I was once in a small restaurant by the sea where there were a lot of very old, very bent people who bustled around in their thick, shelled skins, speaking to the patrons about bits of their lives. One of those waiters was short and stout and had the face of a magus, with hands gnarled like tree roots, a head framed with curls. He was Greek, as I learned, and deftly aging, and spoke to me oddly about Turkish poetry, there where I would least expect it, and I mentioned the name of a poet with whom I was in love. He set his tray down and cried.
The story is real and so is the poet, although he is long dead. I ran into a book of his in a small café on the second floor of a worn building, and liked the bug’s print of the strange sun-poems, with their thick letters, their unusual face: I brought them home and read them in the light of the sweet, sleepy afternoon, and found them beautiful. Yannis Ritsos’ work is beautiful by principle, it seems, or by nature, but it rarely carries the brighter, prettier modes of love. Ritsos writes for politics, and solitude, and his lovers are oddly out of pace; he uses the real, the fleshed-out and solemn to gently nudge an image into our heads.
As is the case for many who poeticize politics, Ritsos suffers the burning of his books in prison, hiding furtively written poems around the place as he does so. This sort of devotion seems almost natural; he has the poet’s heart and hands, and there is nothing else to be done with that heart, those hands. What is unusual is the attention his work receives: Ritsos has been nominated nine times for the Nobel Prize, and is venerated as “the greatest poet of [his] age.” For poetry of such clean, nameless beauty, the praise is well-deserved.
“The Night of a Solitary” I read while seated on some bench in some sunbaked square, as the heat crawled up my arms and neck. “And yet,” it went, with its slow heartbeat, “in a little while, in there, is achieved / a round, limpid silence like the lantern on a fishing boat / and you completely crouched in a hollow by your bitterness, / gaze through the water at the diaphanous, luminous deep, / with the crystalline, dark green crevices, / the unfamiliar ocean vegetation.” I began the poem again: “How bitter is the furniture in the room of the solitary.” I began it again: “The table is an animal, frozen stiff from the cold.”
And the great calmness of this entire sequence, with its isolation, its seclusion, reasserted itself in the wrenching plainness of “The Meaning of Simplicity,” where each pair of lines bumped into my heart. “I hide myself behind simple objects so you may find me, / if you do not find me, you will find the objects” and “it lights the empty table and silence kneeling in the house / silence is always kneeling” are plaintive lines to find in a love poem, but this love poem is of a very mild love, indicated only in “you will touch those objects my hand has touched / the traces of our hands will mingle.”
The larger loves of which Ritsos writes are also washed with solitude, and they are very personal, sorrowful and unkind to the breast. His “Moonlight Sonata” is the story of an aging widow gradually growing apart from life, singing a sadness tempered with reserved hope in a very intimate, revealing fashion, her words betraying a yearning, a hunger that accompanies the sobriety of the old. “Let me come with you,” she repeats, as if asking to walk back into life, “this house, despite all its dead, has no intention of dying.” Her love is of herself as much as it is of her dead husband: “It makes no difference whether you go or return / and it makes no difference that my hair has turned white / (that is not my sorrow – my sorrow is / that my heart too does not turn white).” Sometimes the poem is almost kind: “Let me button your shirt – how strong your chest is / – how strong the moon – the armchair, I mean – and whenever I lift the cup from the table / a hole of silence is left underneath. I place my palm over it at once / so as not to see through it – I put the cup back in its place.”
But Ritsos’ kindness wanes, without a flicker, with the barest warning of submersion, as in “Attenuation,” which begins, “The women went swimming in the nude – they said they liked / how the water ran off their breasts. The children,” and sinks, quite suddenly, with the lines “the birds would stop in their tracks as if / something had been lost, something deep, abandoned.” Ritsos ends the poem with his unique, simple imagery: “Large, sopping towels weighed down the clothesline in the yard. / A pair of dark glasses forgotten on the white gravel, / next to some wet footprints that had already begun to fade.”
Ritsos does not fade. He lingers in the mouths and thoughts of old men, and for all his solitude is raw and human enough to make them cry. The distance of his work is familiar to people of every age, every eye to life; his poetry is solid, melancholy, quietly damning. In the sunlit square I sit and shudder as his words walk evenly through my heart, and wheedle the losses and the loves of eons.