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Sunday, 20 November 2011

Yannis Ritsos: The Time Dimension


Basking shark
: photo by Chris Gotschalk, 21 July 2006

Hallway, door, hallway, door; half-light;
afternoon leaning toward dusk. All the doors
open to the far end. People made of plaster, bent over,
are sitting alone, each to a bench. The last,
in the innermost hallway, barely distinguishable
like the head of a pin:
............................."Distance," he was saying, "neutralizes
volume, maybe pain as well." That's what he was saying.
Nobody believed him or even paid attention to him. On the right,
through the dust-covered, barred window,
you could see, passing by under artificial noon sunshine,
a tall, immense bus full of people on an excursion,
plaster boys, plaster girls with spearguns,
with those long plastic flippers,
very blue or yellow, hanging in the windows.

(Was the absence of a conclusion, then, the essence?)

File:Apnea monofin.jpg

Free-diving with monofin, Cyprus
: photo by aquaxel, 26 April 2006

Yannis Ritsos: The Time Dimension, 1971, from The Wall Inside the Mirror, 1974, in Exile and Return: Selected Poems 1967-1974, translated by Edmund Keeley, 1985


Nin Andrews said...

I love this. Ritsos was one of my first loves.

TC said...


All through the recent social turmoil here, there and everywhere, I've not been able to stop remembering Ritsos' great poems, especially from this period of detention, imprisonment, exile and house arrest. The eerie oblique quality, the indirectional signalling of commentary on history by way of parabolic stories, the sinking deep into images which convey a burden any sketch of the surface picture could never capture... maybe we don't know those stories, but Ritsos' poems help us "remember" them all the same.

This one, for me, makes a pair with In the Depths (from the same period).

Another that knocks me out: Marpessa's Choice.

Lately too, while thinking of Ritsos, I've been going back to Theo Angelopoulos' magisterial 1975 film The Travelling Players. Do you know it?

This scene stages a confrontation between two sides at a 1945 New Year's Eve party.

Our history here is of course something else again, but the two sides... eternally familiar.

(Hope you are well and that your mother is up and kicking and back at her amazing yoga, speaking of eternal things.)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


I will second Nin in saying I have really enjoyed everything by Ritsos I have read.

I must say that, for these 2 poems, I feel like I lack the context. They seem to be very specifically about diving. Do you have a little background that might be helpful?

I really like "In the Depths" ...




Thanks for this, on this rainy morning -- that shark opening its mouth next to that diver, those "People made of plaster," that second diver in such blue, Marpessa's Choice (again, with Pan Painter's Attic red-figure psykter), and the scene from The Traveling Players (Happy New Year, 1946!) oh my. . .


grey whiteness of rain against shadowed
ridge, drops falling on wet brick plane
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

present, in the sense which
a series of instances

is both, form of expression,
that in the fact that

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
white cloud in pale blue sky on horizon

TC said...

The context is complicated in these poems. "One level of meaning is clearly intended to reside in the particular historical climate -- the imposed mood of the times, if you will -- that the dictatorship engendered. One constantly encounters imagery of dislocation, of intimidation, of lethargic and directionless motion, of exile in strange places and even within the confines of a particular neighborhood, as though the land were under siege and the people in it dispossessed of their normal habitations, their normal means of sustenance both physical and spiritual, or have become so disoriented by circumstances beyond their control that they have lost their power to act as human beings. In several poems the setting is evidently a guarded camp or barracks or building under surveillance...[The] landscape is now subject to violent distortion and the intrusion of unexpected anomalies. The inhabitants, haunted by death, are sometimes seen to be not merely terrified but petrified, turned into statues, and the statues into animated human beings moving cautiously through abandoned city streets emptied by undefined forces of evil..." -- from Edmund Keeley's Introduction.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks very much, Tom. That is helpful, indeed.


vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Wonderful post. I can only say that Yannis Ritsos should have been awarded the Nobel Prize and made Greece’s double (Seferis and Elytis) a threesome—he certainly was nominated enough times, but it seems he was just too much of a communist and therefore not enough of a poet for some people—a laughable conclusion, considering his enormous output and unquestionable poetic talent. He was fortunate in that some of his most moving poetry was set to music by Mikis Theodorakis—an honor he shares with Greece’s Seferis and Elytis and other lesser-known poets such as Nikos Gatsos and Tasos Leivaditis—the latter a remarkable poet who remained in the shadow of Ritsos because he was not the Greek communist party’s favorite. All of which leads me to a question I have yet to answer: How was it such a small and insignificant country could produce so many poets who wrote poems that were set to music and which became songs that are still sung by so many people? Examples par excellence: Ritsos' "Romiosyni" which became a rallying cry against the stupidly brutal 1967 junta; Seferis' "Denial" and Elytis' "Worthy It Is."

TC said...


Many thanks, and no, the prize rarely goes where it ought to. Which is perhaps why one ought not spend too much time with one's eye on it. I don't imagine Ritsos had the luxury of worrying about that sort of thing anyway, merely staying alive and speaking and not letting all he'd been through stifle his soul -- projects enough for any poet. Much less a very great one.

"How was it such a small and insignificant country could produce so many poets who wrote poems that were set to music and which became songs that are still sung by so many people?"

I'm reminded of the laconic comment of a gardener at my Cambridge college, when interrogated by some American tourists as to how he managed to keep his lawn looking so good. Any tips he could share?

"Oh, just plant it, and water it... for six or seven hundred years," he replied drily.

(Upon that same lawn had once gingerly trod Harvey, the fellow who had figured out that blood doesn't just stand still in the veins, but moves around...and around...)

Maybe Greek poetry is like that.

Any nation wishing to boast of its great poets might do worse than just plant them, and watch their heritage grow for three millennia or so.

Still growing to this minute, in fact, as I learn every day from you.