This poem is from a collection by Ritsos called The wall inside the mirror and it was written in the village of Partheni on the Dodecanese island of Leros where he was being held in an internment camp by the Greek Junta. The date of its composition, 13 December 1967, also happens to be a very significant one in the history of the Junta.
On that day King Constantine attempted to stage a counter coup against the Colonels’ regime. He and his family flew to Kavala, east of Thessaloniki to try to rally loyal troops against the regime and then to take Thessaloniki. But the attempt was foiled by officers and troops loyal to the Junta and Constantine was forced to leave Greece and take refuge in Rome. He never returned and the monarchy was eventually abolished in 1973.
We walked up on the hill to see our country –
humble dwellings, modest fields, stones, olive trees.
Vineyards stretch down to the sea.
Next to the plough a little fire is smoking. From the old man’s clothes
we made a scarecrow to keep off the jackdaws. Our days
take their course with a little bit of bread and a lot of sun.
Beneath the poplars a straw hat is gleaming.
The cock on the gate. The cow on the yellow earth.
How did it happen that with a stone hand we dealt with
our home and our life? On the lintel
is the soot, year after year, from the Easter candles –
little black crosses that the dead traced
when they came back from the Easter Day service.
This place is much loved, with patience and pride.
Every night from the dry well the statues cautiously come out
and climb into the trees.
This poem haunts me a lot. It depicts an ordinary countryside scene, such as you could find all over Greece. A familiar and much loved land in all its ordinary detail. A land with a deep history and familiar, comforting traditions, like tracing the sign of the cross over the lintel at Easter. But at the same time there is all this unbelievable stuff going on: the poet is in exile, the country is in the vice-like grip of a dictatorship, the king has just tried to seize power back. How on earth did we get here?
I think this poem speaks to me so clearly because it expresses how I feel about the state of our own country at the moment. How the hell did we get here? It’s not a comfortable place to be, in the same way that being held in an internment camp wasn’t for Ritsos.
But strangely there is something comforting about the extraordinary image at the end of the poem. Though the source of life, the well, is dry at the moment, the country still has a deep connection with the past that the nightmare present cannot eradicate. Nothing can destroy that link with Greece’s history, culture and values. Even though the statues only come out at night and then ‘cautiously’, they are still there. We can only guess what they are thinking about Ritsos’s Greece and what our equivalents would think about our own situation. But at least those fundamental values haven’t been lost – and that’s worth hanging on to in these dark days.