In April of 1969, Greek poet Yannis Ritsos had already been confined to his home on the island of Samos for some 150 days. The isolation had begun to take a severe emotional and psychological toll, and was eroding his one great talent, which had seemed inalienable (and vital) under such circumstances. He took great pains to explain what it was like:
I want to impose some order: to speak slowly, carefully. But this is so at odds with the suffocation I feel within, with my innermost stress and anxiety, that I get the impression it’s no longer I who am speaking, that it’s just not me. My dear, I wish I could have recorded these dense, inner vibrations (mere noises really) automatically, without my writing-hand, my mind, my words getting in the way. The only thing that forms in my mouth is: choking, choking, choking, choking. And again: choking, choking. But at long last I must speak.
This passage, excerpted from a letter that Ritsos wrote to his friend and publisher, Nana Kallianesi, serves as a rare glimpse into the tortured poet’s mindscape—his “inner ‘life’”—during a particularly trying time, when the leading communist writer was rounded up in the wake of Greece’s Colonels’ coup.
Ritsos’s letter, reproduced in full, frames A Broken Man in Flower (Bloodaxe Books, 2023), an elegant new collection of versions by poet David Harsent. Harsent’s interest in Ritsos sparked in 1969, when he first encountered the poet’s work in the form of versions by Alan Page that were published in The Review.
Versions, developed on the basis of crib translations—literal, first-draft translations produced by someone else’s hand, often a native speaker—and sometimes combined with discussions with that interlocutor—in the case of this book, John Kittmer, former British ambassador to Greece, who wrote his PhD thesis on Ritsos—have been the subject of much debate. While falling loosely under the rubric of translation, versions have been considered with skepticism and suspicion, opening up questions about the ethics of such practices. They also provide a lesson in the practice of translation by reinforcing the notion that the possible iterations of any given text are endless and dependent on myriad factors, including the structural differences between source and target language, the cultural mores associated with each, context, subjectivity, and more.1
Harsent’s versions draw from a particular portion of Ritsos’s wide-ranging oeuvre that was produced during his confinement to a prison camp on Leros (June 1967–October 1968) and subsequently his home on Samos (October 1968–November 1970). While the collection includes an excellent and thorough introduction by Kittmer that details some of the contextual factors at work in the rendering of these versions, it would have been helpful to gain further insight into the versioning process from the poet-translator (a term used by translation theorist Lawrence Venuti) himself.
Ritsos’s life and oeuvre serve as a window into modern Greek history. He was born in 1909 and lived to see two dictatorships, the Metaxas regime (1936–1941) and the junta (1967–1974). His friendship with composer Mikis Theodorakis, famous for his score of Zorba the Greek, was forged through a shared politics. Ritsos was extraordinarily prolific and resilient in the face of state oppression, and stands alongside Constantine Cavafy, Odysseas Elytis, and Giorgos Seferis as a giant of Greek modernism. “Epitaphios,” a poem in the form of a lament that was penned in 1936 and burned by the Metaxas regime, is perhaps Ritsos’s most celebrated, and, set to music by Theodorakis, has defined him as a figure of the Greek left.
Incidentally, Ritsos also translated and versioned, using Greek crib translations and French translations as an intermediary to produce Greek versions from Russian (of the work of Vladimir Mayakovsky, among others), Turkish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Spanish, Romanian, and Czechoslovak. He was a hard critic of translations of his own work, tending to favor more literal translations over more interpretive ones.
There are striking similarities in the particular conditions under which both originals and versions of the poems of A Broken Man in Flower were produced: an unusual interlude of isolation, where a sense of mortality and existential crisis was heightened. The collaboration between Harsent and Kittmer began during the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Kittmer writes, “in the conditions of our national lockdown, David Harsent succeeded in finding a real point of convergence with Ritsos.”
This particular collection, however, begs the question: what is lost and what is gained from a version not freighted (in the translator’s mind) by the original, divorced from the language that gave rise to it, yet driven by a deep familiarity with the original author’s broader output, albeit in translation? Harsent consulted examples of all nine series that Ritsos produced during confinement on Leros and Samos, and previously published another collection of Ritsos’s verse in 2012, under the title In Secret: Versions of Yannis Ritsos. His versions are unyielding in their consistency, and the poet-translator has succeeded in finding an apt literary voice for a well-curated collection of poems.
The poems of A Broken Man in Flower are dark, melancholy, raw, realist, and firmly anchored in the doldrums of prison life. “Don’t laugh, don’t laugh. This is sad beyond words,” one verse warns. Even as the collection wrangles with themes of solitude and despair, it is laced with slivers of evanescent beauty. A litany of figures from Greek mythology appear—Orestes, Poseidon, Odysseus, and Penelope (as well as the great ship of the Argonauts)—not as heroes, but among the decrepit and fallen. In a poem titled “Penelope,” Ritsos places the faithful wife of Homer’s Odyssey in a long-awaited homecoming tinged with bitterness, pain, and resignation, where traces of violence are still visible:
What was there to say? Twenty years of waking dreams,
[. . .]
a greybeard dappled with gore. “Welcome,” she said,
in a voice she barely knew, he barely recognized.
Harsent’s agility as poet-translator is most evident and distinct in the poem “Naked” (and others, including “Birdcall”), with its sibilance in the form of hissing s’s and assonance, which make it a beauty to hear recited.
“Baptism,” the first poem of part two of this three-part collection, comes from Ritsos’s time in the Partheni prison camp on Samos. This series, titled “Homeland: 18 Bitter Songs,” was prompted by Theodorakis, who had asked Ritsos to write him a poem of resistance. Instead, he came up with sixteen, all written in a single day following a brief month in Athens, where he underwent cancer surgery. The poem brings the words, “with wings to fly” into the realm of the living, endowing them with the power to act:
One word—freedom—is hidden from the rest. Its wings
are swords. Soon it will rise and hack into the wind.
I recommend reading A Broken Man in Flower not only for its mesmerizing formalist strength and ingenuity, but for its profound importance as a document of courage and resistance against a brutally repressive regime, a testament to the quiet yet formidable might contained in the poet’s verse. In the shrunken world of the individual under both confinement and the microscope of surveillance, we watch as time cinematically slows down, and man becomes his own sole companion:
He talks to himself as he works:
‘Have you had breakfast? How did you sleep?’
And in “Blocked,”
[. . .] time will go on as it must:
Chime nine, ten, eleven, twelve . . . chime one . . .
[. . .]
The old woman crosses herself.
Spoon goes to mouth. Bread falls to the floor.
The final poem of the collection, titled “Testament,” from Ritsos’s time under house arrest, is so disarming that it stops you in your tracks. It is incantatory in the manner of a prayer and, once again, lays bare the power and import of poetry itself. It is a sort of magic that the poet can perform, an alchemy—“A river flows from my fingertip”—that brings a whole world to life with the pen.
[ . . . ]
I believe in poetry, so I believe in the immortal.
I write lines: I exist. I write in the world: the world exists.
A river flows from my fingertip. The sky is impossibly blue.
This vision is all I have and all I need.
In his letter to Kallianesi, Ritsos would go on to confide his fear that poetry would make his desolate reality “more real”:
Once we used to say that poetry could be a way out, an exit from unpalatable reality. Now I know once more that poetry lives and molds reality, making reality’s reflection simpler and more vivid in the soul and in human consciousness. That’s why I can’t write.
“In Flower,” the eponymous poem of the collection, was “enticed out of a poem” that originally appeared in the collection Gestures, which Ritsos had written just months after that letter to Kallianesi. Harsent’s version reads:
He buried his voice in himself: an explosive silence.
If I explode, he thought, I’ll gather the pieces in silence
and put myself back together.
Beauty reemerges at once, and we are confronted with the poet reborn out of the crucible of misery, heartache, and the deafening, heartrending silence. “And that’s how it is—a broken man in flower.”
1. See Lawrence Venuti, “The Poet’s Version; Or, an Ethics of Translation,” in Translation Changes Everything: Theory and Practice (Routledge, 2013): 173-192↩
© 2023 by Suzana Vuljevic. All rights reserved.