Two poems after Yannis Ritsos

David Harsent

from ‘Agamemnon’

The city was still smouldering end to end. We buried the dead,
then, at twilight, went down to the beach and set tables
for the victory feast. When Helen lifted her glass, the bracelets
rattled on her wrist. ‘Listen to that,’ she said, ‘I must be dead.’

At once a piercing white light shone out from her mouth
and all within its range was marble and bone. Voices died.
Hands locked in a gesture. Our ships were white, the sea was white, a white
gull pitched out of the sky and landed on the table by the wine jugs.

She dipped her finger in its blood and drew a circle on the cloth – the sum
of nothing, the sum of everything – then ripped a tuft of feathers
from its breast and cast them into the wind: they caught in our hair.
That omen we could ignore, but not the taste of whiteness, that perfect circle.

from ‘Helen’

The air in the house is made heavy by the presence of the dead.
A trunk opens with no one near it. Dresses topple out
and shuffle upright; they walk the corridors. Curtains are drawn
by the ever-present no one. A cigarette burns in the ashtray,
left there by a man who just stepped out for a moment.
He’s in the far room, standing close to the wall to hide his face.

[ … ]

Why do the dead stay here? No one wants them.
Why have they got themselves up in their Sunday best,
their carefully polished shoes never quite touching the floor?
Why do they act as if they owned the place, taking the fireside chairs,
leaving taps in the bathroom running, leaving soap
to dissolve in the tub? The servants go among them with brooms
and dusters and never notice a thing, except now and then a maid
will laugh and her laughter is caught and held like a tethered bird.

[ … ]

There came a day when I was feeling better. I asked the serving girls
to put my make-up on for me, which they did,
then brought me a mirror. My face was green, my lips black.
‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘thank you, it makes all the difference.’
One of them got into my costume from the old days
then jumped up on the table and started to dance in my style.
She wasn’t pretty. She had fat legs. From where I sat
I could see, high on her thigh, the yellowing bruise of a lovebite.