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PN Review 276
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This review is taken from PN Review 272, Volume 49 Number 6, July - August 2023.

Cover of Monochords
Rowland BagnallYannis Ritsos, Monochords (Prototype) £15
Broken Statues

One of the most prominent Greek poets of the twentieth century, Yannis Ritsos (1909–90) was exiled to Samos in the late 1970s. Under house arrest during the summer of 1979, he composed a sparse sequence of 336 one-line poems, combining diaristic observations with evocative reflections. Enigmatic and fragmentary, Monochords stands both as an interior and exterior archive, ‘a surrealist calendar’, writes Thurston Moore, measuring the passing days, ‘seeking hope in the real’. Translated by Paul Merchant with quiet authority, Prototype presents the sequence with linocuts by Chiara Ambrosio, who responded to the poems through a period of lockdown.

Written over a month (an average rate of ten per day), the monochords pick out minor details: ‘A long Sunday with cypresses, with birds and water jars’, ‘Each moment a tree, a bird, a smokestack, a woman’. They aim for ‘The physical fact of things and situations’, writes Gareth Evans, a quality of truthfulness, mining for the essence of experience and landscape. Ritsos captures a world of ‘Things that are themselves’, to borrow a phrase from the poet Jack Gilbert, ‘Waves water, the rocks / stone’, discovering ingredients that we can be certain of: ‘A white horse in a yellow field’, ‘a basket of tomatoes’.

These specks are sifted from a damaged environment; the Greece of Ritsos’s poems bears traces of political and civil unrest, from handcuffs, soldiers and broken glass to ‘rocks from a stoning’, ‘a drowned woman’, even ‘Corpses on the pavements’. ‘I create lines to exorcise the evil that has oppressed my country’, he writes, the ...


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