Beverley Bie Brahic is charmed by a collection of taut, laconic lyrics from Greece's preeminent poet
I don't know if it's the same in Greek, but in French, en secret is a loaded phrase, with the usual connotations of "secret", but also of "in solitary confinement", which seems apt for the poetry of a man who spent a good part of his life resisting fascism, sometimes in prison.
Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) is one of Greece's preeminent 20th-century poets. Revered in his own country and abroad, he's a perennial bridesmaid on the Nobel Prize list. He wrote broadly and copiously; his translator, David Harsent, gives us in this attractive volume a selection of short lyrics, many of them political, that show Ritsos's sympathy for the lives of ordinary folk: women airing sheets, mourners "scuffing their feet, heads down … wearing coats that no longer quite fit": the eternal carriers-on.
Ritsos's style is plain but taut; his sentences are understatedly declarative, even flat; between the lines, however, there's a lot going on. The first poem, "A Break in Routine", takes pronouns for protagonists:
They came to the door and read names from a list.
If you heard your name you had to get ready fast:
a busted suitcase, a bundle you might carry
over your shoulder, perhaps; forget the rest.
With each new departure, the place seemed to shrink.
He thereby involves the reader in separating the good, who mostly come to no good, from their persecutors; and suggests the dehumanising (and bureaucratising) nature of tyranny. A few laconic but concrete details almost always suffice to sketch a situation and its potential for black comedy – in "A Break in Routine" (note the irony of the title) there's an anecdote involving an alarm clock.
Many poems have a surrealist element. They juxtapose rather than proceed chronologically or logically, from cause to effect; they contain enigmatic and startling images that give the reader the pleasure of ferreting out connections, much as we do when we look at a cubist painting that combines figures and colour planes, or at a surrealist painting by, say, De Chirico, with its congealed dreamscapes. Here is "The Acrobat", a favourite subject of Picasso and Apollinaire:
He walked on his hands, so perfectly upside-down
that he seemed to make past present, present past.
Then the floor opened and swallowed him.
We looked at each other: who would ever believe us?
A moment later, the doorbell rang.
There he stood, with a basket of oranges.
It's sleight of word, and utterly charming. Perhaps the best method of reading such a poem is to turn the thing over and over in one's hands and get the feel of it. And as with Apollinaire, and the surrealists who came along after the first world war, the presence of women is strong; it stokes the erotic muse: "He thinks there must be a woman in every mirror, naked, locked in. / He thinks the woman he's thinking of fell asleep // smelling the faint odour of a distant star, / the self-same whiff of scorch that now keeps him awake." ("The Same Star"). A Ritsos poem's protagonists, male and female, are equally prey to the terror of daily life: "Men and women. Gardens and books. They come and go. / And that tinny tinkle you heard / just before dawn wasn't the mail arriving. / It was the old bell-wether leading lambs to the slaughter." ("The Bell").
In Secret, which David Harsent calls "adaptation or hommage" rather than close translations, will be a fine addition to one's Ritsos shelf, or a good place to start one.
• Beverley Bie Brahic's White Sheets and Apollinaire: The Little Auto, are both published by CB editions.