#3

The third poem in this series is by a poet I think many are unfamiliar with. I, too, did not know who Yannis Ritsos was until my college poetry professor David Caplan assigned him to me as our final assignment in class years ago.

If I recall, the goal was to study the assigned poet and find what they have in common with my own work, and what I could learn from them to improve. Ritsos was a Greek communist who was famous for his prolific writing and leftist stances. As such, his works were periodically banned and he became the target of political retaliation, spending many years in and out of prision and workcamps.

At the time I was having trouble balancing imagery in my poetry with overarching, abstract messages. My professor couldn’t have selected a better model for my study. With the turmoil and war that Ritsos lived through you would expect to find heavy, message-laden verse. In Late Into the Night, we see Yannis’ last poems written before his death in 1990. While the tone is often sorrowful, it is full of simple, beautiful descriptions of Greek town life and the nature all around us. There are deep ruminations about life itself, how we interact with each other, and old ways that never leave us.

“Topography” is the perfect example of visual storytelling that is crisp, clean, vibrant, and still leaves the reader with a strong emotional resonance, though never having explicitly stated what it should be. And to me, that is what poetry should aspire to achieve.

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Topography

Donkeys, their hooves still caked in mud from the
crossings,
come into town lugging huge baskets of tomatoes, eggplant
and okra.
Some beat-up old farmtrucks come, too, with blaring
loudspeakers
selling huge watermelons in the hot sun. Then come the
fishermen
wandering the streets with a few sad-looking fry and
sardines.
Cats dart through the weeds, windows fly open.
Ah, for a breath of maistros! Curious tales, secrets
with gaping holes, are going around the harbor; clothespins
nip at towels, shifts and underwear in the courtyards;
cicadas and sparrows keep up their chatter. Of course,
you find less superstition in the countryside these days. At
night, however,
I often catch the old women flinging a bit of salt behind
the door,
I catch you, too, carving something on the wall
to exorcise the evil on the other side of the wall.

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