Ritsos is perhaps most often read in this country as a master of the captured moment, like one of his small paintings, drawn on stones and fragments of wood, the only materials available to him in the island prisons. The sequence of 336 Monochords, of which a selection appears here, were written in a single month, August 1979, in exile on the island of Samos. As he says in the last monochord, they can be read as keys to his whole work, as a dictionary of his images and themes. Yannis Ritsos died in Athens in 1990.
Work teaches you what you should do, and the skills you'll need.
What you want to suggest, the words will tell you.
Anyway, words come from deeds.
You gather pearls. They tell you nothing. Throw them back. They'll speak to you.
It's life above all, not thought, that gives you the right to speak.
If I can't make you see it as well, it's as if it's not mine.
For the string and the body to resonate, don't wear gloves.
Tell me again, my friend-so you start over.
I wish you good morning and mean it.
On the dark red curtain the horse's immense shadow.
Did you manage to say thank you? Nothing got left out.
All alone with their exhaustion, climbing the same slope.
It's not a single line, the road to the future.
To find the past, you have go ahead a long way.
A good relationship with your mirror? With the world, too.
Sunday bells for children and old men.
At dusk, the colors' brilliance keeps you from seeing the end.
No love. The world intact.
In handcuffs: and playing the violin so beautifully.
Much later you see what you saw.
Hidden under the white pebble, the red one.
The pregnant woman on her way to church goes through the olive grove.
Mountain, ocean, and a naked girl the other side of the sunflower.
To know a man, you need to carve his statue.
With her blue eyes she gives color to the world.
Every second a tree, a bird, a smokestack, a woman.
He speaks about the poor. His hand becomes a river.
You'll have to drill a number of holes in a reed before it will play a song.
The cross tells us other climbers reached this far.
In the mirror I see the swimmers and myself.
Mountain, bell tower, cypress, travelers.
Ah, summer of plump grapes, outside the monastery.
Old man, my friend, how youthfully you swing your stick at pebbles.
Grape harvesters and horses in the ocean. Bravo, comes the call from the balconies.
I go back naked to those places.
In the field I found Yesenin's cow observing a small cloud.
Our Lady dressed in black, in the golden corn.
Summer winds buffet the carts on the bridge.
Night of pleasure. Abandoned poems.
They hauled down the flags. Went back to their homes. They're counting their money.
This bird, how will it teach its song to the fish?
I completely erase the shadow with this golden pencil.
How well he impersonates himself, like someone else.
Darkness always behind my pages. That's why my letters shine so brightly.
I never understood how I got up here. All the way on foot.
The anchor, embroidered on your sleeve, took hold in your heart.
In your old age, the child you were, you still are.
My old house had nine windows. All were open to the world.
The handsome boatman put a rose in Polydora's apron.
Setting sun, your golden roses imprinted themselves on my page.
All the words are not enough to get anything said.
Ah, that biker in Luna Park, deep in the wooden well.
Breath of youth: the girl's breast wet from the ocean.
Deep well water, slaking the statues' thirst.
The sun still hasn't set, but they've lit the harbor lights.
Poetry. A lost pleasure-craft, says Elytis.
In young people's hands banners are singing.
I create lines to exorcise the evil that overcame my country.
A Greek, I say, naked with a basket of grapes.
Hairy masculine mountains with a delicate white chapel.
Arethusa, holding the lyre on her Cretan lap.
Some here with horses, others with trains and umbrellas.
Naked body-a greeting to the whole world.
You'll do fine with the dream; it doesn't ask for proof.
A pale sleepwalker, wearing a red chrysanthemum.
The tangible body, more elusive than its shadow.
Outside the shuttered house, the four winds, smoke, chairs.
With one moment of hope, they mortgaged our whole future.
Friend cloud, looking for your reward from humans: not from the clouds.
Sweet corn, grapes, a donkey, and the sky.
For everything you did, and didn't do, the same repentance.
Every so often a transparent leaf shades the whole city beautifully for me.
But what are you looking for, finally, as you drown in words?
There, where a cuckoo and a nightingale crossed, is my crucifix.
Smashed marbles, restored with cement and plaster.
I closed my books. The hill entered my room.
Beautiful dancer, don't say a word; dance.
It's raining, and I open my umbrella so my statue will stay dry.
The garden with its pistachios, Chryse, my poems, the piano, Niobe.
Up on the mountain I call out my name. It's really well known.
You know, in a little while it'll be gone.
A star tumbled into the thorn-bushes. I look for it. Don't find it.
The August moon, full of seaweed.
The Greek line of the hill. Its missing temple floating in the air.
O ship without a crew, as the sun sets where are you taking me?
Night insects tangled in women's hair and voices in the corridors.
Under that arrogance, a great wound.
Shouts from the vineyard: the fields are brimming with grape juice.
These fish speak only in the lower depths.
The whistles of sunken ships have taken over those houses.
What amazing discovery is the fishmonger calling out, this Tuesday morning, by the garden?
You need to enlarge your mirror-it doesn't fit you: it cuts off your head and feet.
Tears are manly, too. That's right. But complaints aren't.
Eleven brothers and a daughter. The house is empty; it's sunk, that ship.
In the darkness sometimes mirrors whisper the most important truths.
You open the window. Didn't I tell you? It's worth the trouble.
Dawn. Myself and the sentry on the long bridge.
And when you come it's as if you were running away. But perhaps I'm gone.
He borrows colors from the sunset to decorate his corpse.
At night, the ocean and its ships enter my room.
How the deep blue islands of cloud hover above the golden evening.
Your clothes, thrown down on the chair, still smell of the ocean.
Is your wound speaking? It's telling the truth.
Yet another medal on your chest: yet another wrinkle on your brow.
The more you wound them, the more distant they become. They're running away.
What are you talking about? The sky. Even if there is none.
This man has become hoarse from silence.
Evening. So the maid in the customs house is gossiping with a star.
This brawny hand holding a flower.
How elegantly the coalminer combs his wet hair.
The hour when the grape harvesters go home and turn on the lights.
Would you use the same gesture to peel an artichoke and a star?
I enter a marble temple whenever I speak your name, my country.
A profound Karlovasi moon over the croaking of the love-besotted frogs.
He strikes the earth, draws water, offers a drink to the dead and to his horses.
The lantern in the barracks where tired soldiers are asleep.
Shuttered house. Outside, the moon, and a sentry pissing in the colonnade.
How far away. And it was yesterday. Hardly any time at all.
Which words and how many to speak my silence, so it can at last fall silent?
Poetry didn't always have the first word. It always had the last.
If you stay awake, the things you lose come back double. But only those.
The flags' long strides, up high, above the young men's shoulders.
I'd have liked to say something Greek, and for it to get away.
The murderer's clothes were worn by the sheep. It bleated to the stars.
You who know what is hidden among statues and words, should bear witness some day.
Mounted on hazardous scaffolding, we are cleaning our temples' pediments.
A huge proletarian moon over the sleeping city.
Conscious of his importance, he always speaks softly.
Anyway, there's what doesn't exist.
In the place where an embarrassed silence falls, I put a candlestick or a water glass.
The big dog comes at dusk into the children's empty rooms and whines.
To meet pointlessness we wore a golden mask.
How precisely these free days guarantee they'll continue.
Some things they took from him, some they gave. Now he grows rich on loss.
On the marble floor the loop of the horse's bridle.
Admirers multiplied. Friends disappeared. Not one was left.
He goes for walks in his head. He treads the clouds with his feet. Applaud him.
A body hedged about-the modesty of inexperience.
To speak constantly about wrongs is like being wrong.
He stretched the noose into a tightrope and walked it with a yellow umbrella.
An insatiable desire for visibility, his hiding-place.
How quietly time collapses in a poem.
The things they called him, he called them in return, as a favor.
Afterwards, in Oedipus' name, I ordered blue glass eyes.
Up in the belfry I smoke a cigarette beside the evening star.
Slowly, the evening rested its builder's trowel on my pages.
The headless statue may be waiting for my head.
Poem, don't abandon my body to the wolves.
Himself by the window. Himself in the mirror. A space. And the lamp.
I've been waiting here an hour. And the boatman has launched out to sea.
The slightest offerings of sleep strengthen you in the daytime.
Underneath the words there's always a naked man, pretending to sleep so we can see him.
Out of ideas, my city, after midnight I play at traffic cop.
A fiery sunset, kindling a purple blaze on Orestes' windows.
The ship leaves. I stay behind with the streetlight.
Paul Merchant lives in Oregon, where he is director of the William Stafford archives. One of his collections of poetry, Bone from a Stag's Heart, was a 1988 (British) Poetry Book Society Recommendation. His poetry collection Some Business of Affinity, containing more ample translations from Catullus, Dafydd ap Gwilyn, and Yannis Ritsos, will be published in 2006 by Five Seasons Press in England. The complete Ritsos Monochords will appear in early 2006 from Trask House Press in Portland, OR.