David Harsent writes:
Like many writers, or so I suspect, I have found the lockdowns productive, not least the first. There is, in this, a sense of conflicted virtue: to have gained from what most people regarded as house arrest. My routine was (and still is) to start the day with a walk, then go to my desk at, let's say, 10 a.m. and stay there (with a break for a scratch lunch) until 6.30 p.m. or thereabouts. I might not be writing all that time; sometimes I read, sometimes I look out of the window, which is very often penless writing: the first stage in coaxing a poem from the silence. (Old joke: Q: Why would a poet never look out of the window in the morning? A: Nothing to do in the afternoon.)
During lockdown, I would go for a walk very early to avoid the nominally infectious still abed, and give a wide berth to those also out at 6 a.m. who, for safety's sake, I assumed to be fizzing with Covid-19. I would walk over Barnes Green, Barnes Common, Putney Lower Common, then back through Barnes old cemetery: wild, abandoned gravestones, a tangle of nettle, low brush and ivy, and my favourite inscription: ’Tis Death is dead not she. (I love the place. I doubt it would be possible to be buried there.) Then back to lockdown and the day's work. I did miss seeing friends, and sometimes missed being able to saunter to the pub, but a Scotch is a Scotch is a Scotch.
There is a weird nicety in that, throughout our virtual house arrest, I was making English versions of the poems Yannis Ritsos wrote while under gun-point house arrest during the Colonels' junta in Greece (April 1967 – July 1974). There was an international outcry when he was sent to prison camps and the dictatorship decided (I suppose) that house arrest would appease the insipid liberals of the more-or-less free world. He was sent to Samos, to the house where his wife – a GP – and his young daughter lived. Ritsos lived in Athens, or had until his arrest.
Throughout his life, Ritsos had been the subject of serial political persecution. In 1936, the Metaxas regime publicly burned Epitaphios, his poem of mourning for a young man shot by the police during a tobacco-workers' strike in Thessaloniki. Because Ritsos was a Communist, he was sent to prison camps during the 1946 – 1949 Civil War, when the Communist Greek Democratic Army (effectively a guerrilla force) was in conflict with the Greek National Army, the latter actively supported by America and given the nod (and more) by the British. Then came the Papadopoulos dictatorship when Ritsos, unsurprisingly, found himself on a blacklist. He was arrested and, again, sent to island prison camps. Poetry can, sometimes, be a dangerous business.
In a letter from Ritsos to his publisher, the poet sounds less happy to be under house arrest than among comrades at the (pretty brutal) prison camp on Leros. On Samos, he was under constant surveillance and mentions that those he might encounter when out for a walk would avoid his eye... or meet his eye and quickly look away... or, at most, risk the ghost of a smile. Spending his days alone (his wife, presumably, at her surgery, his daughter at school) was oppressive to him, even though it is the writers' quotidian. Oppressive because enforced.
My versions of his house arrest poems were made at a time when illness and death were uppermost in all our minds. For Ritsos, illness, and the threat of death, was nothing new. He had spent years, on and off, in sanatoria with TB; and a cancer that had been in remission had recently returned. But his country was, once more, under a dictatorship, and it was of this, not his personal trials, that he wrote. It was while on Leros that he began the "eighteen bitter songs" – double couplets – asked for by Theodorakis who wanted to set to music words redolent of the repressive and murderous regime that had imprisoned all of Greece. The songs were finished and revised on Samos.
All poets need day jobs and speak often about wanting to be free to focus solely on poetry. What a sour joke that despotism should have imposed that freedom on Ritsos and given him his subject. Ritsos' house arrest poems are about living under tyranny; he was always under threat, constantly watched by the secret police. For him the pressure was enormous, as was the risk; for me it was plague of a different kind and, in one way, advantageous; obviously, no comparison. Nonetheless, throughout my working day, as I brought his work into English, I felt a kinship. Two men behind closed doors, a measure of fear, the same poems...
from A Broken Man in Flower
Versions of Yannis Ritsos
Then we put on those old clothes patched
with scraps from the flag; in one pocket shreds
of tobacco, in another crumbs of black bread, a ticket
from the ferry to Salamis. A trace of gunpowder perhaps.
The clothes are too big for us now: we're thinner and older,
thinking has tired us out. Sunlight flooded the windows
throwing patterns on the floor; an old bucket tipped
and trundled down the grand staircase. "I'm not afraid of you" –
a child's voice up from the garden – "but you're afraid of me."
That Other Man
Three men at the window looking at the sea.
One spoke of the sea, another listened, the third
was fathoms deep. He floated up behind the glass,
clear in clear blue. In the wheelhouse of the sunken ship
he sounded the bell. Dead bell. A stream of bubbles broke softly.
Three men at the window. One asked, Did he drown?
The other nodded: Yes, he drowned. The drowned man
looked at them as a man might contemplate drowned men.
Before She Sleeps
Eleven o'clock. She washes the dishes.
She tidies the place. Not a sound. She sits on the bed
and takes off her shoes, then stops.
Somehow, the day won't end. What's left to be done?
The house isn't right. The bed and the table aren't right.
She holds her stocking up to the light to find the tear
she felt earlier. Nothing. So is the tear in the wall
or perhaps in the mirror? Yes: it lets in the voice of the night.
The stocking throws a shadow: a net cast in cold water.
A yellow fish swims through it. Blind yellow fish.
It's raining. He goes out. He walks in the rain.
He comes back. He shakes the rain from his coat.
He hangs his coat in the hall. He goes upstairs.
He looks out of the window at the rain.
Some days it rains, some days not. It's meaningless.
There's a bunch of rusty keys on a bench in the basement.
For some reason, they come to mind. For some reason
it comes to mind that rain never shows in a mirror.
Saturday, Sunday, Saturday again;
now Monday as well...
A quiet, colourless dusk.
Trees gone to darkness.
At supper: plates, glasses,
a half-empty pitcher,
pitiful hands of the abandoned...
A spoon is lifted;
it goes to the wrong mouth.
Someone is eating: who?
Someone is silent: who?
At the open window
a small forgotten moon gags on its own spit.
One gone away, one killed. As for the rest, who knows
what to say of them? It was no one's fault.
Seasons turn; oleanders come into bloom; as the sun
moves, so a shadow walks round the tree. That tub of water,
left out daylong, simmered in the heat.
We could have walked it round the tree
walking in shadow as the shadow walked,
finding a rhythm for that, a soundless music, until
there was nothing left of us but the shadow-dance.
David Harsent is a British poet and librettist. He has published twelve volumes of poetry. Legion won the Forward Prize for best collection; Night was triple short-listed in the UK and won the Griffin International Poetry Prize. Fire Songs won the T.S. Eliot Prize. His 2018 recent collection, Salt, was described by John Burnside, choosing it for his Book of the Year in the New Statesman, as "a masterpiece". His latest collection, Loss, appeared in January 2020. He has collaborated with several composers, though most often with Harrison Birtwistle. The New York Times described Birtwistle and Harsent as "a team creating alchemy". Birtwistle/Harsent collaborations have been performed at venues worldwide, including the Royal Opera House, BBC Proms, the Aldeburgh Festival, the Holland Festival, The Concertgebouw, The London South Bank Centre, The Salzburg Festival and Carnegie Hall. Harsent holds several fellowships, including Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Fellow of the Hellenic Authors Society. Homeland: Eighteen Bitter Songs was published by Rack Press earlier this year. The full volume of Harsent's versions of Ritsos's house-arrest poems – A Broken Man in Flower – will come from Bloodaxe in 2023.