Poetry by Yannis Ritsos


Sadness hung in the air. Bare branches
beyond the window’s bars, and you alone by the window.
Night crossed in front of the door. It left
like a beloved woman—a woman
held around the waist by someone else.

And the moon, like a turned off bulb, quiet,
in the turn of the road, above the drugstore.


The evening, the trees, are pensive. So are the rocks.
And the voices. It’s as if they’ve returned home
and locked the door behind them. Behind the door,
a naked woman stands in front of a big mirror.

You know and smile. You don’t see anything. If you’d been singing,
maybe you could’ve reached her. As soon as you try to sing,
your lips lose the shape of their smile.


Where the land ends, the sky begins—he said—
Where the sky begins, sorrow ends.

He was alone, he wasn’t sad,
because he could look at the clouds,
because the clouds were rosy,
because he found them beautiful.

Later, between the night’s fingers,
a star looked him in the eye. It didn’t believe him.


Evening fell softly, softly, upon the road,
like the heap of warm clothes on the floor
the worker changes out of Saturday evening.


So you have to get used to—he said—
their finding endless evidence against you,
but don’t deny anything. Your denial
will, first of all, undo you.

And they are very strict about your every mistake.
They even suspect your compliance,
your enthusiasm, your tranquility.

Then what should be done? Oh, yes, you’re to take up—he said—
as little space as you can. But, again,
modesty seems secretive to them.
Some conspiracy is sensed in the afternoon’s reverie
when you smile at the star that remains faithful to you,
when you stand up straight behind some memory,
or behind that chair on which love just sat
and caress the chair’s back. What can we do?—he said,
and covered his whole face with the newspaper.


He broke his sling that killed birds.
Now, in the evenings, a star shines on him.
His silence looks at our empty hands.

Maybe he thinks he’ll need the sling again.


On summer nights, when the dew comes down,
you hear sharp air ringing your sleep
as if passing quietly, grazing
your invisible flocks of sheep in the sky—
yes, they are your flocks,
you, who never had a sheep—
so certain and tame and solid are they
that, in the morning, when you wake,
when you are doing the cheapest work,
when you are forced into the cheapest talk,
they obtain the meaning and weight
of the unknown, your conscious wealth.


He said: “Birds go against the wind
not out of spite, or because they’re in a fighting mood,
or because they’re hyperactive—
and not simply out of vanity—but so as not to get their feathers untidy.”
*******The others were taken aback and were silent
like the guilty who didn’t think of it,
like the guilty who see that it may be true,
like the guilty who could and did believe. They bowed, then,
and in a way they got their hair unkempt. Fortunately it was dark
and no one saw anyone else’s movements, not even the one
who was talking and remained
upright, magnificent, preened. At that moment
the moon stuck its ear to a pane of glass.
The silence was distinct. And they moved apart.


His logic was well angled like an elbow
that lifts cautiously to protect a face from a blow,
like a wall he leans his gun against to steady his aim
(because maybe he fears the trembling of his hands)
or like deep wrinkles between eyebrows, giving, in this way,
dead aim to a kiss or to a bullet.

Strange man―and when he’d gone, he still
insisted upon being present. And when he wasn’t present
he insisted he was waiting. There are, yes, many economies
within which to buy bullets.


No, he wasn’t unsuspecting nor less just or sincere―
he’d often seen in the mirror’s smile
all its inexhaustible dark and the ramifications thereof,
he’d often seen in the mirror not his face but his skull.

Nevertheless again there was a little sheen to the glass,
the reflection of the furniture, the serene gaze of morning,
that didn’t demand or control—that convinced him
the broom had left those thin lines on the floor.

Consequently, a woman smiled, softly, warmly, fluffily,
like a blanket spread out in the window, warmed by the sun.

He felt it in his nostrils: the promise of the sea’s dew.


Big clouds on their hind legs
hurdled over the hills, lovingly threatening
to swell up bold bosoms
that yesterday were still doubled over in silence.

Nearby the marble was heard
being hammered ever harder. Separate shadows
were extinguished by the shadow of the clouds. The size
of the threat restores the country to its size.


Dark. Just a glance. A silent bullet.
The metallic shield of loneliness was pierced.
Roundness was shattered.
And pride kneeled.

Beloved night. My wounded beloved―he said.
The road, the sky, the stars exist
only to sink again. Just a glance.

Outside loneliness lurks the great danger
of loneliness—beloved danger:
to spar with others, and to be right.
And what’s all wrong is that the others are right, too.


There at the base of the sky, a little higher than the mountain, one small star
called its happiness loudly—one voice rhythmic and out of tune
like the fruit seller’s boasting about the first fruit of the summer,
a voice so insistent, it was nearly desert-like.

As a guilty soul whose appetite was sated, you could not
respond. If only you hadn’t seen—
if only you hadn’t understood. Guilty,
not counting the guilt of others. All the responsibility
loaded on your shoulders. Then you realized
your complete innocence. You went home, to stop
*******looking anymore,
and, still dressed and with your shoes on, you lay down and
*******fell asleep.


In his hands he held the shadow of his hands.
The night was beautiful―the others didn’t notice that he was holding his shadow.
The night helped. He was being watched. So he considered the others even more.

The sea was still staring at his eyes―he was missing.
A girl buttoned his jacket slowly
―he was looking elsewhere, smiling across the immense distance.

Perhaps, high up in the starlight, a skylight danced,
looking down at the olives and the burned houses.
He listened to the butterfly return to the All Souls’ Day glass
and to the fisherman’s daughter crush the silence with the coffee grinder.


The morning beats the windowpanes with her warm ring
―some good knocks as if a bird was pecking,
but why do you lurk around your moments,
staying out of your moments? Or are your
moments exactly what you’ve lost?


In this corner of the courtyard, in the soapy water,
some roses hunchbacked from the burden of their fragrance.
Nobody smelled these roses.

No loneliness is small.


One soggy sailor’s cap
was bobbing in the waves
like discarded black bread
when people were starving.

It was war.


What they expected as their lives’ vindication was fulfilled.
No trace of desire, memory, or terror
lingered in the center of their cells.
Two hollow bodies washed up on the night’s coast.

As she put on her stockings, he noticed the bed—
it was an ancient animal frozen in the throes of intercourse,
thrusting its four dead legs into the void.


In the middle of so many nights, so many rocks, so many killings―he said―
you, Revolution, widen our spring avenues
for a human encounter. At night, I listen to the steps,
I hear the steps. Coming. Approaching.

And this distant drumming moves through the dust and sun, alone,
like a naked heart without the company of brass, alone,
always giving rhythm to the flags’ footsteps. The bugler is silent.
The roused need no more reveilles.

Before the soldiers wipe off their sweat,
they’re already thinking about the way they’ve come,
and the road ahead, the thorns, the silence, and, in general, the road.
They’re even observing their flask―they recognize it―
before they drink or after they have drunk. Positive sign.
Its friendly shape round as an oath, round as memory. Positive sign,
like the old sign of the cross on bread or before sleep.

We did not win,―he said―if anything, we at least learned
that we will meet tomorrow. This we teach,
this we preach, not by preaching at all,
because whoever says he loves what he loves, cannot preach,
he says only what he couldn’t have left unsaid.


Spring again is many―many girls―
each astride the shoulders of trees;
all the trees run to the horizon, and there is a force of unspent joy
in the air. And all at once
the fruits purple, ripen, and fall,
rippling the water into which a single man
gazes. He doesn’t
see his face there any longer. Raises his head.

Blue emptiness. He doesn’t see anything. Exists.


Yannis Ritsos

Author of more than 100 poetry collections, Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) is best known in English translation for Exile and Return and Repetitions, Testimonies, and Parentheses, translated by Edmund Keeley, and The Fourth Dimension, translated by Peter Green. Most recently, Diaries of Exile, Edmund Keeley and Karen Emmerich’s translations of Ritsos’s poems written as a political prisoner on the islands of Limnos and Makronisos during the Greek Civil War, won the 2014 PEN Poetry in Translation Award.

Spring Ulmer

Spring Ulmer is the author of Benjamin’s Spectacles (selected by Sonia Sanchez for Kore Press’s 2007 First Book Award) and The Age of Virtual Reproductions. She was the 2016 winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize for her translation of Yannis Ritsos’s “Autumn.” She wishes to thank Maria-Eirini Panagiotidou and Asana Eleftheriou for their proofreading of these translations.

"Exercises 1950-60." Copyright (c) Yannis Ritsos, 1964. English translation copyright (c) Spring Ulmer, 2018.