The Poet Peter Levi, wrote that Yannis Ritsos was an “old-fashioned kind of great poet. His output has been enormous, his life heroic and eventful, his voice is an embodiment of national courage, his mind is tirelessly active."
We lit a fire with some dry branches,
we heated water, washed stark naked
out in the open air. It was windy. We were cold. We laughed.
Maybe it wasn’t from the cold. Later
a bitterness remained. Surely my cats
outside the locked house will climb up to the windows,
scratch at the shutters. And to be unable
to write a word or two, to explain to them,
so they don’t think you’ve forgotten them. To be unable. (DoE1)*
Born in 1909, to a wealthy land owning family in Monemvasia, on a small peninsula off the east coast of the Peloponnese, southern Greece, Ritsos suffered great losses as a child, his mother and eldest brother died from tuberculosis, his father - who had mental health issues - was committed, bringing economic ruin to the family. Yannis himself was confined in a sanatorium for tuberculosis from 1927 – 1931, all of this would mark his writing. In 1931 he joined the Communist Party of Greece (ΚΚΕ) and in 1934 published Tractor, inspired by the futurism of the Russian poet & playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky. In 1935 he published Pyramids,and in 1936 he published what would become a landmark poem, one that broke with Greek traditional poetry, Epitaphios, spoke a message of the unity of the people in a clear and simple language, he wrote a lament inspired by the assassination of a worker in a large general strike in Salonica. In August of that year the right-wing dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas came to power and Epitaphios was burned publicly at the foot of the Acropolis. After the second world war, during which he was a member of Greece's National Resistance Movement, Ritsos was arrested and spent four years as a political prisoner in detention camps, first on the island of Limnos and then at the infamous camp on Makrionis, for supporting the left during the countries five year civil war. It was during this period he chose to write a series of diaries-in-poetry that would become Diaries In Exile, trusting in his art and writing as a collective means to fight the oppression he faced and a way of uniting people.
Each morning flocks of wild geese
We watch them, unmoving.
You get tired of looking up.
soon enough we lower our heads. (DoE2)*
Diaries in Exile is actually three diaries, the first two written from The Kontopouli camp on the island of Limnos. Kontopouli was a makeshift detainment centre, originally used by the Germans as warehouses during the occupation of Greece. They housed around a 150 men, many of whom would be transferred to Yaros & Makronosis, where life would be a lot harsher. By the time Ritsos began the second diary he had been detained for over a year, having faced beatings and forced labour whilst living on meagre rations, this would impact on his writing, which became sparser, focusing on the relentless sameness of his existence. The last Diary was written on Makronosis, where he had been sent in 1949 - a desert island, entirely cut off from the mainland and inhabited only by guards and prisoners. This wasn’t just a detention facility it was a re-education centre, which at it’s height held around 20,000 men, women & children, its sole aim was to transform the prisoners into loyal citizens, having to sign “Declarations of repentance”. On Makronosis prisoners were crammed into already overcrowded tents and were made to carry stones from one spot to another without reason for hours on end, regardless of the time of day or year, without water or footwear and letters were reduced to postcards being highly censored. On Makronosis prisoners were routinely tortured, driven mad and executed.
In the morning
the horizon is
the whitewashed facade of an orphanage.
In the evening it hangs
from the cripple’s crutches
like an island sock full of holes.
At night those killed
gather together under the stones
with some notes in their cigarette packs
with some densely scribbled scraps of paper in their shoes
with some illicit stars in their eyes.
Above them the sky grows larger
grows larger and deeper
never tires. (DoE3)*
The poetry in these diaries weren’t the only poems Yannis Ritsos wrote whilst in exile, regardless of the harshness of his detention, he constantly wrote. In fact even under the unremitting hell of Makronosis, he found a means to write on whatever scrap of paper he could lay his hands on, including the linings of cigarette packs, which he then hid or buried in bottles in the ground. What stands the Diaries apart from his other works are their nature, part poem, part diary, part letter to the outside world, all normal correspondence from camp were never wholly private, having to pass through the censors scrutiny. With the poetry Ritsos could write as he pleased, although he could be never certain if they’d ever be seen by others.
This would remain so for quite a while as his books were banned until 1954 and in 1967, when army colonels staged a coup and took over Greece, he was again deported, then held under house arrest until 1970. His works were again banned - despite being banned from publication until 1972, he continued to write and paint. He died in Athens on the 1th November 1990. During his lifetime, he published 117 collections of poetry, novels and theatre plays and is said to be Greece’s most widely translated poet. He was unsuccessfully proposed nine times for the Nobel Prize for Literature and in 1975 was awarded the Lenin Prize for Peace.
Nowadays Yannis Ritsos’s name is amongst the five great Greek poets of the twentieth century, sharing that title with Konstantinos Kavafis, Kostas Kariotakis, Giorgos Seferis, and Odysseus Elytis, and this volume translated by Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keeley and published by Archipelago books justifies his inclusion, and as Peter Levi said:
"in their directness and with their sense of anguish, are moving, and testify to the courage of at least one human soul in conditions which few of us have faced or would have triumphed over had we faced them,"
Karen Emmerich is a translator of Modern Greek poetry and prose. Her translations include Rien ne va plus by Margarita Karapanou, Landscape with Dog and Other Stories by Ersi Sotiropoulos (longlisted for Three Percent's Best Translated Book Award for fiction in 2009), I’d Like by Amanda Michalopoulou (longlisted for Three Percent’s Best Translated Book Award for fiction in 2008), Poems (1945–1971) by Miltos Sachtouris (nominated for a National Book Critics’ Circle Prize in Poetry in 2006), and The Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis by Vassilis Vassilikos
Edmund Leroy Keeley, author, translator, educator, critic, and administrator, was born in Damascus, Syria, on February 5, 1928. Keeley has written six novels, fourteen volumes of poetry in translation, and five volumes of nonfiction. His first novel, The Libation, won him the Prix de Rome of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1959 and an honourable mention in the New Jersey Author's Award the following year. His translation in Six Poets of Modern Greece, which he edited with Philip Sherrard, won the Guinness Poetry Award in 1962. Keeley captured the New Jersey Author's Award two more times: in 1968 for George Seferis: Collected Poems, 1924-1955, and for his third novel, The Impostor, in 1970. In 1973, he was named a Guggenheim Fellow for the second time, having received his first Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing in Fiction in 1959. C. P. Cavafy: Selected Poems was nominated for a National Book Award in Translation, also in 1973.
Archipelago Books is a not-for-profit press devoted to publishing excellent translations of classic and contemporary world literature. In our first decade, they have brought out over ninety books from more than twenty-five languages.
The Hospital boat mirrored in the water
white with an apricot stripe way up high
in the bowl of morning quietness
like an old sorrow in a new poem. (DoE3)*
DoE = Diary of Exile 1,2,3