Q&A: David Harsent
Tell us about your engagement with Yannis Ritsos’s poetry: what draws you to his work; does it resonate with your own; in what sense are these three poems “after” his?
I first came across Ritsos’s work in versions by Alan Page, published as a pamphlet by Ian Hamilton’s little magazine the Review. Twenty brief lyrics. I was immediately drawn to them. They had about them a concreteness that traded off image and event, and a concomitant deep mystery that depended on those same aspects. They seemed to be ready to explode at the touch. There’s a means to an end in his work that can, I suspect, be found in mine: slant approach, dark ter- ritory. These poems are noted as being “after” Ritsos because I have taken significant liberties in order to find versions in English that (in my view) do the originals justice.
Where and when do these poems take place? Do they describe, say, Greek towns at a particular point in history?
Certain of Ritsos’s poems could be dated with some precision given that his work was banned first by the Metaxas regime, then during the civil war, and later by the military junta. References to war, gunfire, and repression are evident in his work. Many poems were written while he was in prison or in island detention camps. However, I don’t think a poem like “The Accused” needs to be thought of as linked to a specific time or place. In fact, there’s a terrifying univer- sality about it.
Tell us something about the staircase in “Reversals”—how is it that the “dead /go up and the living go down?”
For the purposes of the poem, the dead are no less sentient than the living. There are many examples in Ritsos’s work of people saying they’re dead ... that they must be dead. An exchange in one poem goes: “‘You know, I suppose, that death is nothing more than an ugly rumor,’ he said./‘There’s nothing on earth to show that death exists.’ //‘I know it as only the dead can,’ she replied.” (My version.) In “Reversals” the dead and the living pass one another; they don’t make connection; maybe each denies the other; maybe the living are shades to the dead, just as the dead are shades to the living. That the dead move among the living is a staple of Greek drama. Ritsos’s work has much truck with the dead.
What could it be that the living and the dead “don’t know,” or pretend not to know?
That they are cheek by jowl. That they might, in some respects, be indistinguishable.
What might the women, and the children know? What are their secrets like?
The children, I think, know only what children know. The women know what only women know.
The “children bowling barrel hoops down the street” remind us of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Children’s Games,” in which kids have no toys, but make do with objects close at hand. Is there a connection?
I can’t say no because who knows where Ritsos got his image? But I doubt it. I suppose kids have improvised in that way through the ages.
There’s a strong undercurrent of violence here that is belied by what are, on the face of it, ordinary activities: filling jugs with water (in “Reversals”), looking in the mirror (in “Trapped”), locking the door to one’s house (in “The Accused”). How do the poems account for the transformation of day-to-day rituals into ominous and dangerous moments?
That transformation, and the unsettling ease with which it can be made, is part of Ritsos’s history and part of his genius. To gloss the three (insofar as that’s possible or, indeed, advisable): in “Reversals,” not so much violence, perhaps, as a strong sense of unease. The se- crets of the dead, the secrets of the living, the secrets that women hold close and keep to themselves, the tension that this juxtapositoning suggests. In “Trapped,” a notion of inescapability, a fear of being watched that becomes obsessive in a police state, the certainty that no one can be trusted. In “The Accused,” a nicely exaggerated conceit (though it’s reductive to say so, just as this kind of exposition is always reductive) in which an act as banal as locking your own door excites the overheated imaginations of the Mind Police.
The voice of the poet in these poems is, on the face of it, detached and taciturn. Yet he seems to have an intimate and even omniscient awareness of everybody’s inner lives. Where does a poet fit in, in such scenes as these poems evoke?
It might be seen not as taciturnity, but lightness of touch. (I have said of Ritsos elsewhere: His touch is light, but his effect is profound.) His method, in the short lyrics as in his much longer poems, is to report rather than to comment, and is never to explain or draw conclusions. In dramatic monologues like “The Dead House” or “The Moonlight Sonata,” direct speech does the job for him. The awareness of which you speak comes, surely, from ownership: the poems are his, as are the people, the events; he’s co-opted them, or they come directly from his imagination, or something of both.
Are the people described in each of these poems guilty or innocent?
Everyone is guilty. Don’t you know that?
David Harsent's latest collection is Fire Songs (Faber and Faber, 2014), which won the T.S. Eliot Prize. In Secret, his English versions of poems by Yannis Ritsos, was published in 2012 by Enitharmon Press.