Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Clay: 30

Yannis Ritsos

At the building site
boards were nailed up.
Somebody sang:
earth and water,
water and earth.
All ready
for what's to follow.

Athens—January 19, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 92-93]

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Clay: 29

Yannis Ritsos

Kindly, quietly
he departs,
gives up his place—
a place that belongs
to his statue
with closed lips
with open arms.

Athens—January 19, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 92]

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Clay: 28

Yannis Ritsos

Poetry — he said —
mute confessional
penitent sincerity.
No — said the other —
unexpected insignificant
nipped on one corner
by a nail clipper.
Poetry is, as a result,
not a perfect square.

Athens—January 19, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 92]

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Clay: 27

Yannis Ritsos

Empty rooms
naked beds
the broom in the corner
the vacant cage
and this mirror
dark, gluttonous
still insisting
you look into it.

Athens—January 18, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 91]

Clay: 26

Yannis Ritsos

Pieces of cotton
not for the wound—
as evening falls
for the mouth
for the ears
for the eyes.

Athens—January 18, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 91]

Clay: 25

Yannis Ritsos

The marble
that forms the statue
and that which is
not the statue
and that which remains
hidden in the deep mountains
I was advised not to
reveal. Only
they didn't tell me how.

Athens—January 18, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 90-91]

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Clay: 24

Yannis Ritsos

He took a chair
out to the garden
watched the shadow
kicked a stone.
Most of all
of late
the words hate me.

Athens—January 18, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 90]

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Clay: 23

Yannis Ritsos

Once again
naked, extreme.
And his hands—
no longer covered—
simply mock
his wristwatch.

Athens—January 18, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 90]

Friday, May 1, 2009

100th Anniversary of the birth of Yannis Ritsos

A double smile had come to seal this story; I don't know if the story will be continued, but I do know that life itself will continue its stories; and maybe some day, Ariostos the Observant will be able to cross the borders of each and every country, by showing a rose for his passport picked from his own humble garden or from the rose-garden of Lidice: the Rose Garden of Worldwide Friendship. And maybe some day, through myriads of struggles and vigils and excavations inside as well as outside us, inside history and inside the future, we will arrive at the Land of Smiles, out there beyond race and religion and tradition and language, where Man will recognize Man as his brother, from the same smile full of self-knowledge, and all men will exchange gazes and feelings of a universally human creative offering of thanks.

---Yannis Ritsos

from Sealed with a Smile; Book Seven of Ritsos' great nine-part pseudo-autobiography Iconostasis of Anonymous Saints (Translated by Amy Mims and published by Kedros in three volumes)

note: Amy Mims deserves a place among the Anonymous Saints for her work. It's well worth anyone's effort to order these books from Greece, but it would be even better if they were distributed in the United States, or published here as well---perhaps someday. S.K.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Man with the Carnation

Yannis Ritsos

"In Marx's day, there were a handful of men. In our day there are 800 million. The day after tomorrow there will be a whole world." — Nikos Beloyannis

TODAY the prison camp grows quiet.
Today the sun trembles fish-hooked onto the silence
just like a dead man's coat on the barbed wire trembles.
Today the world is sad.

They took down a large bell and placed it on the ground.
Inside its dark copper, beats the heart of peace.
Silence. Listen to this bell.
Silence. The people go by, bearing on their shoulders
the great coffin of Beloyannis.

The murderers hide behind their knives.
Step aside murderers. Step aside.
Silence. The people go by, carrying on their shoulders
the great coffin of Beloyannis.

THEY KILLED them. They killed them.
A wind that passed through the dark tunnel of our silence brought us the news.

They killed them. They killed them.
Two forgotten lamps fade out at the day's gate.
They killed him.

Petros, who had been shaving in the courtyard in front of a pocket mirror,
froze with his arm in the air holding the razor
as if he were holding his two fingers on the wrist of the world and was checking its pulse.

Vangelis, who had been drinking his morning tea,
froze with a morsel in his mouth
as though he held a stone between his teeth.

The tea was very bitter today. They listened carefully
as a large car came to a stop on the street—
one of its wheels striking a rock.
Perhaps it was the wheel of History.
And that is why the old woman, who was brushing out
her black, Sunday dress in the balcony window,
stood there as if turned to stone,
as though she understood
how black the color black is
as though she looked at a black flag raised upon the mast of time.

Perhaps it was the wheel of History. They killed them.
The earth trembled. The corners of the horizon trembled.
The beams of the house trembled. The hanging lamp trembled
like a man's Adam's apple trembles when he stifles a sob.

Silence. Silence. They killed them. And yet it was strange—
the cows and sheep stood motionless on the butcher shop sign
only it appeared as though they bent their heads ever so slightly
and listened carefully for a very deep river beneath the earth.

Silence. Silence. They killed them.

WE COUNTED the days on our fingers: the day after tomorrow,
yes, the day after tomorrow it would be April.
We said: In Spring's basket we will find
plenty of gold needles, plenty of colorful spools of thread
to mend the laughter of children
to mend the wrinkles of our mothers
even mend an amputated foot, a split skull . . . So we said.

One heart torn in two,
on one hand bread and kisses
on the other, duty — It will be made whole again, we said,
the day after tomorrow, in April. Beneath the trees of peace,
men will be greeting each other within a net of the sun's rays,
the light shall stop the barrel of the gun with the palm of its hand,
shall lower the gun and press it into the dirt
making a small circle like a zero
and later around this zero more and more lines
like the rays of the sun that children trace in the sand.

We counted the days on our fingers:
The day after tomorrow, April, and Easter,
men will kiss in friendship.
They killed them.

THESE FACES are all like stopped clocks.
What time could it be? What time is it today?
Who made these clocks stop?
Who stopped April halfway?
Who drew crosses in ash over the doors?
Who made the smile in the mother's eye go out? What time can it be?
Who sliced hope in half? What time can it be? What sort of time?
The cigarette burns so quickly today. What time can it be? Tell me at least.

Mrs. Leni returns from the market with her empty basket.
I don't remember why I went, she says.
Whenever I go I find myself confronted by the dead.
If you have something to say to me I won't remember it.
I won't forget the dead. My black dress
gets tangled on the crosses. The dead possess me.
What they tell me, I shall do. Oh my son, my son,
these are the ones that died so that you could live.
Don't forget. As long as you remember this they will not have died.

Alekos doesn't talk. His toes fidget nervously
out of the holes in his sock. Nothing else is visible. Silence.
Men stand quietly in the wind
thick fists clenched in their pockets.
You don't hear a thing. Except when the joints in their fingers creak
as they clench pain inside their fists.

What time can this be? What sort of time?
Silence. Silence. My son remember.

Silence. The people go by, carrying on their shoulders
the great coffin of Beloyannis.

NO BELOYANNIS, this silent mourning doesn't suit you.
Nor these black ribbons on the fringe of Spring's dress,
this green soap that dissolves, forgotten in the basin, clouding the water.

Only large trumpets and large drums suit you,
large bells and large parades
the people's great oath over your coffin
the large day, the thirtieth day of March
the new name day for heroes and martyrs of peace.

THESE FACES are all like stopped clocks.
How long will this day be? What time will it be tomorrow?
What time will it be next year?

You climbed up Death's back
winding with fast hands the clock of the sun.
So the clock's hands can move faster.
So the day may depart.
So the darkness in our eye's may depart.
So the injustice of the world may depart.
The hands hurry across the horizon
light hurries across faces. You wound the clock of the sun
until its hands came together in peace
until the whole world came together in love.

Let Freedom's drums and trumpets thunder.

NIKOS, you had a heart filled with the blood of the sun.
when you walked among the ruins of Autumn
you always had the plans for our new country in the vest pocket of your coat,
because of this, the people smiled within your eyes.

You take your leave now Nikos,
igniting with a carnation of flame the whole world's courage,
igniting hope in the people's heart,
igniting constellations of peace in the firmament of the world,
above plains seeded with bones.

You fell, Nikos, with your ear pressed against the world's heart,
hoping to hear the footsteps of freedom marching into the future,
hoping to hear the future unfurl its millions of red banners
above the laughter of gardens and children.

There! We already see this night,
between the gap of this silence,
hanging from the rings of two large stars
the padlock of the universe unlocked.

THE DAY passed. Night arrived with her broken pitcher.
Don't say anything to me about her grief. Don't bow your heads. Listen:
A cripple passes by; his one foot striking the pavement—
Swear on Beloyannis' name that there will be an even number of steps.
One of the insane cries out chasing after the wind:
Who took my red horse. Thieves!—
lock your hands around its neck.

Swear on Beloyannis' name to find that man's horse.

With its jackknife, the night carves small pieces of dream.
A tree sprouts wings. A child grows up.
Swear that this child will have bread and books
will learn to write I love you
will prance arm-in-arm with the sun in a blossoming garden.—

Communism is the youth of the world,
the freedom and beauty of the world. Swear on it!

Beloyannis weeps whenever we stumble. Swear
to be the steady wheels that roll in the day
to have the koulouria seller's cry outside early morning doors
as though there is no doubt: we will wear new shoes,
we will build a house with three white rooms,
with an electric stove, an electric iron,
we will iron the flannel shirts of April
we will study poetry beneath the lilacs.

We will surpass our expectations;—each hour, each moment,
a little more freedom, a little more love;—the new factory
in the new working class neighborhood;—so intriguing this our joy.
Even though we are killed because of it;—so intriguing
this our joy to watch as the days arrive
happily at a bend in the horizon
as if we were watching railroad cars on an elevated track
in our new Socialist country
We swear.

TOMORROW, or the day after tomorrow, at our day-to-day jobs, we will recover from this large sorrow,
we will eat our bread. The bread tastes good
no matter how bitter our days. It is necessary to make our bread.
It is necessary to live, to lay claim to our lives and to your justice.
Even while eating we'll be ready. We know
how heavy your legacy is, Beloyannis—
we shall carry it on our shoulders.

Often we have to cope, we will have to cope more—
we will keep it on our shoulders.
Our wounds grow larger day by day, the same with our loyalty.
We will carry your legacy on our shoulders, Beloyannis,
even as far as the suns doorstep.

Good morning my brothers
Good morning sun
Good morning world.

Beloyannis instructs us one more time,
how to live and how to die.

With just one carnation he unlocked all of immortality.
With just one smile he brightened the world so darkness can never fall.

Good morning comrades
Good morning sun
Good morning Beloyannis.

Let Freedom's drums and trumpets thunder now!

Good morning Beloyannis.

ONE MORE time. One more time,
Nikos, you fought for all of us
you were victorious for all of us
you showed us all
how fleeting were our hours of tiny dreams
the garden's wicker chair, the little green table,
the security of the bed's rail at night—how petty
compared with the magnitude of the joy you died for,
the joy of this world.

You showed us
how small is the freedom to kiss a mouth,
to sit silently on the evening's stone threshold
without uttering a word about what your eyes are seeing,
to place beneath your heart two small warm stars
just as before going to sleep you place beneath your pillow
the key to your house and the key to your clock.

How small this freedom when compared to the wild freedom
that will pull your heart out of your breast pocket like a carnation
so that the fragrance of peace and sacrifice may spread in all the worlds.

Ah, yes, it pains us to be happy in being men,
keeping our nightly vigil on the world's hilltop
herding together the flock of stars above the ruins,
boiling in night's large cauldron
the thick milk of joy for the children to be born tomorrow.
Nikos, it pains us, as it did you, to be happy in being men.

Good morning my people
Good morning sun
Good morning Beloyannis.

St. Stratis prison camp, March 30, 1952

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The poem 'The Man with the Carnation' was written in the Concentration Camp for Political Prisoners at St. Stratis on March 30, 1952—the same day Beloyannis and his comrades were executed. That same year it was put into circulation by "New Greece" publications, and simultaneously as a French edition—translated by T. Pierridy. The second edition of this poem was printed twenty-three years later (in March of 1975) by Kedros.

The Man with the Carnation (1952) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 169-176]

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

An Ease of Movement

Yannis Ritsos

Quiet, widening within its freedom, fluid,
in the attitude of shadow, line, or color;
a branch beckons to him, a shining crookedness;
"Good morning" — pause; "Beautiful day" — pause.
A roof lowers a shoulder and looks about to fall. No matter.
Even if it rains. Welcome it. And also the large clouds.
And the wind that tosses things to-and-fro. Don't let is scare you.
If you sew three shirts for me. I'll bring the twelfth plate,
the one that broke a few days ago, entire and golden.

from Small Dedications (1960-1965) [Collected Poems Delta' -- pg 147]

Monday, April 6, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

Stone swept clean by wind—
wind, silence—
we never hear a thing
only the stone's heart
beating in anger and in pain
heavy, slow, constant.

Plentiful stone,
plentiful hearts,
we will use them to build tomorrow's factories,
the new working class,
red stadiums,
and grand monuments for the Heroes of the Revolution.

Of course, we won't forget a monument for Dick—
yes, our dog Dick,
in the artillery division,
that was killed by the prison guards
because he loved us exiles too much.

A monument for Dick—
a stone dog
with muscular hindquarters,
with two drops of devotion for eyes,
with a slightly raised upper lip
showing his left tooth
as if about to bite
night's ankle
or a prison guard's shadow
or the long, narrow beams cast by a lantern
placing a plaque of silence
between our words and our hands.

Comrades, we'll never forget Dick,
our companion
that barked at night by the prison gate facing the sea
and lulled us to sleep with his scratching
at Freedom's bare feet,
at the golden fly of the morning star
upon his raised ear.

Now, Dick rests in peace,
forever showing his left tooth.

Maybe the day after tomorrow we'll hear him again
barking happily at some demonstration
weaving back-and-forth under the banners
a small banner trailing from his left tooth
reading "Down with eardrums!"

Dick, you were the best dog.
Comrades, we'll never forget him,
our dog that they censored from our letters,
our dog that was killed
because he loved us too much.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 264-265]

The Roots of the World

Yannis Ritsos

A few scorched reeds in the armpit of summer,
a little sage, some thyme, a few ferns.

We were filled with thirst,
filled with hunger,
filled with suffering.

We never would have believed
men could be so cruel.
We never would have believed
our hearts could be so strong.

We, the unshaven, with a crust of death in our pockets.
Where does the grain kneel down before the sky?

Slowly evening arrives. Shadow won't soften the severity of stone.
The dead soldier's canteen stuck in the sand.
The moon was moored at some other shore
where a calmness rocks it with its little finger—
but which shore? what calmness?

We were filled with thirst,
laboring with stone all day long.
Only beneath our thirst
exist the roots of the world.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 266]

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

Dry spit on the day's mouth, not even enough
moisture to stick a stamp on your mother's postcard.
Just dust, under fingernails and in eyes,
like bitterness adhering to memory's hide.

We went on, up and down the mountain,
our backs burdened with stone and with death,
under orders, under the whip.
We thought only of water and of stone,
of life and of death. We got used to it,
our sorrow lessened,
eventually or anger lessened,
only our resolve wouldn't lessen.

Between night's pick and its shovel
the comrades rested
teeth clenched,
using their fists for pillows.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 267]

Friday, April 3, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

Here the sun doesn't fool around—the furious sun, reigning over us,
with eyebrows arched, with jaws set,
with his hairy chest bared as far as the sea.

One month. Two months. More months.
We kept track by hauling stones and fears on our shoulders,
by tapping a hooked finger along the jug's spine
and listening to the far off sound of water
as though we could hear a woman's voice behind a door,
as though that woman could hear the voice of the smallest of stars,
as though those stars could hear the bleating of dusk.

Noons were immense—
as long as a Sunday in the country without children.
Here noon lasts all day, sunup to sundown.

If only we were less thirsty, it wouldn't occupy our minds,
if only there was a tree on the hillside or at the top of the island,
if only a handful of shade, and less bitterness, less injustice.

We no longer recall the shape of a tree—is it, perhaps,
like a large banner of water?
or like a "thank you" spoken to you in the past?
or like a lover's hand searching for your hand?

The day after tomorrow we'll plant a thousand trees.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 268]

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

At first, when we looked at the sea, the men, our hearts,
our mouths filled with silence and our eyes with what lay ahead.

Because nothing was ever certain for us
it was certain that our children, tomorrow, would have their pockets filled
with gardens and with games we never had a chance to play.

It was certain that our women
would have the shade of a small lilac
at their every step, spring mornings.

It was certain that our old men would have a walking stick
that buds at dusk in the corner of the house.
We were able to sleep because of this,
despite the fear coiling up inside our boots.

The moon, at the opening of the tent,
was like a yellowed and heavily censored postcard.

Yet, we could read them,
even the ones that were erased,
even the ones that were never written,
even the ones that were known never to have been sent,

as if we could read spring in the green leaves,
as if we could read out the corner of our eyes
Phitsos's apology or the tiny scribblings of Aliki Tsoukala,
as if we could read beneath our bitterness Moscow's Red Square
with its processions of delegates from people's democracies around the world.

We slept soundly because of this, sprawled out beside our hearts.
A window open beyond our sorrow, beyond our fear.
And a branch in front of the window.
The bread.
And our oath.

We listened as our beards, our nails, and our hopes grew long.

Sleep, comrade.
I'm near you.
Take my hand.

The sun is near.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 269-270]

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

Alexis was at peace,
like someone making it their duty.
When he went to bed, he fell asleep instantly
like someone making it their duty.
Both of his foot soles, wide, earthen,
stuck out from under the blanket
as if great plane trees or eucalyptus trees
had sprung up in the night.
Alexis, when we said your name
it was like saying, "tomorrow the sun shall shine."

They broke that peace, Alexis—
they woke you up in the middle of the night, comrade,
you weren't given time to pack your dufflebag with clothes,
you weren't given time to lace your boots. We saw them
as you stepped out the door of the tent
and pointed to your laces dragging on the ground.
We didn't want you to trip over them. You understood
and smile. We smiled.

Ah, yes, it wasn't fear that you would trip over,
you had never tripped over that in your life.
You stepped out the door. Your leaving
created a silence of vast significance.
On your wooden cot remained
a piece of bread and a comb.
And that untied lace
was still dragging along in our thoughts
like a sadness dragging though our souls. We're not afraid.

They took you away to be court-martialled
and for that you were sentenced to death, comrade,
and for that you'll be kept hidden in all hearts,
in all life, in all eyes, in all trees, comrade.
Because of this you're so embittered
so confident
so happy—
a star blinks on and off within your eyes,
this red star that never forgets us.

Today you became even more of a comrade, comrade.

Take our last two cigarettes,
we have nothing else—only our hearts, comrade,
take the cigarettes,
on for you, the other for your shadow—
as if you could light his with your match in front of that large wall,
and stand there talking about peace like two real people,
talking about yesterday's parades
about communist functions
about world-wide freedom.
You went on talking about peace,
you and your shadow,
like two old agitators,
until you finished your cigarette
until you heard the shot
breaking your conversation in half
as well as our hearts.

You know, dear comrade, that every thing's not lost—
we will carry on your heart and your work.
And for this we will be so confident
so peaceful
so happy.

And, comrades, we are happy. He looked after us—don't weep.
No, comrades. Weep. We can't hold it back.
Because we are communists, and we loved you, dear comrade,
and you will be missed in our struggle, and we will miss you.
No matter how much you are inside us or near us, we will miss you.
We will miss your eyes
that were like two blue windows opened at the far end of a dark corridor
and we will miss your smile
that was like a banner on a balcony in the poor districts
and those hands of yours that were strong together as well as shy
that had in their motions both urgency and stealth
as if they were posting in the night a poster for the Revolution.

Dear comrade, we are grieving. We can't hide it,
even the Party grieves—and therefore acts seriously and solemn,
and it is by far the most serious Party today—to not lament, friend,
when it places your party membership cards in their proper order
in the archive at the People's Memorial for the Resistance.

Today you became even more of a comrade, comrade.
Today we became better comrades, comrades.
Farewell dear comrade. Sleep peacefully
beside your boots and their undone laces,
as peacefully as one who has completed their duty,
peacefully—and don't worry, comrade,
we will also do our duty.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 271-273]

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Small Occurrences

Yannis Ritsos

Diseases arrived—diarrhea, tetanus—
we placed the sick on stretchers bound for the sick wards
we placed the dead on tables in a long row at the sea's edge,
from there, just at dusk, they loaded them on boats bound for Lavrios.
The exiles take off their caps, clench their teeth, and stare out to sea.
They don't say a word, just stare for a long time beyond Sounios.
Night falls and the wind starts by shaking out a dead man's blanket.
The never ending wind that throws itself against this dumb vault of stone,
that tosses up the camp's thorns and waste paper,
that starts far out beyond the ships, that fills its pockets with pieces of lint,
that strips flesh from bone, an immense wind
that loosens the knots in the starts and lashes our hearts.

One bed, two beds—how many must go empty?
The silverware of those who have been killed is thrown into the corner
like a handful of stars, stars without names.
The pockmarked moon moans in fear all night long over the sea
like the creaking of an old shutter opening and closing in the dark.
Night drops its bundles beside the kitchen and its potato peels
and grief stricken beside fear, close to our hearts.

Later on the wind quiets down
so we can hear the stones tumbling from the mountain,
so we can hear the boots of the dead
and farther off, the boots of freedom
marching uphill as though from beneath the world.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 274]

this translation was originally published in the Great River Review

Monday, March 9, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

Over here we have to imagine many things—
for instance, a window to look through onto the sea.
We look at the sea differently through a window,
differently than from behind barbed wire.

The voice of a child in the afternoon—Where is that voice?
A woman at the doorstep of a house—Where is that house?
And a closet full of warm clothing
and the silence which drips from the clock above the chair
and the shadow cast by a gentle hand placing flowers in a glass—Where is that shadow?
A gramophone on the shaded window sill on a Saturday evening,
and a cat walking along the roof of the house next door
in a twilight all in mothballs—
the neighborhood's black cat, with no one to look after it now,
with two drops of the oil of loneliness in its eyes,
the neglected black cat walking along the roof of the house next door
and the strange quiet at dusk that it walks through,
rubbing its tail against the white moon. We have to imagine all these things.

There are many cold nights here.
There is so much loneliness beneath the fear,
so much friendship beneath the fear
at that hour when death descends upon the prisons
and, seated cross-legged on the ground, plays dice with the guards.

The cats are very different here;
fierce, standoffish, and patient
they won't rub their cheeks against our elbows,
they stand away from us and study us,
learning about death,
learning about grief,
learning about revenge and about resolve,
learning about silence and love.
The fierce, unpettable, and silent cats of Makrónisos
study our eyes, looking at the life inside.

And this August moon that hangs over us here
is like a word that can never be spoken,
a word that has turned to marble inside the throat of night.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 277-278]

this translation was originally published in the Great River Review

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

We don't speak anymore.
We don't even utter our own song.

Kept behind our voice the noise of a parade
winding its way past a thousand doors,
while the people proceed waving their songs in the air
while the handicapped wave back from tenement windows,
it's then our hearts are flown with a thousand other hearts
like a shout among a thousand red banners.

Later, again, the cannon fire at first light
scattering the sparrows out of the cypress trees.
Transport planes loaded with fighters,
heading for the battle grounds,
cutting the sun in half with their propellors.

Comrades, they stopped our mouths.
We didn't have a chance to utter our song.
Again, a lot of dust remained in the afternoon,
dust raised by the black dresses worn by mothers,
as they return from Averoff or from Hadzikosta Hospital,
or from the department of transfers,
mothers with black dresses,
with their hearts wrapped tightly in handkerchiefs
like a dry piece of bread that even Death isn't able to chew.

Comrades, they locked our mouths shut.
They locked away our sun.
We couldn't utter our song—
that one that starts out simple, strong, and bitter:
Workers of the world, unite!

Nights when an illegal, mute moon rises above the horizon,
the shadow from a huge crutch is cast on the rock of Makrónisos.
We must make this crutch into a ladder,
Vangélis said bending to the ear of Petros
as though he pronounced the first line from our song of tomorrow.

Comrades, we're late. We're very late.
We need to let out that song.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 279-280]

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

The flapping of the tent over our sleep—
sleep cut to pieces by the wind:
a landscape half black, half pale,
an amputated limb in search of its body
and a diviner rapping against the stone—testing it;
death rapping against our hearts—testing it.

Someone mutters in his sleep.
Another cries out as if wounded in battle.
The others don't hear him. They're sleeping.
Have they not died as well?
Then the same voice crying out, Water, water.

It's nothing. Go back to sleep.
Tomorrow I'll carry you a well in my arms,
I'll carry you a river, tomorrow. Go back to sleep.
It isn't a ship. It's only the wind.
The corridor with tiles, half black, half yellow
and the crutches of night in the corridor.

It's nothing. It's the wind. Go back to sleep.
The resistence of stretched rope.
The rope holds—the resolve holds.
It doesn't break in half. Panagia of the Moon
walks barefooted through the tent.

In such wind what do you want?—someone mutters.
The words of the dying are cut off in the middle.
What do you want? What do you want?
What could the moon want in a tent of old men?
The moon has a pocket knife
in order to harvest grape leaves from old man Mitsos' wooden chest.
The moon with two small Sabbaths in her eyes.

What shall we use this knife for?
There's a vein in the wrist above the hand—it's not there—
deep within is a pulse, deep within,
and the rope that fights with wind—
oo—oo, oo son—old Moon,
don't cut these ropes
put down your knife—and be gone,
go to the sick children to sell your silver crosses.
Inside those wide shoes are your slender feet.
Your feet aren't able to drag
the heavy shoes of comrades.

She bends over and measures them
to calculate the distance they have traveled,
the distance they have still to travel,
the distance that has no end.
These boots, patched and heavy,
aren't for your feet, Moon.
These boots traveled through pain,
traveled through death, old Moon,
without stumbling.

So be gone, moon, traveler from a distant place.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 281-282]

Monday, February 23, 2009

Clay: 22

Yannis Ritsos

He sits on the bridge
watching the water
(what will he do?)
The arsonists
hid in the church.

Athens—January 18, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 89]

Clay: 21

Yannis Ritsos

You shall capture a little
of the olive grove's color
the horse on the hill.
And then what?
Bulldozers scrape off the fields
pipes are run
the month of January
and from the other part
has no shops.

Athens—January 18, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 89]

Old Man Mitsos

Yannis Ritsos

Old man Mitsos slept.
Over his flinty mustache
passed the lamplight of Panagia.

Gone are his three children to the struggle,
gone are his small house and his vineyard.
There's nothing else left. All of his life is gone.

Old man Mitsos had one joy: that his children were members of the Communist Party.
Old man Mitsos had one sorrow: that he himself wasn't a member.
Old man Mitsos wouldn't sign a confession. So they killed him.

Old man Mitsos sleeps.
Three clouds in the shape of calves
drink water from the stone trough of the moon.

Old man Mitsos sleeps.
A large red bird is in his dream,
and a holy relic of the struggle sewn into the lining of his jacket.

If we searched his pockets perhaps we'd even find
a small field of corn
or the shade of a poplar tree beside a river.

Inside his tied-up handkerchief he had kept
a wedding ring and a newspaper clipping
that announced the execution of his eldest son.

Old man Mitsos tell your son it's ok.
You know how you'll tell the others of Roumeli,
tell him it's ok. We take in everyone we believe in.

We're not asking much—just wiggle your mustache a little.
So that we know he knows. Goodbye old man Mitsos.
He'll understand. So long old man Mitsos.

Leave your cane here. It's needed.
We'll use it to fly a red flag.
Depend on it, old man Mitsos, dark dark red.

Good bye Mitsos—it will be red
like the blood of your children who were killed by the fascists
like the blood of all those who struggle in the world.

So long old man Mitsos.
So long comrade Mitsos—don't worry.
Your application has been accepted by the Party.

And today the light is very great,
great as the oath of a Revolutionary
who's committed forever.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 283-284]

Friday, February 20, 2009

Our Children

Yannis Ritsos

These children go completely naked for hours,
lice of stars crawl upon their underclothes,
and at night, hawks lay eggs in their shoes.

Each Sunday when they dress they put on a pair of plane trees for pants,
a small almond shirt,
their handkerchief made from the sea, a cloth cap made from the wind,
in their eyes are mountains, a river, and a forest.

The buttons on their jackets are acorns,
they slice the round loaf of their longing with their pocket knives,
they dine off stones, they drink in the sky,
and in their bowels it all gets mixed up.
The month of May hand in hand with December.

They have strong arms, stout voices and the will of mules. They won't back down.
They're dutiful children.
They know how to say struggle, how to say duty. Headstrong,
though they can't grow a beard on their obligations.

When it grows rose colored in the late afternoon around the tent,
when beyond the quietness the first gunshots of the evening star are heard,
they stand on the stone with their legs apart, transfixed,
they clench their fists inside their pockets
and make their way uphill for the evening roll-call
dragging their shadows behind them like a leashed lion.

Later on, after the evening rations, as the wind calms down,
the hour when night's goldfish glide between their toes,
they watch the distant town of Lavrios turn on its lights,
they load their eyes like bullets into the cartridge clip of the Milky Way
and they, the still ones, move toward their tent.

Mikalis stood in the doorway,
looking somewhere off in the distance.
He said, "They are fighting for us."

We didn't speak. We lit the lamp.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 285-286]

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

Pitchers and baskets in the dusk,
metal plates, cups made from empty tin cans,
shadows from nightmarish screams beneath the wooden cots.
This night passes like the last. The army-green colored soil,
the army-green tent and the army-green scarecrow.
Patched blankets, and the sky.

The white sheets of dawn flutter in the wind—but who will see them?—
a leaf swinging madly like a clothes-pin on a rope—who pays attention to such things?—
the clothes-pin is holding summer's handkerchief—who will take it down?

Beyond the mountains there's a white country: the window have green shutters,
there's a lot of noise from all the heavy trucks hauling
workers, sacks of cement, and telephone poles.

Far away—we know—there are women,
women who are bitter and of few words. They bend over their work
holding their needles as though they were tiny rays of light,
sewing a large flag. And the windows there
shall turn rose colored as if freshly dyed.

Daybreak arrives.
A cat plays in the field with a piece of the moon
as if it were a discarded lemon rind.

No, we're no longer exhausted. We're no longer thirsty.
We put on our shirts—morning's blue shirt.
We shave. What shall we see today?

Beyond the mountains there's a white country
and there are women sewing a large flag.

Good morning, Kalimera.
The prison work begins.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 287]

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

Behind our tent the blaze of sunset.
Evening roll call. 7 pm.
The sun colors the face of the sergeant,
the sun colors the shaved heads of the exiles,
and below the sea.

4th Concentration Camp of Makronisos.
12 enclosures.
10,000 political prisoners.
The day's last light.

Each of us has upon our shoulder
the fatigue of 12 hours of stone,
the fatigue of 12 hours of sun,
a lifetime's resolve
and this small bag
with colored spools of late afternoon light.

Our shoes are torn open by stone,
our shoes are black with dirt.
Through the bitter cracks enters now and again a little of the sea.

Evening sits down upon our shoes
like a trusty black dog,
the hour when we fix the steps of our tsourapia
the hour when we fix hope with a star.

When we fall asleep the donkeys of night walk outside our tent,
many kind looks as olives are tossed in the air
—they're the peaceful donkeys of night—
suspending in the shadows a small landscape with corn,
a small garden with beans, with celery, with dill,
a well, a rustic hut, a woman combing her hair.
They are the donkeys that graze upon quietude.

Ah, dear mother, what difficult days these are.
But in sleep, mother, it's like inside a house
when the chairs are arranged neatly around a table,
wise chairs and patient like good neighbors,
when your shadow is seated in the doorway
dismissing evil and fear of the dark
as if you dismissed a buzzing mosquito near our sleeping faces
with a wave of your hand.

We live in a difficult time, mother. Don't be bitter.
The struggle is hard, mother,
but our brothers and sisters are many
your children are many, mother.
At daybreak we hear your shadow as it departs,
we hear the tiny windows being closed.

A gun shot into the air.
The guards whistle.
A shot that kills
the bird of the morning star.

The small donkeys of the night slowly depart
behind the white fence of dawn.
their shadows slip into the still harbor
between the first two words of the wind.

Later, the large stone on the shoulder,
the long uphill climb,
the heart's great resolve.

Our great days are ahead, mother.

With large stones on our shoulders,
climbing uphill toward death,
we'll build great countries.

Mother, don't be bitter.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 288-289]

Monday, February 16, 2009

Old Man Karas and His Son

Yannis Ritsos

Old man Karas has been sick for days.
His mustache ages and withers.
In his eyes it drizzles as at dusk in Thessaly,
a cloud from Bralos drags across his forehead.

His hands holding his head
are like the silhouettes of two fir trees in the mist.

Old man Karas has one son of flint-colored stone.
His son has two black pigeons hidden in his patched shirt,
because now and then his smile becomes like a saddle out in the rain,
when a broom of sunlight sweeps the new grass,
because in his eyes graze four cows
and a colt with a blue bead and bell.

We hear that bell at day break,
when the son of old man Karas heats up his tea,
when he takes hold of his father's hand and leads him out in the sun.
That son rolls up his father's rough blanket
and straightens his father's mattress,
like a small energetic puppy caring for an old sheep dog,
he changes the water in the bowl
he picks the burrs and thorns.

Old man Karas gets better—
because he hears that bell in the eyes of his son,
because the son hears the bell of birds beyond the mountains,
because we too are the sons of old man Karas, his son's brothers,
because we're all comrades.

Every evening, the shepherd's star tolls inside the tent
and the bells of the mountain sound noisily above
and old man Karas sleeps peacefully,
and we sleep peacefully,
only the son of old man Karas stays up and attends his father
lighting a lamp of doves above the rocks of our dreams.

Old man Karas, nothing frightens you as long as that lamp burns.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 290-291]

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Each Evening

Yannis Ritsos

The earth is hard.
Toward evening, as the wind subsides,
some slender broken sticks remain
and a torn undershirt on the rocks.

Over here death walks many times.
These holes in the stone
are from the nails of his shoe soles,
these other holes, in our hearts,
are from them as well.

Each evening the stars seem to grow larger.
Some dates, some signatures, some cryptic fragments
these stars in the sky—we study them each evening
like the names of rebels we study on the prison walls.

The eyes of the newly arrived are two smoke-blackened stones
like those black stones in the solitude of late afternoon
where a refugee family boils dandelion greens.

And the eyes of the other comrades
are the fire between the blackened stones.
And others are the same.
The world is cooking something immense among these eyes.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 292]

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Little by Little

Yannis Ritsos

Little by little we learn about the world and about our hearts.
We try out words that have the same weight on everyone's lips:
words like mother
words like bread
words like comrade.

We cook beans and potatoes every day.
We carry water and stones,
we take turns cleaning the latrine
and we worked together on the ascent the handcart and our sweat

Because of this our hands have the same motions:
they search at night for silence and death,
they ball-up into fists in our pockets,
they study the lines of a rifle
the way they used to study the body of a woman,
they curl around the pole of our flag
the way they once curled around our mother's breast.

Because of this our eyes meet the same symbol seeing in the distance the sea
as when we go three or more days without water
and the water carriers still don't arrive
and Patience bites at her hands.

It is then that the same angry ship passes through every eye,
a ship which we all know well
full of containers, with dufflebags and flags.

Later on we don't speak at all.
The eyes understand without words.
Only that feet are kneading the mortar stronger
we will settle the bricks, we will build a wall around the tents,
we will escape the winter, from the rain and from the cold.
They are beautiful, these red-colored bricks
whole armies of bricks—perfectly square, they will dry in the sun
peacefully, serious, judicious—

So we are convinced, that our words must be made the same,
kneaded of the sea and the color red,
kneaded by the hard, angry feet of thirsty comrades,
we will let them dry in the sun and in the wind
for we will build plenty of songs to protect our heart from the rain and from the cold.

We don't speak.
The day before yesterday a comrade ate his knowledge and didn't give evidence,
another comrade cut off his own hand so as not to sign,
and yesterday they took another fourteen comrades away for questioning.

In the evenings we reflect upon the cries of those who have been summoned with severed thoughts,
some words are written out by a severed hand,
some common words like bread at the knees of the starving,
like the curse that bites all night long at the mouth of the wronged,
like the "ah" of mothers that light the small olive oil lamp above the three empty beds of children,
like the bitten bullet in the palm of the Democracy.

Moonlight falls through a hole in the tent as if it were a severed thought.
Still we aren't able to speak.

from Petrified Time (1949) [Collected Poems: Τα Επικαιρικα --- pg 293-294]

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Clay: 20

Yannis Ritsos

The hand I moved
to rest upon your shoulder
I took back again.
A glass of water
left on the window ledge
above the statues
and the news vendors.

Athens—January 18, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 88-89]

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Clay: 19

Yannis Ritsos

In the square, they'd left
a basket.
You didn't open it.
Perhaps oranges
perhaps snakes.
The night watchman
shined his flashlight
at your face.

Athens—January 17, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 88]

Clay: 18

Yannis Ritsos

A suffocating dimension
beneath the water
alongside the fish.
You caught hold of the coin
carried it up to the surface.
You took a deep breath.
It wasn't gold.

Athens—January 17, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 88]

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Clay: 17

Yannis Ritsos

I'll sit in the chair
I'll smoke my cigarette
I'll think about the nails
in the yellow wall
the ones I didn't use to hang
the nearly invisible picture frame
the shaving mirror
and the wolf skin.

Athens—January 17, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 87]

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Clay: 16

Yannis Ritsos

Sin joy
sin and denial—
that's how it is he said.
The sheets fallen
on the floor.
Perhaps tomorrow,
outside the poem,
I'll know better.

Athens—January 17, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 87]

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Clay: 15

Yannis Ritsos

I forgot to mention
the moon—
it was white
over the cobblestones
beside the small hammer
beside the crushed
almond shells.
crushed the almonds
with your teeth.

Athens—January 17, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 86-87]

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Clay: 14

Yannis Ritsos

You enter and descend
into the darkness
then hear a cough.
It's nothing—he says.
And nearby, steps
begin to be heard
begin to exist.

Athens—January 17, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 86]

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Clay: 13

Yannis Ritsos

Finding, not finding,
seeking a reason
for being here
he brushes his teeth
combs his hair
opens the window.
Only to misplace
his words
and his clothes.

Athens—January 17, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 86]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Clay: 12

Yannis Ritsos

This and that
were repeated.
Especially if lies were told.
Even death gets undermined.
In the next room
feet tapping the rhythm
of a music
that can't be heard.

Athens—January 17, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 85]

Monday, January 26, 2009

Clay: 11

Yannis Ritsos

Incredible—he said—
and had fallen to his knees.
It rained.
The two bicycles were left
under the trees.

Athens—January 17, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 85]

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Clay: 10

Yannis Ritsos

Physical encounter
down deep
on mute stones
in secret water
where they tangle
the eels
and reproduce.

Athens—January 17, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 84-85]

Monday, January 19, 2009

Clay: 9

Yannis Ritsos

always more mud.
Where can the river flow
with its muddy burden
dragging along
wigs of others
even your rubber boots.

Athens—January 16, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 84]

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Clay: 8

Yannis Ritsos

when the curtain's closed
to move at least
to the center
covering with your back
the paper tree
and the dead.

Athens—January 16, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 84]

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Clay: 7

Yannis Ritsos

The only thing deserved
wasn’t spoken.
We threw
plates pistols
shoes coins into the water—
they sank to the bottom.
And the bottom shined.

Athens—January 16, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 83]

Clay: 6

Yannis Ritsos

The shoes of the dead
in all sizes
you tried them all—
and all at a very good price.

Athens—January 16, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 83]

Clay: 5

Yannis Ritsos

A pale hand
pulls the nail
the mirror falls
the wall falls.
Tourists arrive
photographs are taken.

Athens—January 16, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 83]

Friday, January 16, 2009

Clay: 4

Yannis Ritsos

Worst of all:
they die
even the
the last sound ringing
in my black skull.

Athens—January 16, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 82]

Clay: 3

Yannis Ritsos

Black trunks
wet trees
Rifles of hunters
crashing rocks
a motorcycle.
How long will this weather last.
Far off, a red column
can be made out

Athens—January 15, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 82]

Clay: 2

Yannis Ritsos

Afterwards nothing.
The old man
pushes his wheelbarrow
full of lime
along the sea coast road.
He knows
the tree its repetitions
your story
and mine.
He looks at the ground.

Athens—January 15, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 81]

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Clay: 1

Yannis Ritsos

Shadow—the same—
before and after glory.
We threw the crutches
into the sea.
Someone will find them
pick them up
and imitate us.
They will tell the truth.

Athens—January 15, 1978

from Clay (1980) [Collected Poems: IDelta ---pg 81]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Only the Stones Remain: a Preface to STONES

This book of poems, one of Ritsos’ numerous books of short poems, written in quick succession over a month or two, was written in 1968 during the poet's internment, because of his political convictions, at Partheni, a concentration camp on Leros, a prison island of stone.

Ritsos was arrested the morning of the military coup, April 27, 1967, nine days before his 58th birthday. Not heeding the advice of friends to flee, he had, instead, packed a suitcase and calmly waited for “those profound knocks upon the door” ('Announcements' pg. 6). At the end of April, he was transferred from a stadium in New Fáliron, a suburb of Athens, to the island of Yáros. Over 6,000 were brought to this island of bare stone. The prisoners suffered tremendously inhumane conditions having to live in tents and a few, long-abandoned buildings. Here, the exiles could look across the Aegean to the shores of Greece under the reign of the Colonels.
Demand from the International Red Cross, led to Ritsos being transferred to a concentration camp on the island of Leros in September, 1967. Here, in Partheni, he was allowed to write a poem or two in his notebooks each day. These poems are the poems in this book, Stones, as well as those of Repetitions (II) and a number of the long monologues of The Fourth Dimension.

begins with a poem that may be an invocation of the muse. After which the poems grow increasingly severe, until in the poem ‘Midnight’ the guards attempt to detain night herself. Her smile at the end of this poem is a definite turning point, a breaking off point. The next poem in the book is written nearly a month and a half later, on August 27, 1968. It also has a smile, though of a quite different quality. He wrote two additional poems this same day. Then, again after much international pressure from artists and writers around the world, Ritsos was taken to a cancer clinic in Athens. After treatment, he was returned to the island, and added a final poem to the collection on October 21st.

The penultimate poem, written on the 27th of August, is a one line poem given the title of ‘Epilogue.’ Here Ritsos is unusually dark, equating life to “a wound in non-existence.” It seems likely he thought he would die on Leros.

The last poem, ‘Night’, coming after the poets treatment and placed at the end of this book of poems, is nothing less than shocking. An exclamation of hope and life, after facing mortality. We should not fail to notice that it is the natural world that greets the poet upon his return from the hospital, and that gives new meaning to the poet’s perception of freedom. He has returned as a member of nature’s “grand, ecstatic orphanage.”

In December, 1968, Ritsos left Leros. He took with him his poems as well as two large sacks filled with stones.

Scott King


Yannis Ritsos

Shapes dissolved, set in motion—a flood of uneasiness
and treacherous currents—the sound of water overtakes you
imponderable, deep, uncontrollable; you too are uncontrollable,
almost free.
Before long, inquisitive women arrived,
and certain old men also, with pitchers, tin cans, and pots
to gather water for their household chores. The water took on shape.
The river quieted down as it flowed away. Night came. Doors closed.
One woman remained outside in the garden, alone, without a pitcher,
moonlit water, transparent, a flower in her hair.

May 15, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems: I ]

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Not To Be

Yannis Ritsos

Clouds on the mountain. Who or what is to blame? Silent and tired,
he looks forward, turns back, takes a step, bends over.
Stones lie below, birds above. A jar standing
in the window. Thorns in the open lands. Hands in pockets.
You plead and plead. The poem isn’t coming. Vacated.
The word needed to describe this must contain some emptiness.

May 15, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems: I ]

Monday, January 12, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

The statues were quickly hidden by weeds. We didn’t know
whether the statues had shrunk or whether the grasses had grown. Only
a large copper hand remained visible, like a terrible benediction,
above the tangle of unsightly shapes. Woodcutters
passed by on the road below—they never turned their heads.
Women no longer slept with their men. We could hear the night
dropping its apples into the river—one by one. And later on
the stars quietly sawing through that raised copper hand.

May 16, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems: I ]


Yannis Ritsos

Undefined faces, lit by the reflection of a large mirror.
He listened to the sound of the door knocker. No one moved to answer it. The sound
went back out the windows into the night, until it encountered the one
knocking at the door. Then, as if he had fulfilled his mission,
this man grew quiet and moved toward the gate, dripping with dew.
He picked a flower and pinned it to his breast. “Fortunately,” he said,
“fortunately they didn’t answer the door.” For in truth no one was sought,
no one had sent him, and there was nothing for him to announce; only
those profound knocks upon the door, for everyone inside and for himself.

May 16, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems: I ]

Sunday, January 11, 2009

No, No

Yannis Ritsos

These beautiful heroic (slightly naive, it's true—though still beautiful)
immense white stones and hammers, and those being undressed
in the workshops (mostly muscular wrestlers, boxers)
in imitation of the deeds of others,—one arm raised emphatically,
legs apart in exaggerated balance. No, no—he said—
it’s not to be laughed at, and it goes far beyond sorrow;
that mangy dog, covered with ticks and scabs,
drinking dirty water out of the wash bucket
at the base of the half-finished statues of dead heroes.

May 17, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

note: this translation was originally published in the boxing anthology: Perfect In Their Art: Poems on Boxing from Homer to Ali (Southern Illinois University Press, 2003).

from Stones [Collected Poems: I ]

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

A peaceful sea with scarcely a flaw: faked light
coloring low clouds. If you don’t remember,
you won’t forget. The present—he says—but what present? There came,
at night, mute messengers who sat on the stone steps,
who took out cloth napkins and spread them on their knees,
and who, a little later, folded them back up and left. One
had a scar running from his temple to his chin. He stood
and pointed toward the sea, then cinched up his belt.
We lowered our lamps to the ground and watched our shadows
scramble up the white wall—enormous, hairy, without bones.

May 18, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems: I ]

Friday, January 9, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

Not how there was nothing about prestige, about commendation, about the exemplary—
a sound of a key in the lock—just that sound in the night,
a thought about the shape of the key, about its simple mechanism,
and that secret meshing and obedience. Clearly it wasn’t
about prestige: if not, then what? Which quality should be singled out for praise?—
the unknown one that holds the key and the unknown door.
Perhaps only ego: when we hold that sound,
while, at the far end of the street, the old door-keeper makes his rounds completely naked
having covered his head with a white towel.

May 18, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems: I ]

Thursday, January 8, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

Where are you taking me? Where does this road lead? Tell me.
I can’t see a thing. This isn’t a road at all. Only stones.
Black girders. A streetlight. If only I had
that cage—not the kind for birds, but rather one
with heavier wire, with naked statues. When
they cast the dead down from that flat roof, I didn’t say anything,
I gathered up those statues—I felt sorry for them. Now I know:
the last thing to die is the body. So speak to me.
Where are you taking me? I can’t see a thing. It’s best I don’t see.
The greatest obstacle to thinking through to the end, is glory.

May 19, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems: I ]

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

At the next table, tobacco sellers talked—
hairy hands, clouded drinking glasses. Flies
stuck in clusters on the paper. Beneath the serving window
a dropcloth with a tuft of hair. In the window
a soiled piece of sky, a cloud
held in place by five rusty nails.
“Child, child,” (it wasn’t even his own voice). An old woman
limped in the door; she winked knowingly—
in her bottom jaw, a large rotten tooth.
Then the door was heard being nailed up from the outside.

May 19, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems: I ]

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

Doubtful—he says—vague, opaque; I can't make out the meaning.
The grass rustles. Old women, at the windows, shake large
black sheets. The milkman pisses on the threshold stone.
The cripple sharpens a knife. Flags are suddenly lowered
on the battleship. Large bass drums tumble
and roll down the hillside. Guards race out.
after a naked man with his head shaved. “He’s crazy,” they shout.
“Don’t listen to him! He's crazy.” The man runs. They chase after him.
“He beats copper pans all night.” The bayonets shine.
Women pull their dresses up to cover their eyes.
“Don’t listen to him!” And you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

May 19, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems: I ]

Monday, January 5, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

The way things turned out, nobody, we say, is to blame. One left;
another was killed; the others—how should you account for them now?
The seasons go about their business as usual. Oleanders bloom.
The shadow walks round and round the tree. The pitcher, left out,
motionless in the blazing sun, was scorched though it protected the water.
All the same, he said, we could have moved the pitcher each hour,
stayed in step with the shadow, round and round the tree,
circling until we caught the rhythm, dancing, forgetting
the pitcher, the water, even our thirst—no longer thirsting, just dancing.

May 20, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems: I ]

Sunday, January 4, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

Lizards, large and small, in the cracks in the wall. Spiders,
heaps of spiders in the baskets of spent summer. He
could care less about the statues—not having become one.
His hands abandoned on bare knees. Fingernails,
hairs, the ring (what kind of ring?), all these seemed very strange.
Not having to hide anything, he has nothing to expose.

May 22, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

Saturday, January 3, 2009


Yannis Ritsos

Those ones beneath the trees stained by the sun, so very beautiful, seated
on covered furniture, on stools, on chairs, in front of the wire fence,
as for a parade, as though you were supposed to draw them—they play backgammon, they read and are quiet—they aren’t listening;
with that swath of blue-silver sea for a backdrop, they’re so beautiful
there’s no need for questions, for knowledge. At the far end of the avenue lined with trees,
a slender boy appears, a dirty towel over one shoulder,
bending over, collecting empty lemonade bottles, cloudy and hot in the sun.

May 22, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Unacceptable

Yannis Ritsos

Gradually, he grew distant from us, as though somewhat sad,
and strangely calm, as though he had discovered
something large and incommunicable—a headless statue, a star, a truth,
the one and only truth. We asked him what it was.
He wouldn’t speak. As Though he knew we were neither capable
nor willing to learn. We, his friends,
cast the first stones. His enemies couldn’t have been happier. At the trial
they questioned and cross-examined him. Still not a word. The chairman
beat his gavel, shouted, growing more and more angry— “Quiet! Quiet!
Don’t listen to this silence from the accused.” The verdict was unanimous.
One by one we turned and placed our foreheads against the wall.

May 24, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Toward What?

Yannis Ritsos

With age he’s begun to speak bitterly (which is strange—you’d expect
better from one so dedicated, loyal, and obedient) never sure,
about faces and events—somewhat general and vague, awkward at any rate,
perhaps even somewhat frightened. His hands
twisting, like tree roots in a strange cavern,
some deep place, not unlike our own. No one
believes him any more; they won’t look him in the eyes—let him say whatever he wants.
Not that they feared what he feared—not at all. A window pane,
high up, on the fifth floor, gives off a gentle brilliance,
it lights up his face as though he put on a mask of glass. And we
lift our hands to our faces as if they could hide us
or become part of a wall. Bits of plaster,
stones, dirt, small copper coins fall from between our fingers;
we bend down to gather them—we’re not kneeling down before him.

And in the mirror, opposite, something white, boundlessly white—
an old ivory comb inside a glass of water,
and the calm glow of the water in the glass, in the mirror, in the air.

May 24, 1968
Partheni concentration camp

from Stones [Collected Poems:I ]