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