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Yannis Ritsos – Poems Paperback – November 4, 2018
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In an age devoid of political radicalism in poetry, a White Rock translator takes a leap of fervour
Unsuccessfully nominated nine times for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) is little-known in North America.
Manolis Aligizakis of White Rock hopes to change that. From among Ritsos' 46 volumes of poetry, Cretan-born Manolis (his pen name excludes the surname Aligizakis) has translated fifteen of the poet's books for an unusually hefty volume, Yannis Ritsos–Poems (Libros Libertad $34), presenting a panorama of Ritsos' work from the mid 1930s to the 1980s.
Manolis first encountered Ritsos' inspiring words as a young man in Greece, in 1958, when composer Mikis Theodorakis–of Zorba the Greek fame–set to music some of Ritsos' verses from Epitaphios–a work that had been burned by Greece's right-wing government at the Acropolis in 1936. "I was moved in an unprecedented way by the songs," says Manolis. "They were like a soothing caress to my young and rebellious soul at a time when the Cold War was causing deep divisions in Greece and the recent civil war had seen our country reduced to ruins."
Yannis Ritsos was an ardent nationalist who most notably fought with the Greek resistance during the Second World War. His 117 books, poetry, novels and plays, are suffused with communist ideals. When Ritsos received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1975, he declared, "this prize is more important for me than the Nobel."
The early deaths of Ritsos' mother and his eldest brother from tuberculosis marked him deeply, as did his father's commitment to a mental asylum, which led to the economic ruin of his once wealthy family. Ritsos himself was in a sanitorium for tuberculosis from 1927 to 1931.
In 1936, Ritsos' Epitaphios was burned at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens on orders from the right-wing dictatorship of General Ioannis Metaxas. Epitaphios refers to the classic funeral oration for soldiers killed in war that was an integral part of the Athenian burial law, and calls for national unity in a time of crisis.
From 1947 to 1952, Ritsos was jailed for his political activities. Under the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974, he was interned on the Greek islands of Yaros, Leros and Samos before being moved to Athens and placed under house arrest. Through it all he kept writing. And writing. It wasn't uncommon for Ritsos to write 15 or 20 poems in one sitting.
Manolis says he has tried to remain as close as possible to the original Greek text, in order to preserve the linguistic charm of Ritsos' style. Sentences are restructured only when it seemed that the reader would have difficulty grasping the poet's true meaning.
"In Greek, the writer has a lot more freedom in ordering a sentence than one would in English, where the sequence of words is somewhat more strict.
"The books in the anthology are included whole, not selected poems from each. We had only a certain number of his books available and I felt it would be awkward to separate them satisfactorily."
Most of the poems in Yannis Ritsos–Poems are appearing in English translation for the first time in North America.
"In choosing the materials, I noticed a transformation from his early days, when he was just the unknown defender of a cause, up to the period during his middle years, when he finds a variety of admirers from around the world."--Alan Twigg (BC BookWorld)
Ritsos' later work, according to Manolis, reveals a mature poet, more laconic and precise, more careful with his words. "Then, near the end of Ritsos' creative life, the poems reveal his growing cynicism and utter disillusionment with the human condition, after his world had collapsed around him several times... the human pettiness that drives some human lives shadows him with a deep disappointment that he appears to take with him to his grave."
The majority of lives don't have happy endings. Ritsos' re-publication as a poet in Canadian English represents a rebirth of sorts.
The tradition of overtly political poetry has seemingly vanished in Canada. If only we cared enough about poetry in Canada to burn it.--Alan Twigg (BC BookWorld)
About the Author
Yannis Ritsos was born in Monemvassia (Greece), on May 1st, 1909 as cadet of a noble family of landowners. His youth is marked by devastations in his family: economic ruin, precocious death of the mother and the eldest brother, internment of the father suffering of mental unrests. He spends four years (1927-1931) in a sanatorium to take care of his tuberculosis.
These tragic events mark him and obsess his uvre. Readings decide him to become poet and revolutionary. Since 1931, he is close to the K.K.E., the Communist Party of Greece. He adheres to a working circle and publishes Tractor (1934), inspired of the futurism of Maïakovski, and Pyramids (1935), two works that achieve a balance still fragile between faith in the future, founded on the Communist ideal, and personal despair...
The poems of his last book, Late in the night (1987-1989), are filled with sadness and the conscience of losses, but the humbly poetic way by which Ritsos restores life and the world around him, preserves a gleam of hope in an ultimate start of creativeness.
However, the poet lives the reduction of his health and the downfall of his political ideals grievously. Internally broken, he dies in Athens, November 11, 1990.
Manolis was born in the small village Kolibari west of Chania on the Greek island of Crete in 1947. At a young age his family moved first to Thessaloniki and then to Athens where he was educated, achieving a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science at Panteion Supreme School of Athens. He served in the armed forces for two years, and emigrated to Vancouver in 1973, where he worked in several different jobs over the years.
He attended Simon Fraser University for a year, taking English Literature in a non-degree program. He has written three novels, a large number of collections of poetry, which are slowly appearing as published works, various articles and short stories in Greek as well as in English. After working as an iron worker, train labourer, taxi driver, and stock broker, he now lives in White Rock where he spends his time writing, gardening, and traveling.
Towards the end of 2006 he founded Libros Libertad, an unorthodox and independent publishing company in Surrey, BC, with the goal of publishing literary books.
- Publisher : Libros Libertad (November 4, 2018)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 550 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1926763076
- ISBN-13 : 978-1926763071
- Item Weight : 1.76 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.38 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #2,750,636 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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The parallels in their lives are uncanny: when Ritsos was imprisoned, Manolis' father also was imprisoned on false charges. Both men dealt with the forces of dictators and censorship, and experienced the cruel and unreasoning forces of those times. In fact, they even lived for a time in the same neighborhood. In his foreword to Poems, Manolis relates that he viewed him as a comrade, one whose "work resonated with our intense passion for our motherland and also in our veracity and strong-willed quest to find justice for all Greeks."
In Poems, Manolis chose to honor Ritsos first by not just picking and choosing a few titles to translate, although that might have been far easier. Instead, he undertook the complex task of translating fifteen entire books of Ritsos work-an endeavor that took years of meticulous research and patience. It should be noted that along with the translation, edited by Apryl Leaf, that he also includes a significant Introduction that gives a reader unfamiliar with Ritsos an excellent background on the poet from his own perspective.
Dated according to when Ritsos composed them, it's fascinating to see how some days were especially productive for him. These small details are helpful in understanding the context and meaning. For example, in Notes on the Margins of Time, written from 1938-1941, Ritsos explores the forces of war that are trickling into even the smallest villages. Without direct commentary, he alludes to trains, blood, and the sea that takes soldiers away, seldom to return. Playing an active role in these violent times, the moon observes all, and even appears as a thief ready to steal life from whom it is still new. From "In the Barracks":
The moon entered the barracks
It rummaged in the soldiers' blankets
Touched an undressed arm Sleep
Someone talks in his sleep Someone snores
A shadow gesture on the long wall
The last trolley bus went by Quietness
Can all these be dead tomorrow?
Can they be dead from right now?
A soldier wakes up
He looks around with glassy eyes
A thread of blood hangs from the moon's lips
In Romiosini, the postwar years are a focus (1945-1947), and they have not been kind. The seven parts to this piece each reflect a soldier's journey home.
These trees don't take comfort in less sky
These rocks don't take comfort under foreigners'
These faces don't take comfort but only
In the sun
These hearts don't take comfort except in justice.
The return to his country is marked by bullet-ridden walls, burnt-out homes, decay, and the predominantly female populace, one that still hears the bombs falling and the screams of the dead as they dully gaze about, looking for fathers, husbands, and sons. The traveler's journey is marked by introspection and grim memories reflected on to the surfaces of places and things he thought he knew.
And now is the time when the moon kisses him sorrowfully
Close to his ear
The seaweed the flowerpot the stool and the stone ladder
Say good evening to him
And the mountains the seas and cities and the sky
Say good evening to him
And then finally shaking the ash off his cigarette
Over the iron railing
He may cry because of his assurance
He may cry because of the assurance of the trees and
The stars and his brothers
An entirely different feeling is found in Parentheses, composed 1946-1947. In it, healing is observed and a generosity of spirit exerts itself among those whose hearts had been previously crushed. In "Understanding":
A woman said good morning to someone -so simple and natural
Neither division nor subtraction To be able to look outside
Yourself-warmth and serenity Not to be
`just yourself' but `you too' A small addition
A small act of practical arithmetic easily understood...
On the surface, it may appear simple, a return to familiarity that may have been difficulty in times of war. Yet on another level, he appears to be referring to the unity among the Greek people-the `practical arithmetic' that kept them united though their political state was volatile. Essentially timeless, his counsel goes far beyond nationalism.
Moonlight Sonata, written in 1956, is an impossibly romantic and poignant lyric poem that feels more like a short story. In it, a middle-aged woman talks to a young man in her rustic home. As he prepares to leave, she asks to walk with him a bit in the moonlight. "The moon is good -it doesn't show my gray hair. The moon will turn my hair gold again. You won't see the difference. Let me come with you"
Her refrain is repeated over and over as they walk, with him silent and her practically begging him to take her away from the house and its memories:
I know that everyone marches to love alone
Alone to glory and to death
I know it I tried it It's of no use
Let me come with you
The poem reveals her memories as well as his awkward silence, yet at the end of their journey, she doesn't leave. Ritsos leaves the ending open: was it a dream? If not, why did she not go? What hold did the house have over her? Was it just the moonlight or a song on the radio that emboldened her?
In 1971, Ritsos wrote The Caretaker's Desk in Athens, where he was under surveillance but essentially free. At this time he seems to be translating himself-that of how he was processing his own personal history. Already acclaimed for his work, perhaps he was uncertain of his own identity.
From "The Unknown",
He knew what his successive disguises stood for
(even with them often out of time and always vague)
A fencer a herald a priest a ropewalker
A hero a victim a dead Iphigenia He didn't know
The one he disguised himself as His colorful costumes
Pile on the floor covering the hole of the floor
And on top of the pile the carved golden mask
And in the cavity of the mask the unfired pistol
If he is indeed discussing his identity, it's with incredible honesty as to both his public persona and his private character. After all, he'd been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 (and eight more times) and he was likely weighing, in his later years, all that he'd endured.
The beauty of this particular translation is that, while subjects and emotions change over time, they still feel united by the underlying character of Ritsos. Some translators leave their own imprint or influence, yet this feels free of such adjustment. It's as if Ritsos' voice itself has been translated, with the pauses, humor, and pace that identify the subtle characteristics of an individual.
Special thanks to Libros Libertad of Surrey, British Columbia for the Review Copy.
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No disrespect to the English language, but it's nowhere near as rich as the Greek, which makes the translator's job, so much harder.