Yannis Ritsos

Translated from the Modern Greek by Jena Woodhouse

from VIGILANCE (1941-2)


The Silent Season




A balcony suspended in the sky,

a little cloud that embitters the sea - the cloud grows,

a shepherd's fire goes out in the woods after rain.

Evening gathers her damp petticoats from the wire

before lighting her lamp behind the mountain.


The colours and the children leave, only the stones remain,

the blood drains from the day's veins,

two broad, flat raindrops dissolve in water,

the cigarette smoke is the face of the smoker on the quay.


Now we must close the shutters,

we must bring our landscapes inside. It is humid.


Twilight lingers on the window panes, distant,

like a programme from a local folk festival when the crowds disperse

and the little coffee houses and tavernas of the square empty.

Shadow clings to the sheepfolds and island houses

as coal-dust clings to the face of the stoker. No-one has come.


But still you hold in your palms

the osier's embittered breath,

the acrid wind of the vineyard

and a patch of sea visible behind the mesh of a pine bough.

They have not taken everything from us.


Soon our night will arrive to end the silence with a star quatrain,

to leave its great pickaxe at our door,

and leave its silent moon hanging beside us

as our mother before going to sleep leaves her wedding ring on the bedside table.


The sea stays behind the closed eyelashes,

a half-seen face glimpsed behind the bars of rain.

The drunken sailor scratched the name of his sweetheart with a pocket-knife

on the door of the tavern, in the foreign harbour

at the hour when dawn was taking a large rusty key from its pocket

and was unlocking the granaries and coal cellars.

We said something simple then - I don't remember what,

I have kept only the sound of your voice

in the same way as the warmth of two bodies lingers on morning sheets.

And we knew that nothing had been lost. We knew it well.


Later we went out onto the road. The road was a stranger.

The light measured the loneliness of the previous night.

The station clock was like the last page of a book

and everything you were saying brought from your mouth the name of our homeland,

the way you'd unpack a thick rustic vest from a travelling case.


Thus nightfall found us on the street. The streetlamps didn't know us.

The houses didn't wish us good evening. The windows peered inward.


The gong for the change of watch is leaden

and yesterday's wild weather and the bulb of the customs house -


But again above the masts, above the chimneys

that spring star - look! - has no intention of waning,

like an old date inscribed on the wall of a cabin

by the doleful hand of the captain's lady.


And here the night that goes grubby and barefoot,

the night comes like a tame black dog of the port

falling asleep on the sacks of our souls, facing the sea.

The night is waiting for something. So are we.


Before too long we shall hear from afar the whinnying wind.

A large drop of water will say: I remember,

another will say: I'm beginning again.

The sponge divers who have taken as kin the weeds of the deep

will come up on the wharf to light their pipes

and gaze at the stars and the weather omens,

and make fast the mooring lines

while we ascend twice the number of stairs as we descended

until all the colours of the chart dissolve into one.

See how already, above the town,

the wind is pasting large posters of clouds.




Rainy Weather


Sit by the window. The first rains of autumn absolve the trees

in the twilight.

A leaf turns yellow in your hands. You no longer know the day's



The two keys on the table brood on all the things locked away

at the hour when the spiders turn their webs inward

and the ashtray takes its place in the room

just as a star takes its place in the heavens.


Over here every word falls soundlessly amid the silence

like the ash of a burnt letter from someone's sad fingers.

It would be better then to gather our days, to fold them

as we fold summer clothes to stow in a chest,

to clasp our hands on our knees,

now that the clouds are yawning on the roofs,

now that the silence is etched so deeply into your face,

like the silence of a student's room

when outside the deluge intensifies.


Here the year's cast-offs are assembled -

it is quiet over here, almost warm,

you can close your eyes and listen to the night

approaching -

that distinctive footfall on broken heels -

and the voice behind her threadbare veil

has an aloof civility

and there is a silent happiness behind the closed blinds,

like touching with sorrowing fingers amid the darkness

that very hand, the tortured hand of our old friend.


Perhaps outside a few autumn stars linger,

like a few drops of cognac in raki glasses in an empty room

when the guests have already left with Nausicaa,

a sprig of light on her shoulder,

and the mother remains all alone in the evening mirror,

to unhook her smile with a weary hand,

with the same movement as every evening when she removes

her hairpins.


Later the wind abruptly subsided

and the whine of the dog was heard in the courtyard of the hanged man,

and later in the room the sound of the clock

like rain falling drop by drop into a leaden sea.


Throw another blanket on the bed.

At daybreak it's chilly. Now what were we saying?

Ah, yes, I nearly forgot that letter.

The postman brought it this afternoon. It might be from my sister.


Your knees under the table are as embittered

as coils of rope on the quay in winter,

and lamps accidentally left alight at dawn

in a seaside room with an empty canary cage

and a stubbed-out cigarette on the tin wash-stand.


But I don't want to, I can't stay in here.

That photograph that has dozed off inside its smile,

the little glint on grandfather's abandoned spectacles,

the coffee cup with the cigarette butts, the old newspaper -


How to reverse the evening's face in the mirror?

Again the spectacles, the cigarette butt - the same.

Within the mirror nothing changes.


A falling star lighted up a sea-captain's mouth clenched

on his pipe - he doesn't speak,

a horse becomes lost alone in the forest,

an eye in the pit of night

takes aim.


Nobody speaks. Riding at anchor, the ship shows no lights.

Gently, gently. Give me your hand, here is mine. Do not speak.

But you've to wake early tomorrow. The dawn cannot wait -

tomorrow when the light falls on the trees,

tomorrow when the windows to seaward say thank you to the sun.

But the sun never ever pardons so much tardiness.


Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) was incarcerated in various detention camps, including those on the former prison islands of Yaros and Makronisos, for his left-wing political beliefs, which took the form of a lifelong commitment to ideals of social justice. His poetry received many international honours and awards and was nominated ten times for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many of his poems have been incorporated into musical compositions by composer Mikis Theodorakis and other Greek composers.

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