Encounters: Yannis Ritsos and the Messages in the Bottle

Yannis Ritsos wrote at all costs. On the small barren island of Makronisos—the infamous political prison during the Greek Civil War (1946-1949)—he wrote in secret on anything at hand, scraps of paper, cigarette packs. He hid his work from the guards. He buried it in bottles in the ground.

Originally published in 1975, a portion of that work known as Diaries of Exile, for a long time out of print, is now available again thanks to the estimable Archipelago Books. As Karen Emmerich (co-translator along with Edmund Keeley) writes in the introduction, “The Diaries of Exile ... [are] situated in a space between genres: part poem, part diary, part letter to the world. … [Ritsos] couldn’t be sure whether they would ever make it off the island.”

Here is his entry from February 7, 1950:

Shadows loaded with stones
the barbed wire
you forgot the pronunciation of your name.
A black cat runs
with the moon tied to its tail.
Such great silence
and nobody wakes.

The book, composed of three diaries, covers several years of the poet’s exile in various Greek political prisons, the harshest of which was Makronisos. Here, Emmerich writes of Ritsos’s re-arrest nearly twenty years after his first incarceration on Limnos: [I]n 1967 when a coup plunged Greece into the seventeen-year darkness of a military dictatorship ... Ritsos would be arrested almost immediately...”  When he arrived in the camps of Yaros and, later, Leros, Ritsos—so the story goes—told his fellow prisoners that it felt like he was coming home again.

All the while, the poet did the only thing he could. Even after his final release from the camps, Ritsos, now under house arrest, continued to write. The Diaries reveal a poet who knows that to survive he must pursue his work, as in the following entry:

Yet we did not come into the world
only to die.
Since at dawn
it smells of lemon peel.

And then a few days later as he struggles with his fate—that of prisoner and a man who, by necessity, must write in order to live: “Your mistake is that you don’t want to die.”

In 1971, while under house arrest in Samos, Ritsos wrote a letter to his longtime friend Aris Alexandrou, author of Mission Box, a classic novel of the Greek Civil War: “The only thing I always urged upon my friends and myself was (and is) as much a principle as a method, a form of therapy or salvation: work.”


You can find Yannis Ritsos’s Diaries of Exile through Archipelago Books, at Avenue Bookstore and at all good bookstores around Australia, through Amazon and your local neighborhood bookstores in the United States.

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