Fine Young Cannibal: What I Learned from Ritsos

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A Tribute to Edmund Keeley

As a teenager interested in poetry, I spent a lot of time scouring my father’s bookshelves for poems and poets who moved me, and, importantly for any creative writer, for something I could steal. Writers, after all, are cannibals. We eat what tastes good to us, to fuel our own creativity. In this short essay, I want to scroll back in time as far back as forty years to when I first encountered the work of the modern Greek poets, mostly in translation by Edmund (Mike) Keeley, work that was very much to my taste.

When I first took up writing seriously, I was a child of the three “W”s: Wordsworth, Whitman and Williams, seeking ways to write about “incidents and situations from common life” in “language really used by men” [and women], ways to “Sing America,” and ways to give “the news” through poetry, the spiritual and esthetic news for lack of which people “die miserably every day.”

At the same time, I was the esthetic child of a fourth “W”: James Wright, whose moving poems in The Branch Will Not Break about the spiritual devastation of the upper Midwest appealed to the imagination of this teenager growing up in the woods of Indiana. Wright was channeling the great tradition of lyrical, narrative surrealism in the poems of Georg Trakl and Federíco Garcia Lorca, some of my other early loves.

So, it should be no surprise that the first modern Greek poet to move me was Yannis Ritsos as ventriloquized by Edmund Keeley. Ritsos sings Greece in plain language, using a surrealism-charged and politically-wired depiction of incidents and situations from common Greek life. He is Wordsworth, Whitman, Williams and Wright all rolled into one, but with the political urgency of Lorca.

Listen to some of the extraordinary images he plucks out of the simple components of Greek island life:

the buttons on jackets gleam like scattered laughter [“Understanding”] …………. her sad hands began to cut thin slices of lemon for tea like yellow wheels made for a very small carriage made for a child’s fairy tale” [“Miniature”] …………. The clock holds its heartbeat for a moment [“Miniature”] …………. Deep roaring whirled around every star [“Point”] …………. Some power, secret, grieving made the trees dark [“Point”]

These simple images are not a retreat into the primitivist or the pastoral, though. Their sadness and secret darkness have a social and political valence, as well. After all, Ritsos was a great, radical poet whose life and work suffered under recurring dictatorships, his books burned and banned, and Ritsos himself sent to internal exile for years to a series of Greek islands and held under house arrest.  His long, political poems appealed less to me than the shorter plainspoken poems in which the political is glancing, subtle, biting, and intense. As he writes in “The Meaning of Simplicity,” “I hide behind simple things so you’ll find me.”

I love the deft simplicity of the opening lines of his poem “May 1” from his Diaries of Exile, co-translated with Karen Emmerich, for example:

The soldier crushed his cigarette into the ground. How easily every single thing can be crushed.

How powerfully this plain image works, a metonymy that causes meaning to leap like an electric arc between two contacts. And how much less powerful the image would have been as a simile or metaphor!

Many of the shorter Ritsos poems are not explicitly political, but they are infused with the pathos of being written under house arrest or in exile at a time of repression, and so when Ritsos allows a political line in, it comes both with shock value and with a kind of affirmation. They affirm the sense of uncanny threat that resides in many of the images of ordinary life. We see this in his poem, “Insomnia”:

This relentless repetition of the same illegible text— at the top of the sheet the rusted hole from the thumbtack, at the bottom two drops of black blood. The two—he said—the two, the double, the double sound, the double meaning. I’m tired of doors closed and open with the dead or women. Lefteris got going in a hurry before it started raining. Afterwards he came back with the damp blanket and the cap ……….belonging to the one who was executed.

The poem begins with a mysterious repetition of a text we cannot read, and with a page wounded by a thumbtack, and the reader wounded too, with “two drops of black blood.” The poem, in other words, is suffused with an ineffable violence.

The front door that Marcel Duchamp constructed in his Paris apartment swung on a hinge between the studio doorframe and the bathroom doorframe. When the bathroom door was open, the studio door was, of course, shut, and when the studio door was open, the bathroom was closed. A door normally vacillates between open and shut, but Duchamp’s door was simultaneously in a state of openness and closure. Similarly, Ritsos’s “Insomnia” has a “double meaning,” like a door that is both “closed and open,” like people dead or alive, or living under the shadow of death. The doubleness of the poem adds to its threat, and in fact doubleness, doppelgangers, the unhomelike home, and the split self are at the core the literary theory of the uncanny from Freud onward. The uncanny can be the threatening strangeness of a rusted hole or a door ajar or two mysterious drops of black blood, a violent expanding universe contracted into a small dark mirror.

After all of this threatening, elliptical imagery, the poem shifts register into a vernacular voice speaking: “Lefteris/ got going in a hurry before it started raining./Afterwards he came back with the damp blanket and the cap belonging to the one who was executed.” The last word of the poem, “executed,” makes us rethink everything we’ve read before. Suddenly a surreal poem becomes a political one, and “rusted hole from the thumbtack” melds in the semantic shadow of the poem with bullet holes, and the closed door suggests a life closed by governmental violence.

This is a technique Ritsos uses often, as when he ends his poem “Reduced Scale” with “the sound of explosions in the lower suburb,” or with the image of the tanks in the brief, brilliant poem, “Towards Saturday”:

The deep voice was heard in the deeper night. Then the tanks went by.  Then day broke. Then the voice was heard again, shorter, further in. The wall was white. The bread red. The ladder rested almost vertical against the antique lamppost. The old woman collected the black stones one by one in a paper bag.

Once those tanks roll by, every other moment in the poem takes on uncanny threat. The mysterious deep voice could be the voice of a person shouting orders or suffering violence, or some voice of the night itself calling out in the political darkness. Is the bread really red, as if soaked in blood? Or is it symbolically stained, so that even our sustenance is cannibalistic in times when the government turns against the people? What are the black stones that the old woman collects in the paper bag? The black hearts of the dictators? The dried blackened blood of the victims? The manifest words of the deep voice of the night?  All of the above or none?  No. And yes.

So often what is kept in translation is the meaning and what is lost is the poetry. Not in the case of that translinguistic collaboration that is Ritsos-Keeley. Keeley translates the linguistic machines through which the poem manipulates consciousness. From Ritsos via Keeley I learned to shift register to slap your readers across the face and wake them up.  I learned to put lines into a poem that you understand emotionally without wholly grasping, lines that can be simultaneously closed and open. I learned when writing a difficult, surreal, symbolic poem where much of the meaning happens underneath the surface to put a line into the poem that is the key to the poem so the readers can unlock it. And I learned that where metaphor and simile double your meaning, metonymy multiplies it. Then the poem is no longer a lock to be opened with the correct key. It is a key that unlocks the reader’s mind.

I present these thoughts to Mike Keeley, with thanks. Thanks for so many decades of making these immigrant Greek poems a home here in the American imagination. And thanks for being a key that helped unlock my mind when I was a young writer and throughout my career.

(Presented at the AWP Tribute to Edmund Keeley, Tampa FL 2018)