Yiannis Ritsos (May 1, 1909— November 11, 1990) was a Greek poet and left-wing activist and an active member of the Greek Resistance during World War II.
Born to a well-to-do landowning family in the Monemvasia, Ritsos suffered great losses as a child. The early deaths of his mother and his eldest brother from tuberculosis, the commitment of his father who suffered with mental disease and the economic ruin of losing his family marked Ritsos and affected his poetry. Ritsos, himself, was confined in a sanitarium for tuberculosis from 1927 – 1931.
Today, Ritsos is one of the four great Greek poets of the twentieth century, together with Kostis Palamas, Giorgos Seferis, and Odysseus Elytis. The French poet Louis Aragon once said that Ritsos was “the greatest poet of our age.” He was unsuccessfully proposed nine times for the Nobel Prize for Literature. When he won the Lenin Peace Prize (also known as the Stalin Peace Prize prior to 1956) he declared “this prize it’s more important for me than the Nobel”.
The woman stood up in front of the table. Her sad hands
begin to cut thin slices of lemon for tea
like yellow wheels for a very small carriage
made for a child’s fairy tale. The young officer sitting opposite
is buried in the old armchair. He doesn’t look at her.
He lights up his cigarette. His hand holding the match trembles,
throwing light on his tender chin and the teacup’s handle. The clock
holds its heartbeat for a moment. Something has been postponed.
The moment has gone. It’s too late now. Let’s drink our tea.
Is it possible, then, for death to come in that kind of carriage?
To pass by and go away? And only this carriage to remain,
with its little yellow wheels of lemon
parked for so many years on a side street with unlit lamps,
and then a small song, a little mist, and then nothing?
black, is speaking to a young man. They have not turned on the lights. Through both
windows the moonlight shines relentlessly. I forgot to mention that the Woman in
Black has published two or three interesting volume of poetry with a religious flavor.
So, the Woman in Black is speaking to the Young Man: Let me come with you. What a moon there is tonight!
The moon is kind – it won’t show
that my hair turned white. The moon
will turn my hair to gold again. You wouldn’t understand.
Let me come with you. When there’s a moon the shadows in the house grow larger,
invisible hands draw the curtains,
a ghostly finger writes forgotten words in the dust
on the piano – I don’t want to hear them. Hush.Let me come with you
a little farther down, as far as the brickyard wall,
to the point where the road turns and the city appears
concrete and airy, whitewashed with moonlight,
so indifferent and insubstantial
so positive, like metaphysics,
that finally you can believe you exist and do not exist,
that you never existed, that time with its destruction never existed.
Let me come with you.We’ll sit for a little on the low wall, up on the hill,
and as the spring breeze blows around us
perhaps we’ll even imagine that we are flying,
because, often, and now especially, I hear the sound of my own dress
like the sound of two powerful wings opening and closing,
you feel the tight mesh of your throat, your ribs, your flesh,
and when you enclose yourself within the sound of that flight
you feel the tight mesh of your throat, your birds, your flesh,
and thus constricted amid the muscles of the azure air,
amid the strong nerves of the heavens,
it makes no difference whether you go or return
it makes no difference whether you go or return
and it makes no difference that my hair has turned white
(that is not my sorrow – my sorrow is
that my heart too does not turn white).
Let me come with you.I know that each one of us travels to love alone,
alone to faith and to death.
I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.
Let me come with you.This house is haunted, it preys on me –
what I mean is, it has aged a great deal, the nails are working loose,
the portraits drop as though plunging into the void,
the plaster falls without a sound
as the dead man’s hat falls from the peg in the dark hallway
as the worn woolen glove falls from the knee of silence
or as moonbeam falls on the old, gutted armchair.Once it too was new – not the photograph that you are starting at so dubiously –
I mean the armchair, very comfortable, you could sit in it for hours
with your eyes closed and dream whatever came into your head
– a sandy beach, smooth, wet, shining in the moonlight,
shining more than my old patent leather shoes that I send each month to the shoeshine shop on the corner,
or a fishing boat’s sail that sinks to the bottom rocked by its own breathing,
a three-cornered sail like a handkerchief folded slantwise in half only
as though it had nothing to shut up or hold fast
no reason to flutter open in farewell. I have always has a passion for handkerchiefs,
not to keep anything tied in them,
no flower seeds or camomile gathered in the fields at sunset,
nor to tie them with four knots like the caps the workers wear on the construction site across the street,
nor to dab my eyes – I’ve kept my eyesight good;
I’ve never worn glasses. A harmless idiosyncracy, handkerchiefs.Now I fold them in quarters, in eighths, in sixteenths
to keep my fingers occupied. And now I remember
that this is how I counted the music when I went to the Odeion
with a blue pinafore and a white collar, with two blond braids
hand in hand with a small friend of mine, peachy, all light and picked flowers,
(forgive me such digressions – a bad habit) – and my family rested
great hopes on my musical talent. But I was telling you about the armchair –
gutted – the rusted springs are showing, the stuffing –
I thought of sending it next door to the furniture shop,
but where’s the time and the money and the inclination – what to fix first?
I thought of throwing a sheet over it – I was afraid
of a white sheet in so much moonlight. People sat here
who dreamed great dreams, as you do and I too.
and now they rest under earth untroubled by rain or the moon.
Let me come with you.We’ll pause for a little at the top of St. Nicholas’ marble steps,
and afterward you’ll descend and I will turn back,
having on my left side the warmth from a casual touch of your jacket
and some squares of light, too, from small neighborhood windows
and this pure white mist from the moon, like a great procession of silver swans –
and I do not fear this manifestation, for at another time
on many spring evenings I talked with God who appeared to me
clothed in the haze and glory of such a moonlight –
and many young men, more handsome even than you, I sacrificed to him –
I dissolved, so white, so unapproachable, amid my white flame, in the whiteness of moonlight,
burnt up by men’s vocarious eyes and the tentative rapture of youths,
besieged by splendid bronzed bodies,
strong limbs exercising at the pool, with oars, on the track, at soccer (I pretended not to see them),
foreheads, lips and throats, knees, fingers and eyes,
chests and arms and things (and truly I did not see them)
– you know, sometimes, when you’re entranced, you forget what entranced you, the entrancement alone is enough –
my God, what star-bright eyes, and I was lifted up to an apotheosis of disavowed stars
because, besieged thus from without and from within,
no other road was left me save only the way up or the way down. – No, it is not enough.
Let me come with you.I know it’s very late. Let me,
because for so many years – days, nights, and crimson moons – I’ve stayed alone,
unyielding, alone and immaculate,
even in my marriage bed immaculate and alone,
writing glorious verses to lay on the knees of God,
verses that, I assure you, will endure as if chiselled in flawless marble
beyond my life and your life, well beyond. It is not enough.
Let me come with you.This house can’t bear me anymore.
I cannot endure to bear it on my back.
You must always be careful, be careful,
to hold up the wall with the large buffet
to hold up the table with the chairs
to hold up the chairs with your hands
to place your shoulder under the hanging beam.
And the piano, like a closed black coffin. You do not dare to open it.
You have to be so careful, so careful, lest they fall, lest you fall. I cannot bear it.
Let me come with you.This house, despite all its dead, has no intention of dying.
It insists on living with its dead
on living off its dead
on living off the certainty of its death
and on still keeping house for its dead, the rotting beds and shelves.
Let me come with you.Here, however quietly I walk through the mist of evening,
whether in slippers or barefoot,
there will be some sound: a pane of glass cracks or a mirror,
some steps are heard – not my own.
Outside, in the street, perhaps these steps are not heard –
repentance, they say, wears wooden shoes –
and if you look into this or that other mirror,
behind the dust and the cracks,
you discern – darkened and more fragmented – your face,
your face, which all your life you sought only to keep clean and whole.
The lip of the glass gleams in the moonlight
like a round razor – how can I lift it to my lips?
however much I thirst – how can I lift it – Do you see?
I am already in a mood for similes – this at least is left me,
reassuring me still that my wits are not failing.
Let me come with you.
At times, when evening descends, I have the feeling
that outside the window the bear-keeper is going by with his old heavy she-bear,
her fur full of burns and thorns,
stirring dust in the neighborhood street
a desolate cloud of dust that censes the dusk,
and the children have gone home for supper and aren’t allowed outdoors again,
even though behind the walls they divine the old bear’s passing –
and the tired bear passes in the wisdom of her solitude, not knowing wherefore and why –
she’s grown heavy, can no longer dance on her hind legs,
can’t wear her lace cap to amuse the children, the idlers, the importunate,
and all she wants is to lie down on the ground
letting them trample on her belly, playing thus her final game,
showing her dreadful power for resignation,
her indifference to the interest of others, to the rings in her lips, the compulsion of her teeth,
her indifference to the interest of the others, to the rings in her lips, the compulsion of her teeth,
her indifference to pain and to life
with the sure complicity of death – even a slow death –
her final indifference to death with the continuity and knowledge of life
which transcends her enslavement with knowledge and with action.
But who can play this game to the end?
And the bear gets up again and moves on
obedient to her leash, her rings, her teeth,
smiling with torn lips at the pennies the beautiful and unsuspecting children toss
(beautiful precisely because unsuspecting)
and saying thank you. Because bears that have grown old
can say only one thing: thank you; thank you.
Let me come with you.
This house stifles me. The kitchen especially
is like the depths of the sea. The hanging coffeepots gleam
like round, huge eyes of improbable fish,
the plates undulate slowly like medusas,
seaweed and shells catch in my hair – later I can’t pull them loose –
I can’t get back to the surface –
the tray falls silently from my hands – I sink down
and I see the bubbles from my breath rising, rising
and I try to divert myself watching them
and I wonder what someone would say who happened to be above and saw these bubbles,
perhaps that someone was drowning or a diver exploring the depths?
And in fact more than a few times I’ve discovered there, in the depths of drowning,
coral and pearls and treasures of shipwrecked vessels,
unexpected encounters, past, present, and yet to come,
a confirmation almost of eternity,
a certain respite, a certain smile of immortality, as they say,
a happiness, an intoxication, inspiration even,
coral and pearls and sapphires;
only I don’t know how to give them – no, I do give them;
only I don’t know if they can take them – but still, I give them.
Let me come with you.
One moment while I get my jacket.
The way this weather’s so changeable, I must be careful.
It’s damp in the evening, and doesn’t the moon
seem to you, honestly, as if it intensifies the cold?
Let me button your shirt – how strong your chest is
– how strong the moon – the armchair, I mean – and whenever I lift the cup from the table
a hole of silence is left underneath. I place my palm over it at once
so as not to see through it – I put the cup back in its place;
and the moon’s a hole in the skull of the world – don’t look through it,
it’s a magnetic force that draws you – don’t look, don’t any of you look,
listen to what I’m telling you – you’ll fall in. This giddiness,
beautiful, ethereal – you will fall in –
the moon’s marble well,
shadows stir and mute wings, mysterious voices – don’t you hear them?
Deep, deep the fall,
deep, deep the ascent,
the airy statue enmeshed in its open wings,
deep, deep the inexorable benevolence of the silence –
trembling lights on the opposite shore, so that you sway in your own wave,
the breathing of the ocean. Beautiful, ethereal
this giddiness – be careful, you’ll fall. Don’t look at me,
for me my place is this wavering – this splendid vertigo. And so every evening
I have little headache, some dizzy spells.
Often I slip out to the pharmacy across the street for a few aspirin,
but at times I’m too tired and I stay here with my headache
and listen to the hollow sound the pipes make in the walls,
or drink some coffee, and, absentminded as usual,
I forget and make two – who’ll drink the other?
It’s really funny, I leave it on the window-sill to cool
or sometimes drink them both, looking out the window at the bright green globe of the pharmacy
that’s like the green light of a silent train coming to take me away
with my handkerchiefs, my run-down shoes, my black purse, my verses,
but no suitcases – what would one do with them?
Let my come with you.
Oh, are you going? Goodnight. No, I won’t come. Goodnight.
I’ll be going myself in a little. Thank you. Because, in the end, I must
get out of this broken-down house.
I must see a bit of the city – no, not the moon –
the city with its calloused hands, the city of daily work,
the city that swears by bread and by its fist,
the city that bears all of us on its back
with our pettiness, sins, and hatreds,
our ambitions, our ignorance and our senility.
I need to hear the great footsteps of the city,
and no longer to hear your footsteps
or God’s, or my own. Goodnight.
The room grows dark. It looks as though a cloud may have covered the moon. All at
once, as if someone had turned up the radio in the nearby bar, a very familiar musical
phrase can be heard. Then I realize that “The Moonlight Sonata”, just the first
movement, has been playing very softly through this entire scene. The Young Man will
go down the hill now with an ironic and perhaps sympathetic smile on his finely
chiselled lips and with a feeling of release. Just as he reaches St. Nicolas, before he
goes down the marble steps, he will laugh – a loud, uncontrollable laugh. His laughter
will not sound at all unseemly beneath the moon. Perhaps the only unseemly thing will
be that nothing is unseemly. Soon the Young Man will fall silent, become serious, and
say: “The decline of an era.” So, thoroughly calm once more, he will unbutton his shirt
again and go on his way. As for the woman in black, I don’t know whether she finally
did get out of the house. The moon is shining again. And in the corners of the room the
shadows intensify with an intolerable regret, almost fury, not so much for the life, as for
the useless confession. Can you hear? The radio plays on:
Athens, June 1956