An early entry in Yannis Ritsos’s Diaries of Exile begins, “Lots of things give us trouble. Lots.” Such directness is common in Ritsos’s work, yet in this collection, recounting his years as political prisoner during and after the Greek Civil War, Ritsos finds particular resistance and solidarity in daily action and observation. Throughout, Ritsos hints at the powerlessness of his position: “If we try to open a door / the wind shuts it.” “I want to compare a cloud / to a deer. / I can’t.” “I want to write Mitsos a poem / not with words / but with yellow lilies.” Yet for every instance in which poem-seems-not-enough, another glimpse at the quotidian arrives with the force of epiphany:
The three lighted windows
in the closed-up-house.
Was it ours once?
like the light we miss.
In recent years, the island of Limnos, where Ritsos wrote the first two sections of Diaries of Exile, has been the landing point for a fair number of Europe-bound refugees. In one account, a farmer welcomed these new arrivals despite his neighbors’ wariness, explaining: “If they would have seen these people’s eyes, they would have changed their minds in a minute.” Ritsos’s writing is a similar—and timely—testament to the power of intimate vision versus political forces.