Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

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“Miniature” appeared in the first of two collections called Parentheses (1946-1947 and 1950-1961). In terms of mathematics and symbolic logic, these short poems are “parenthetical” in that they contain unified propositions, symbolic or psychological. In terms of human relationship, writes Edmund Keeley in Ritsos in Parentheses (1979), “the two signs of the parenthesis are like cupped hands facing each other across a distance, hands that are straining to come together, to achieve a meeting that would serve to reaffirm human contact between isolated presences.”

This is certainly the human theme of “Miniature,” but this is also a poem about the dual nature of experience, the ways in which imagination informs and enriches reality. Lemon slices may spice a cup of tea or inspire a fairy tale; both are necessary. It is the poetic moment that connects the real world with the imaginary. In such moments one makes one’s meanings. As Ritsos says in another poem, “an endless interchange shaped/ the meaning of things.”

The poetic moment also unites time and timelessness. The chatter and business of everyday life, like preparing tea, is ruled by the clock, but the imagination exists between moments, when “The clock/ holds its heartbeat.” At these moments, all such sound and fury are suspended, but the stilled “heartbeat” of the clock is also associated with death, which is brought in the fairy tale’s carriage.

Yet death and life is another duality that the poetic moment unifies, for it is when one is closest to death that one most appreciates life. One’s perception of mortality quickens one’s pulse, makes more urgent one’s joy in the particulars of life, the smell of lemon peel, for example, and makes one want to live. Lemons always symbolize a desire for life for Ritsos, who, while a political prisoner in 1950, wrote: “[w]e have not come into this world/ simply to die./ Not when at dawn/ there is the smell of lemon peel” (“Chronicle of Exile III,” February 15, 1950). Ritsos celebrates poetry’s ability to discern the interpenetration of life and death, reality and illusion, for the one always makes one yearn for the other. To alter William Wordsworth’s famous claim, in moments of imagination, one sees into the “death” of things.

Ritsos’s vision is tragic, not pessimistic or nihilistic. As a Marxist, he sees “nothing” at the end of life to justify existence; as an existentialist, he believes that one makes one’s meaning along the way. The nothingness of death is preceded by “a small song, a little mist.” The tragic undertone is caught better in the connotations of the Greek: The word for mist also means melancholy, although the homonym for mist (missed) may convey something of what is lost in translation; the word for song (tragoudi) echoes its root in Greek tragedy. Thus the little song (mikro tragoudi) is only a minor tragedy, resulting in this miniature portrait (Mikrographia) of missed connection.

Out of the little tragedies of missed connections, Ritsos suggests, come the consolations of the small songs of memory, those parenthetical miniatures of the imagination called poems. Like the spray of the cut lemon, the song of the poem captures the imaginative moment in a melancholy mist, before the onset of nothingness. It is the smell of lemon peel, however, cut by one’s hands and shaped by one’s desire, that makes one want to live, and by living create meaning—and connection—in one’s life.