Favorite Poem Project: "Our Land," by Yannis Ritsos
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DENA SPANOS-HAWKEY: This one’s growing in.
I was a change-of-life baby. My father was 61 and my mother was 41, and I was kind of the surprise. My brother and sister were both teenagers, and it was an interesting upbringing. My father was old from the time I was a little child, and he always was afraid he would die before I’d become an adult. But he lived and actually danced at my wedding, and then was able to also enjoy having three grandchildren.
My parents are from Vittoli, which is a little village in the province of Rumeli in Greece. And they eventually ended up in Cleveland, Ohio. My father came over when he was 13, and my mother came over when she was 20, when he went back to the village to marry her.
I discovered Yannis Ritsos about ten years ago, because I was interested in reading more Greek poetry and looking at my heritage, and the poem I found was “Our Land.” And it touched me tremendously, because my parents are both immigrants, and I actually found the book in a bookstore and thought, “I should read this. This is about me. This is my history.” You know, I’ve read Shakespeare, I would read e.e. Cummings, I would look at all kinds of books, but I never read anything that directly related and touched my own life.
“Our Land,” by Yannis Ritsos, translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley.
We climbed the hill to look over our land:
fields poor and few, stones, olive trees.
Vineyards head toward the sea. Beside the plow
a small fire smoulders. We shaped the old man’s clothes
into a scarecrow against the ravens. Our days
are making their way toward a little bread and great sunshine.
Under the poplars a straw hat beams.
The rooster on the fence. The cow in yellow.
How did we manage to put our house and our life in order
with a hand made of stone? Up on the lintel
there’s soot from the Easter candles, year by year:
tiny black crosses marked there by the dead
returning from the Resurrection Service. This land is much loved
with patience and dignity. Every night, out of the dry well,
the statues emerge cautiously and climb the trees.
This poem brought back so many memories of the strength and the passion, and the spiritualism that my parents both had. They had a very strong faith, and I remember my mother on the bus, as we would return after midnight from the resurrection service, carrying the resurrection candle, lit, to our door on Alameda Avenue, and then would place the cross from the soot from the candle above our doorway, not only for the dead and a remembrance, but also to protect our home. And when I read the part about the stone, the hands made of stone, I couldn’t help but think of my mother’s hands.
They’re not a model’s hands. They’re the hands of a peasant woman who worked very hard in the fields, and also hard in her life here in the United States, raising us against all odds.