by Yannis Ritsos
Translated by Edmund Keeley
The woman stood up in front of the table. Her sad hands
begin to cut thin slices of lemon for tea
like yellow wheels for a very small carriage
made for a child's fairy tale. The young officer sitting
is buried in the old armchair. He doesn't look at her.
He lights up his cigarette. His hand holding the match
throwing light on his tender chin and the teacup's
handle. The clock
holds its heartbeat for a moment. Something has been
The moment has gone. It's too late now. Let's drink our
Is it possible, then, for death to come in that kind of
To pass by and go away? And only this carriage to
with its little yellow wheels of lemon
parked for so many years on a side street with unlit
and then a small song, a little mist, and then nothing?
Yannis Ritsos (1909 - 1990) was one of Greece's finest and most celebrated poets, and was nine times nominated for a Nobel Prize (His Marxist background worked against him) . Louis Aragon called him 'the greatest poet of our age'. He wrote in the face of ill-health, personal tragedy and the systematic persecution by successive hard-line, right-wing regimes that led to many years in prison, or in island detention camps. Despite this, his lifetime's work amounted to 120 collections of poems, several novels, critical essays, and translations of Russian and Eastern European poetry. His poems possess striking emotional resonance and are so pared-down, so distilled, that the story-fragments we are given - the scene-settings, the tiny psychodramas - have an irresistible potency.
I have read many poems on death and its suddenness. This is a poem that is somehow indelible from my mind.
The poetic moment also unites time and timelessness. The chatter and business of everyday life, like preparing tea, is ruled by the clock, but the imagination exists between moments, when “The clock/ holds its heartbeat.” At these moments, all such sound and fury are suspended, but the stilled “heartbeat” of the clock is also associated with death, which is brought in the fairy tale’s carriage.
The smell of lemon peel, makes one want to live. Lemons always symbolize a desire for life for Ritsos. Ritsos’s vision is tragic, not pessimistic or nihilistic. As a Marxist, he sees “nothing” at the end of life to justify existence; as an existentialist, he believes that one makes one’s meaning along the way. The nothingness of death is preceded by “a small song, a little mist.” Finally it amounts to a small tragic song of memory and vanishing forever into the mist.