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]

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Treacherous Signs

Yannis Ritsos

He was encased in plaster, body, hands, face.
He remained for hours inside that cellar-like dampness. He dried.
After that he took a deep breath; he spoke inside. Then
the plaster broke into two vertical halves; and he
remained upright, gracious, proud, between
the two hollows halves of this personal statue, knowing
that he could reclaim himself now from
the little plaster, clay, or even bronze — though always unknown, strange,
always with signs of the crack marking the point of union.

April 1, 1967

from Testimonies C (1967-1968) [Collected Poems Θ' -- pg. 307]