One of Greece’s most prolific and widely translated poets, Yannis Ritsos (1909-1999) was born in Monemvasia. He lost his mother and an older brother to tuberculosis when he was young, and later contracted the disease himself. A lifelong, committed communist, he fought in the Greek Resistance to the Axis occupation, sided with the communists in the Greek Civil War, and subsequently spent years in detention centers and camps for political prisoners. The dictatorship of 1967-1974 landed him in internal exile yet again. Despite these many obstacles, Ritsos wrote more than a hundred volumes of poetry, plays, and translations. In 1976 he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize.

Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keeley are the 2014 recipients of the PEN Poetry in Translation Award for a book-length translation of poetry into English published in 2013.

Three Poems from Diaries of Exile

November 6

Evening. The bell for the evening meal.
Shouts from the boys playing soccer.
Was it yesterday?—I don’t remember;—a stunning sunset
so violet, so gold, so rosy.
We stood there. We watched. We talked
alone, alone, tossing our voices into the wind
so as to tie things together, to unbind our hearts.
A letter arrived in the yard:
Panousis’s son was killed.
Our talk nestled against the walls.
The sunset suddenly nothing.
The night had no hours. The knot loosened.
Panousis’s aluminum plate grew cold on the table.
We lay down. We covered ourselves. We loved one another
around that untouched plate that no longer steamed.
Around midnight the black cat came in through the window
and ate some of Panousis’s food.
Then the moon came in
and hung motionless over the plate.
Panousis’s arm on the blanket
was a severed plane tree.
Well then—must we really be so sad
in order to love one another?

January 25

For a moment we took refuge
against the latrine wall.
The wind was cutting.
An old man stared at a cloud.
I looked at him smiling
in the light of that cloud—so peaceful,
so far removed from desire and pain—
I was jealous.
Old people agree with the clouds.
And it’s taking us a long time to get old.

May 11

After the rain the buildings and the stones
change colors.
Two old men sit on the bench. They don’t talk.
So much shouting and so much silence remains.
The newspapers age in an hour.
Stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed
the monotony of change-stressed;
unstressed, stressed, strophe, antistrophe
and neither rage nor sorrow.
Evening lights out;
just as heavy for the one who struck
as for the one he struck.
The men sit on the stones
pare their nails.
The others died.
We forgot them.

Excerpted from Diaries of Exile by Yannis Ritsos. Copyright © 1975 by Yannis Ritsos. Translation copyright © 2013 by Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keeley.
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