Feb 5 2024
Poetry review – A BROKEN MAN IN FLOWER: Edmund Prestwich commends the power and effectiveness of David Harsent’s versions of poems by Yannis Ritsos
A Broken Man in Flower: Versions of Yannis Ritsos David Harsent Bloodaxe Books ISBN 978-1780376493 £12.99
David Harsent’s versions of the great Greek poet Yannis Ritsos make superb English poems. I can’t recommend them too warmly. They’re well complemented by an introduction by Harsent’s Greek-speaking collaborator, John Kittmer, that sets them in the context of Ritsos’s experiences under the dreadful Papadopoulos regime, and by a moving long letter Ritsos wrote to his publisher from house arrest on Samos.
Key to the poems’ power is the vivid cleanness of their lines and the speed with which they cover ground. Take the first four lines of ‘Penelope’:
Not that she was fooled by his disguise: she’d have known him by his scars for sure, by the way he cast his eye over the dead and dying suitors.
Everything here is condensed to essentials, significantly more so than in the original (not given here). Though that and Harsent’s version each have fourteen lines, the original seems to unwind slowly, in long, circumstantial lines, while Harsent’s version proceeds as a series of crisp detonations. The first line plunges us abruptly into the situation, using colloquial language to release ripples of dramatic suggestion without slowing the onward drive. Though Harsent does add a detail of his own, increasing the immediacy of the horror, he does so concisely: he has some of the suitors still dying. However, it’s also important that he gives the reader breathing spaces in which to absorb this packed material. Ritsos presents the poem as a solid fourteen line block. Harsent brings it to life as a sonnet, dividing it into two stanzas of four lines followed by one of six, with a shift of focus after the eighth line, so that the first eight lines present the dramatic situation and the last six move reflectively inward into Penelope’s mind.
The mythological setting of ‘Penelope’ is exceptional. Nearly all the other poems are more obviously topical, vividly evoking the terror, claustrophobia and atrocities of life under a brutal military dictatorship. What is remarkable is how little they’re tied to the particulars of that specific regime, country or period, how resonantly they speak beyond the circumstances of their inspiration. This seems to me partly a reflection of how Ritsos himself wrote and partly of how Harsent’s recreation of the poems emphasizes what’s universally applicable in them. They’re pared to essentials, and these essentials tend to have an elemental force. Syntactically, they’re organised in short bursts of utterance, one fact presented after another in a way that leaves it to the reader to supply connections. ‘As If Loukas’ illustrates the devastating power achieved by this hard, objective style:
His face darkened by fear. They gave him back his watch. His body bruised. They gave him back his belt. His hair on end. They gave him back his comb. Belt on first, or watch? Which pocket for the comb? What to do for the best? No way to know. He peered at his ID card. ‘Loukas,’ he said, then: ‘Loukas.’ He kept his eyes lowered. He put his watch on, hurrying slowly. He threaded his belt through the loops and pulled it tight. He stepped into the hallway: a foul smell from the ancient tile-and-trench urinals. In the street a boy from the coffee shop was boxing empty bottles. The voices of the guards echoed down the lightwell. He said, ‘Loukas... Loukas...’ as if to a stranger, as if in a foreign tongue. Lamps came on down the boulevard and in the museum garden.
The poem suggests the brokenness of Loukas’s mind almost purely by describing his actions and physical state and the sights, sounds and smells surrounding him. And yet how intimately we end up imagining the dazed way he takes in his surroundings as he emerges from the building. I suspect that the last line refers to the famous detention centre in Bouboulinas Street behind the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, from some of whose galleries it was said one could hear the screams of torture victims, but the spareness of the style makes it applicable to any situation of dictatorial violence or psychological disintegration. But this last line has a profoundly ambiguous effect. From one point of view it suggests how isolated Loukas is in his suffering. From another, perhaps, it hints at a hope of emergence from oppression. Readers may notice that this poem too is 14 lines long – sonnet length, though in this case it doesn’t feel to me sonnet-like in shape or movement. As in all these poems, Harsent uses the space around lines and stanzas with consummate skill, letting them fill with silent reflection. As a result, the poem seems to travel a huge distance in few words.
I said the poems vividly evoke the atmosphere of claustrophobia and oppression. And yet, as my last comment implies, there’s a paradoxical openness and freedom about them. Essentially, I think, it’s a matter of how Harsent’s Ritsos gives the reader the freedom and space to find his or her own responses instead of pushing them to a predetermined conclusion (except in the ‘Homeland’ section of 18 very brief poems, which I find less satisfactory). This is a poetry that works by the juxtaposition of what Ezra Pound called ‘luminous particulars’ that come together to invite reflection, often suggesting a range of situations. These situations can be literally possible, indeed all too likely in the Greece of 1967 – 1974, or they may have elements of surreal or metaphorical fantasy. The way they work, by juxtaposition of images rather than statements of feeling or idea, seems to me to reflect a fundamental feature of Ritsos’s own character. Despite his ideological commitment as a communist, he always, it seems to me, had a remarkable sympathetic openness to the multifariousness of the world, an ability to see what was there and to present it without interposing his own ideas or feelings between it and the reader. On rare occasions when his poems do make an overt comment, as in ‘The Studio’, they do it in a way that intensifies their impact while leaving the resonance of their images wide open:
White limestone, hammers, chisels: think of it, men stripped off for a life-class, athletes, muscular, each posed like the next, legs spread as if for balance, one arm raised. A skinny dog goes among them to drink foul water from a bucket. It is scarred by ticks and sores. The statues are naked, heroic, beautiful. Don’t laugh, don’t laugh. This is sad beyond words.
Ritsos is a brilliant imagist, and Harsent presents his images with great clarity. However, Harsent’s handling of sound and rhythm is at least equally important to these poems’ success as pieces of writing in English. Poems consisting of juxtaposed, often incongruous images could easily have come across as heaps of fragments. It’s a reflection of the skill with which Harsent has created balanced shapes within his lines, and of the unobtrusive way he has ensured harmonies of sound between them, that this doesn’t happen, that each poems holds together as an aesthetically pleasing whole. Beyond such essentially mechanical effects, sound and rhythm in these poems have remarkable expressive power. In fact some of the most evocative poems achieve emotional intensity almost entirely by rhythmic and phonetic means, as the first stanza of ‘From Nowhere to Nowhere’ does with its relentless tread and implacably deepening despair:
Water on stone. Water on stone in winter sun. Cry of a bird. Cry of a bird in an empty sky. Water and bird-cry have the sound of sorrows descending on tourist buses packed with the long-since dead.
The second stanza draws back from sheer immersion in the sensation of emptiness, introducing a reflective tone and more varied cadence but finds only sadness and haunted alienation. Its musicality is a wonderful achievement. For the technically minded, it’s dominated by dactyls – groups of syllables in which one stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed ones – and this gives it a lilting, falling effect made hesitant and precarious by momentary interruptions of the pattern. Through the poem as a whole, a dense weave of exact verbal repetition, internal rhyme and pararhyme both suggests the poet’s feeling of imprisonment and frees the reader from it by transfiguring constriction into beauty. In that, it’s typical of this remarkable book.