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

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