Saturday, December 27, 2014


Petrified Time

This past fall I read Petrified Time by Yannis Ritsos, translated by Martin McKinsey and Scott King, published in 2014 by Red Dragonfly Press. This is one of the strongest translations of Ritsos that I've read, and one of the books of poems published this past year that spoke to me most powerfully. (The book includes the original Greek along with the English translations.)

Yannis Ritsos spent periods of his life on various prison islands in Greece for his left-wing political activites, imprisoned for left-wing political activities along with many other members of the left-wing resistance. The poems in Petrified Time come from a period of roughly four years of imprisonment in the late 1940's and early 1950's, including a year in the particularly brutal prison on Makronisos. The poems evoke a deeply rooted endurance, a love and embrace of the hearts and lives of the vast majority of the people of the world, in quiet stubborn defiance of all efforts to crush the fires of life.

From the poem "Things We Know":

A sun of stone went with us
scorching the desert wind and thorns.
The afternoon hung from the sea's selvage
like a bare yellow bulb in some deep forest of memory.

We had no time for such things -- but even so
now and then we'd look up, and there on our blankets
with the dirt, the oil stains and the olive pits
a few willow leaves, a few pine needles remained. [...]

[...] Yet we knew that off at the great crossroads
was a city lit by a thousand colored lights
where people greet you with the simple nod of the forehead --
we recognize them by their hands
by the way they cut their bread
by the shadows they cast on the dinner table
as every voice grows sleepy in their eyes
and a lonely star makes a cross on their pillow.

We know them by the strife that furrows their brow
but more than that -- when the night sky deepens overhead
we know them by their poised, conspiratorial manner
as they slip their heart like an illegal leaflet
under the world's closed door.

Much of the poetry of Yannis Ritsos has been translated into English during the past half century; too often, translators blur or miss entirely the political weight his poems carry. (I've written about Ritsos previously in this blog, here.) Ritsos was a Communist, and remained one to the end of his life; he remained fully committed to the promise (not yet realized) of remaking the world in the name and interests of the billions of us who daily make and build the world with our hands and feet and minds and voices and hearts. One of the things I especially like about McKinsey and King's translation of Petrified Time is that the political intent of the poems if not obscured overlooked.

Comrades, they forced us to remain silent.
We had no chance to give voice to our song.
As usual, the afternoon fills with dust,
dust from the traffic of mothers in black dresses
returning from Averoff Prison or Hadzikosta Hospital
or the Department of Transfers,
grieving mothers in black dresses,
with their hearts wrapped in handkerchiefs
like crusts of dry bread, bread so hard Death can't chew it.

Comrades, they are forcing us to remain silent.
They are forcing away our sun.
They don't want us to give voice to our song --
the one that begins simply, with strength and bitterness:
Workers of the world, unite!

At night, when an illicit moon rises above the horizon without a word,
The shadow from a gigantic crutch is etched onto the rocks of Makronisos.
"We could make this crutch into a ladder,"
Vangelis suggests, leaning toward Petros' ear,
as if giving voice to the first line of our future song.

Comrades, it's getting late. It's very late.
We must give voice to our song.

(From the poem "Duty".)

In the daily struggle of living in the world, hope and fatigue come and go. Some days it's a little easier to face the first morning light than other days; some evenings the gathering dark weighs heavier than other nights. In his poems Ritsos and the others imprisoned with him persist and endure, but at no time is he fully outside of the experience. During the days and nights on an island of rock and wind and relentless sun, amid tents sloping toward the sea, surrounded by arms soldiers and barbwire, at no time does he in any way soften or romanticize what is hard and difficult and oppressive.

A crumb of death in our pockets -- we go unshaven.
Where is there a stalk of wheat to bend on its knees to heaven?

Night is slow to fall. The shadows can't hide the hardness of the rock.
The dead man's canteen is swallowed up in the sand.
The moon anchored on another shore,
rocked to and fro by the calm's little finger.
But what shore? and what calm?

Our thirst was great
as we sweated all day at the stone.
Beneath our thirst
lay the roots of the world.

(From the poem "The Roots of the World".)

This is a book of poems about remaining alive and thriving in spite of crushing work and crushing monotony. This is a book of poems about continuing to seek possibilities when none offer themselves, or when possibility itself seems to be held incommunicado behind arms guard and barbwire. Yannis Ritsos published over a hundred books during his lifetime -- poetry, essays, drama, autobiography, translations of other poets into Greek. Certain images recur throughout the whole body of his work, in perpetual variation -- sun and sea and stone and wind, moon and movements in the night, long days and nights of watching and waiting and making ready. Behind the ever-present imagery are the years on the prison isles, the sea viewed through barbwire, the sun on the bare backs of forced labor, a group of prisoners taken away to be shot.

One month, two months... then many more.
We measured them by hauling both stones and fears on our shoulders,
by tapping a hooked finger along the side of the clay pitcher
to hear the sound of water
just as we listen for the voice of our wife behind a door,
just as our wife listens for the voices of even the smallest of stars,
just as the stars listen for the bleating of flocks at dusk. [...]

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

We've forgotten the shape of a tree -- is it, perhaps,
like a large banner of water?
or like a "Thank you" that someone said to you in the past?
or like a lover's hand searching for your hand?

In the future, we'll plant thousands of trees.

(From the poem "Noon".)

In the aftermath of the Second World War, a civil war ensued in Greece, between the populist and labor-oriented political movements of the political left and the right-wing political movements of corporate capitalism and the military; Greece wasn't the only place in the world where this was going on during those years. The business class and military prevailed, in part due to economic and military backing they received from the U.S. government and allies of the U.S. This is some of the wider background to how Yannis Ritsos and thousands of others were sent to prison on islands of rock hammered daily by the sun.


I hadn't intended to let six months pass since my last post in this blog. To any of may have come by looking for anything new during this time, my thanks -- I haven't gone away, just had a few months submerged in the various things of life. I'm still here and will keep posting things in this blog as I'm able to. I don't plan to let six months go again until the next blogpost.

Winter solstice in the northern hemisphere; here in Minneapolis, it's dark when I leave for work in the morning, and dark when I get home in the evening. By the end of January the daylight will have advanced enough so that there will be at least a glow of light in the west, on clear evenings anyway, as I'm getting home in the evening.

Poetry is everywhere. There is nowhere on earth that it doesn't belong.


I'll finish with a few more lines by Yannis Ritsos from Petrified Time.

The days come and go. The rock never changes.
Sometimes a ship sails past, or a cloud --
leaving behind it a scrap of shade, a little window
onto a memory of trees.
Nothing ever changes.
Neither heart nor rock changes. [...]

[...] Evening folds up its red banner.
Once again we will sleep with a stone between our teeth,
with the sea's breathing at the back of our ears.

Brothers, whatever comes now
will find us with our bundles slung over our shoulders,
and in those bundles, all of our hearts
turning our pledge to Democracy over in our minds
the way we twist our finger in the buttonhold of a friend's jacket
not because we have nothing to say
but because of all the love we feel for him -- and so it is:
when we love we cannot speak,
we toy with a branch of wild olive,
scratch a name in the dirt,
and it's always the same, and we'll always be ready,
and it's always the name of Freedom.

(From the poem "Ready".)

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