, very small,
smaller even than the key to the wardrobe. On the flat roof
our table stands naked—covered in dew,
it shines like a pool of water. A white tree
leaps into the house through the open window,
travels round the chamber with noiseless pirouettes.
Ah, well, how are we supposed to get any sleep?
And won't we be woken tomorrow also? Eri, Eri,
come, you might as well dance a tiny mazurka with the tree.

from Small Dedications (1960-1965) [Collected Poems Delta' -- pg 134]

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Little Song for Eri

Yannis Ritsos

The small mirror hung on the wall
brings a small sky into the chamber—
the cicada's voice makes it shimmer.
The rooms are walking, they head for the countryside—
our chairs on the plane trees,
our table on the white cloud,
my papers in the stream,
my coat on the shoulder of the belltower,
and my eyes—well—my eyes are in the swallow's nest
two blue eggs, very blue, and warm;
and from within two yellow birds
peck peck peck with their pink beaks—
Hurry Eri—they'll be out soon,
and they want to sing with you!

from Small Dedications (1960-1965) [Collected Poems Delta' -- pg 133]

Note: Eri is Yannis Ritsos' daughter. I especially love the line about the papers being swept away. Being a stay at home dad and a writer, I'm well aware of how often my daughter seems to make this same wish, hoping I'll stop working and play. SK

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Ancient Hill

Yannis Ritsos

We passed the street with the eucalyptus. We climbed
the hill of thorns. All our things
exposed to the sun, more silent, more hidden,
open tombs, marble lions, stones,
the feeling within the voice: "I'll go back"
"Where will you go?" said another. The old man
pinned a thorn through his lapel. And, in no hurry,
on the asphalt road below, five semi trucks set off,
transporting large wooden boxes, filled with
golden masks, clay figurines, and urns.

April 2, 1972

from Muted Poems [Collected Poems IA' -- pg 24]