Yannis Ritsos – Poems, Selected Books, Volume II, Second Edition


Bit by bit we learn the world and our hearts

we try a word that weights equally on all lips

like the word mother

like the word bread

like the word comrade.

We dress broad beans and peel potatoes

we carry rocks and water

we take turns in cleaning the toilets and

we push the cart with our tiredness uphill.

For this our hands have the same movement

they grope for the silence and death during the night

they coil in fists inside the pockets

they study the lines of a rifle

as they once studied the body of a woman

they tie themselves on the mast of the flag

like they suckled their mother’s breast.

For this our eyes meet at the same spot gazing

          at the sea

as if we had no water for three or more days

and the water truck isn’t coming

and patience bites its hands.

At that time the same angry ship passes through

         every eye

a ship we know well

loaded with water pitchers and flags.

Then we don’t talk at all;

the eyes understand without words

only the feet kneed the mud harder

to make bricks, to pile them around the tents

to protect ourselves from the winter, the rain and

           the cold.

These bricks look nice made of reddish soil

a whole army of bricks, square, drying in the sunshine

         quiet, austere, thoughtful.

Our words have to be this way, I’m thinking,

kneed with reddish soil and sea

kneed by the strong, angry feet of the thirsty comrades

left to dry up in the sunshine and the wind

so we can build a lot of songs to protect our hearts

         from the rain and the cold.

We don’t talk.

The day before yesterday a comrade bit his tongue not

         to betray anything

another one cut off his hand to avoid signing his confession

yesterday they took 14 others to the military court.

At night I think of the words a cut off tongue could say

words a severed hand could write

some words, everyday words like bread on the lap

          of a hungry exiled

like the curse the unjustly treated keeps in his mouth

          during the night  

like the ah of a mother who lights her oil lamp over

the empty beds of her three children,

like the bitten bullet in the palm of a democrat.

The moon falls in through the hole of the tent like

          a severed tongue.

We’re still unable to talk.



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