David Harsent, In Secret: Versions of Yannis Ritsos, 80 pp, £9.99 paperback, Enitharmon Press.

Ritsos is one of the great twentieth century poets and has been quite widely translated. Harsent doesn’t try to compete with the scholars of Modern Greek on the level of close translation. His outstanding achievement is to make the poems live and breathe in an English so natural and so finely honed that one seems to be reading poetry in the language of its original composition.

Many pieces reflect horrifying and depressing aspects of twentieth century Greek history and of Ritsos’s own experience, but their tone is never really gloomy.

This is partly a matter of style. They don’t press feelings on us. Sometimes the poet seems simply to notice things and record what he notices. Sometimes he offers surreal, dreamlike images and situations, presenting them in a bare, factual way that leaves us to respond as we will. In both cases the style seems simple and transparent but the effect is complex, volatile, often enigmatic. Both types of poem develop by side-steps and surprises. I think in this the style embodies the resilient vitality of a man who finds unexpected angles of interest in everything he looks at, who finds life itself, even in the harshest circumstances, a matter of wonder and inexhaustible potential.

Ritsos is very much a poet of sensuous experience and of the body. He’s also a poet of the elusive vibrations that sensuous experiences trigger in the mind. For example, in this haiku-like “tristich” the one word “absence” abruptly transforms what appears to start out as a simple concrete description into the presentation of a psychological state :

The windows shuttered, the house empty
apart from the sleek and naked
absence of your body on the bed.

 This also illustrates Ritsos’ ability to give a positive feeling to potentially gloomy subject matter. He delights the reader artistically by the surprising twist in line 3, and in terms of emotional content, instead of dwelling on the sorrow of absence, he makes the main focus of the poem something paradoxically positive: the way the missing body glows in the speaker’s imagination.

I’d like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for their permission to post this review, which appeared in The North 51.


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