Yannis Ritso's Language of Exile

Features and evolution

23 December 2022

Claudio Russello University of Oxford

When a Portuguese translator contacted me and asked me to write the afterword for his translation of Yannis Ritsos’s Ημερολόγια εξορίας [Diaries of Exile], I was presented with the occasion to reconsider a “minor” work of the Greek poet. Rereading those poems while working on his much more famous Τέταρτη διάσταση [Fourth Dimension], the Diaries struck me with their immediacy and conciseness, where the direct voice of the poet resonates in the barren landscape of confinement. The difference from the long dramatic monologues of mythological content was remarkable, and yet both works responded to very similar personal and historical contingencies, namely political persecution, imprisonment, and exile. Indeed, Yannis Ritsos experienced exile twice in his life because of his public support to the Communist movements in Greece: the first exile happened in the context of the Greek Civil War that followed the end of the German Occupation in the Second World War, and the second exile took place during the military dictatorship of 1967-74. However, the two exile experiences did not result in similar poetics, and until now there have not been many studies that explore the evolution of Ritsos’s language of exile.

Writing the afterword in Ritsos’s Portuguese translation coincided with the second GSN conference, that took place in Amsterdam on 15-17 June 2022. I took the latter as a chance to explore further specific poems that Ritsos wrote during both periods of imprisonment in order to identify his poetics of exile and, more importantly, to trace how such poetics transformed over time, from a collective dimension in the late 1940s to the intimist language of the late 1960s. Aware that Ritsos produced a great number of longer and shorter poems during those years, I limit my analysis to a selection of poems that I consider exemplary of Ritsos’s developing poetics of exile: the already mentioned Diaries of Exile of 1948-50, and one of the Fourth Dimension monologues, Chrysothemis of 1967.

 

1. Of mindscapes and collectivity – the Diaries of Exile

The Diaries of Exile is a collection of shorter poems divided into three parts, the first and the second written in four months between October 1948 and January 1949 in Limnos and the third one a year later between January and June 1950 in Makronissos. As the title itself suggests, this collection is conceived as a daily journal of impressions, descriptions, and recordings of the everyday life in the prison camp. 

My analysis of Ritsos’s language of exile draws from the framework offered by Zeng Hong (2010), who investigates the ‘semiotics of exile’ in the context of comparative literature from an unusual perspective. Zeng transcends the limited conception of exile as just a ‘geographical dislocation’ and considers it ‘also [as] cultural and psychological uprootedness’ (Zeng 2010, 1). Therefore, he opens a new path that I find to be particularly relevant in reading Ritsos’s poetry. Indeed, Zeng’s approach invites us to explore the connection of his poetry with the physical displacement of the poet into the different prison camps, but also with other seemingly unrelated elements of his poetry. According to Zeng, the “[p]oetics of exile means estrangement from the origin – disjointedness, disparity, decentralization, and marginality” (Zeng 2010, 33). In the Diaries, Ritsos weaves these elements within the fabric of a simple descriptive language, translating the trauma of exile into the everyday objects of the camp and into the natural elements of the surrounding landscape, while also subsuming his individual experience with that of the exiles’ collectivity.

 

The common physical elements of the prison camp, such as the barbed wire, the tents, even the dry bread, every tiny object becomes a signifier for the experience of displacement and isolation. Also, the natural elements of the island landscape (the moon, the thorny plants, the rocks, etc.) act as an echo chamber for the psychological strain that the exile exert. Ritsos, therefore, presents us a mindscape of the exile, which constitutes an “Aegean Sea ‘counter-discourse’ [...], a counter-narrative that targets Seferis’s and Elytis’s depictions of the ‘quintessentially Greek’ landscape of the Archipelago” (Athanassopoulou 2009, 19), as well as Ritsos’s previous depictions of the Greek landscape (as in Ρωμιοσύνη, 1945-7). Ritsos’s poetics of exile, therefore, signals a distance from the Greek literary modernists, since the landscape of the Diaries, but also of other exile poems, such as Πέτρινος χρόνος [Petrified Time], depicts “an alternative Aegean islands geography, a dystopic topography, where civic consensus is replaced by conflict, travelling is overrun by torture” (Athanassopoulou 2009, 20). We can see all this in the following poem: 

15 Νοεμβρίου [1948]

Ήρθαν οι εφημερίδες. Οι κινέζοι προχωρούν.
Βγήκαμε στο προαύλιο. Ένα μεγάλο φεγγάρι,
ένα τεράστιο κίτρινο φεγγάρι. Κι εμείς πώς χωράμε
σ’ αυτό το θάλαμο, σ’ αυτό το συρματόπλεγμα, σ’ αυτό το χρόνο; 

15 November [1948]

The newspapers arrived. The Chinese are advancing. 
We went out into the yard. A large moon, 
a huge yellow moon. And how is it that we fit 
inside these barracks, this barbed wire, this time?

(tr. Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keeley)

The newspapers, the barracks, the barbed wire, they all underline a sense of marginality, further amplified by the very last question: how do we fit in this present time? And the huge moon, instead of adding to the beauty of the island landscape, seems to fill the yard, taking away vital space from the prisoners.

Another example from the Makronissos exile:

14 Μαΐου [1950]

Τους συνηθίσαμε τους γλάρους
δε φέρνουν μήνυμα

Συνηθίσαμε …
τη σκιά ενός σύγνεφου αντίκρυ στο Σούνιο
τον ήχο της αλυσίδας που πέφτει στο νερό το βράδι
συνηθίσαμε να μας ξεχνάνε.

 

14 May [1950]

We’ve gotten used to the gulls
they bring no message
...
We’ve gotten used to ... 
the shadow of a cloud over Sounio across the way
the sound of the chain falling into the water at night
we’ve gotten used to people forgetting us.
...

(tr. Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keeley)

Nature here brings no solace to the displaced mind: the seagulls are silent, and even Sounio, overlooking the Aegean and Makronissos, is covered by the shadows of clouds. It is the muted mindscape of the exiles, resigned to oblivion.

We can also see here that Ritsos’s language of exile of this period ‘belongs’, let’s say, to the collectivity. Despite the diaristic form, which implies a personal approach to the exile experience, these poems hardly ever represent only the voice of the author; rather, Ritsos employs the plural first person εμείς, ‘we’, extensively, assuming the voice of the Leftist political prisoners. Where Ritsos doesn’t use the collective εμείς, ‘we’, he recurs to an impersonal εσύ, the singular ‘you’, whereby he seems to initiate the reader into the collectivity the poet represents, like in this poem: 

24 Μαΐου [1950]

Γράψαμε τόσες ωραίες διαθήκες
ποτέ δεν ανοίχτηκαν
δεν τις διαβάσανε
γιατί εμείς δεν πεθάναμε.

Και, σκέψου, τώρα
να μη μπορείς πια να προφέρεις
«  ε  μ  ε  ί  ς  »
χωρίς να χαμηλώσεις τα μάτια
χωρίς να κοκκινίσεις.

 

25 May [1950]

We wrote so many nice wills
they were never opened
no one ever read them
because we didn’t die.
[…]
And just think how it would be
if you could no longer pronounce
«we»
without lowering your eyes
without blushing.

(tr. Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keeley)

The poem opens in the plural first person, describing the uncertainty and desperation that brings the exiles together, and ends with the poet addressing directly an impersonal ‘you’ (“σκέψου”), who is called to be a part of this emotionally-charged collective ‘we’, highlighted on the third-to-last line.

 

2. Of intimism and exile in time – the case of Chrysothemis

The fifteen years between his release from Ai-Stratis in 1952 and the military coup in 1967 revolutionised Ritsos's poetic language, which was particularly influenced by the ideological crisis following the de-Stalinisation of the USSR in 1956 and, in my opinion, by his engagement with Constantine Cavafy’s and Vladimir Mayakovsky’s modernist poetry around 1963. Indeed, it is from 1956 that he starts experimenting with the form of the dramatic monologue and it is especially after 1963 that his poetry takes a pronounced and quite idiosyncratic mythological turn. The military coup and the following confinement accelerated this development in his poetry. Fruit of all these processes is Fourth Dimension, in which we find the long monologue Chrysothemis, daughter of Agamemnon and lesser-known sister of Orestes and Electra. I propose her monologue as an exemplary poem of this second phase of Ritsos’s language of exile for a couple of reasons: first of all, Ritsos composed the first three drafts of this poem in the prison camps of Yaros and Leros, between May and September 1967, i.e. immediately after the military coup of 21 April 1967, during the very first months of his exile. Secondly, this monologue in particular enters in conversation with the Diaries of Exile highlighting the radical changes in Ritsos’s poetics of exile.

As I showed earlier, in the Diaries the poet projects the exile condition onto the outside landscape and shares it with the fellow prisoners; in Fourth Dimension we have an opposite movement, a radical turn towards the individuality and the inner world of the subject, as well as a shift on the idea of the exile. Where the Diaries elaborate the exile mainly from a spatial stance, the monologues of Fourth Dimension present us a temporal exile. I draw on Zeng’s analysis of Jorge Luis Borges’s and Marcel Proust’s works, which he places at the end of a philosophical genealogy of the fourth dimension: “[Borges and Proust] share the same self-reflective circulation of infinity as defined by the concept of the fourth dimension through which binary contrasts are merged into a larger being. Both Proust and Borges recorded man as a banished spirit in time” (Zeng, 2010, 139). I would like to position Ritsos’s monologues in this genealogical line that connects his poetry of the Sixties and of the second exile with modernist tropes, and reveals Fourth Dimension as a masterpiece of what I call in my doctoral research ‘metamodernism’. With this term, I indicate a cultural attitude that saw Greek writers in the 1960s engage with the modernists and with modernism in order to address contemporary social and ontological concerns. My reading of Ritsos’s Chrysothemis, and of the whole Fourth Dimension project at large, is informed by this concept and some of its main features, in particular the monologist as an ‘exile in time’, the use of a reversed mythical method, and the ontological condition of the boundary.

Πώς έγινε και με θυμήθηκαν; Εμένα κανένας ποτέ δε με θυμάται. Κανένας
ποτέ δε με πρόσεξε.

Λοιπόν, μες από την αφάνειά μου, χαιρόμουν να βλέπω και ν’ ακούω. Μπορούσα
να ονειρεύομαι ελεύθερα. Είταν όμορφα, αλήθεια – σα νάζησα
έξω απ’ την ιστορία, σ’ έναν δικό μου ανέγγιχτο, απόλυτο χώρο,
προφυλαγμένη, και παρούσα ωστόσο.

How did they come to remember me? No one ever remembers me. No one
ever paid any attention to me. 

So, in my obscurity, I liked looking and listening. I could
dream freely. It was marvellous, really – as though I lived
outside of history, in my own intact and absolute realm,
Protected, and yet present.

(tr. Peter Green and Beverly Bardsley)

This is how Chrysothemis begins her monologue, surprised for the sudden interest in her since she has always been always left to the margins of her own myth. However, it is now, in the harsh first months of the second exile, that Ritsos brings her back, giving her a voice. We find her in the contemporary world, indeed dislocated from her own mythological time, seemingly immortal and yet a centuries-old woman: 

Έφυγαν όλοι. Τώρα κάθομαι εδώ και κοιτάω και ξεχνάω και θυμάμαι.
[…]
Βάζω τα χέρια μου στα γόνατά μου ˙ αγγίζω το κενό ˙ κρατιέμαι
απ’ το κενό.
 
They all went away. Now I sit here and watch and forget and remember.
[…]
I place my hands on my knees, I touch the void, I’m controlled
by the void.

(tr. Peter Green and Beverly Bardsley)

And it is in this timeless silent void that surrounds her, which we could identify with the fourth dimension, that she finds her freedom and the chance to redeem her own exile: “The only form of freedom left was silence” [Μόνη μορφή ελευθερίας |απόμεινε η σιωπή] and then again “(I think that only the punished have time and means to reflect; only the punished really grow up –best not to show it– preserving right to the end all the stages of their growth)” [(και θαρρώ πως μόνον οι τιμωρημένοι | έχουν καιρό και τρόπο να σκεφτούν˙ μόνο οι τιμωρημένοι | μεγαλώνουν σωστά – κι ας μη φαίνεται – | διατηρώντας ως το τέλος

όλα τα στάδια της αύξησής τους)]. In projecting these characters from the mythological past into the critical present, Ritsos reverses the traditional modernist mythical method: “Forgive, forgive, forgive me in my triviality, whose grounds for pride in achievement are – nothing” [Συγγνώμη. Συγγνώμη. Συγχωρήστε με | εμένα την ασήμαντη, που για πράξη καμμία | να περηφανευτώ δεν έχω – τίποτε]. Instead of ordering the present and giving it shape, for the metamodernist Ritsos not even mythology is enough to make sense of the critical present of the poet in exile, and on the contrary, mythology exposes the criticality of the present and the missing points of reference.

 

Comparing Ritsos’s language of exile in Chrysothemis with that of the Diaries, we can observe that the exile experience undergoes a significant shift: while the Diaries (and the other contemporary poems) correlates the exile with the external space, through the everyday object and the barren landscapes of the prison islands, Chrysothemis and the other mythological characters speak of a humanity exiled in time, disjointed from its past as much as it is from its present. This shift is also reflected in Ritsos’s poetic voice, which changed from the identification with the collectivity, into the intimacy of the individual’s mind and memories, so that the ‘we’ gives way to the multi-dimensional depths of the ‘I’. Charting Yannis Ritsos’s language of exile invites us not only to think of the political confinement under the perspective of a physical displacement, associated with feelings of uprootedness and marginality; it also asks us to rethink it as a psychological condition, where the exile lives in a heterotopian space of suspended time and becomes, with time, not only a space, but also a way to think, to express, and to utter a voice. The poetics of exile reveals an unresolved present, in which an aging and agonising mythology returns to signal a transition from a failing cultural system in the 1960s to an uncertain future. As the monologues' closing stage directions reveal, humanity is always pushed forward in the never ending durée of time.

 

References

Athanassopoulou, M., 2009. Reconsidering Modernism: The Exile Poems of Giannis Ritsos. Κάμπος: Cambridge Papers in Modern Greek, Volume 17, pp. 1-26.

Ritsos, Y., 1976a. Ημερολόγια εξορίας 1948-1950. 3rd ed. Athens: Kedros.

Ritsos, Y., 1976b. Χρυσόθεμις. In: Τέταρτη διάσταση 1956-1972. 6th ed. Athens: Kedros, pp. 161-188.

Ritsos, Y., 1993. The Fourth Dimension. London: Anvil.

Ritsos, Y., 2013. Diaries of Exile. Brooklyn: Archipelago Books.

Zeng, H., 2010. The Semiotics of Exile in Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

The island of Makronissos seen from Mikrolimano, Attica. Picture taken by the author on 13 March 2022
The island of Makronissos seen from Mikrolimano, Attica. Picture taken by the author on 13 March 2022

Claudio Russello is a DPhil candidate in Modern Greek Studies at Merton College, University of Oxford. His research focuses on the intersection of modernism, Greek culture of the 1960s, and classical reception. With a background in Chinese Studies and Translation Studies, his interests also include comparative literature and literary translation.