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C P Cavafy, Selected Poems, English Versions

Desmond O’Grady

When coming to deal with Cavafy it is clear that we are, quite simply, moving into a kind of Super League, that of the ten or twelve most talented and original poetic voices of the twentieth century, chronicling as he does personal desire and demise, as well as that of an entire civilisation.

Born in 1863, dying in 1933, his canon consists of 220 poems, 33 of which are rendered here. He never published a collection in his lifetime, but circulated pamphlets and broadsheets privately to close friends, earning his living initially as a part-time journalist and broker on the Egyptian Stock Exchange, then at twenty-nine getting his first full-time job as a temporary clerk at the Department of Irrigation (Third Circle) in the Ministry of Public Works, which turned out to be pretty permanent, since he held it for the next thirty years. He remained a Greek citizen living in Alexandria, with his mother who died in 1899, and after that living alone until his own death from cancer of the larynx, thirty-four years later.

Like most of the greatest poets, according to Auden (the Romantics who outlived their inspiration proving an obvious exception), he got better as he got older, and Joseph Brodsky would have us believe that Cavafy really only found his voice and his theme when he had turned forty. The phrase ‘...his stylized diffidence/conservative decadence’ occurs in O’Grady’s poem ‘Cavafy in Alexandria’ which prefaces the translations, as a description of the poet, but it could equally apply to his poetry. As O’Grady tells us in his Afterward:

Cavafy’s epiphany had been to see that the squalid, by-passed, declining,

historical Alexandria of his own day was the stage on which to present

his perception of Alexandria during the last three centuries B.C. and the

first four centuries A.D. (with a cast familiar to the educated world) in

demotic, or spoken, Greek with some purist, or refined, and Byzantine

Greek inset when it served his purpose - the history of his language.

He saw how to record in poems his personal (actual and imagined) life

in historic Alexandria for like-minded other persons, including his own

‘other person’. Ten years later, between 1903-7 James Joyce, knowing

nothing of Cavafy, saw this possibility for prose while writing certain

stories of Dubliners and expanded it in his Ulysses.

O’Grady goes on to draw a parallel between what Cavafy did for poetry, and what Picasso, Schoenberg and Brancusi, not to mention Einstein, Freud and Jung, did in their respective fields. But what is really remarkable, as O’Grady writes elsewhere, in the short biography of Cavafy at the beginning of the book, is that: ‘His sophisticated modernity is all the more astonishing because it appeared so early, before most European ‘moderns’ and seemingly from nowhere, as though by instinct.’

Whatever about Brodsky’s contention that Cavafy’s poetic life began at forty, his output before 1903 still includes some of his better known poems, for example ‘Ithaka’ and ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ (here ‘Expecting the Barbarians’). These poems work on many levels, naturalistically, symbolically, metaphorically, historically and mythically, forming a kind of archaeology of society. But after the turn of the century his work became both more personal and psychological, but at the same time more objective and dispassionate, and he also began to strip his poems of all poetic paraphernalia, such as rich imagery, similes, metric flamboyance and rhyme, becoming almost lapidary or, as we would say these days, minimalist. Brodsky calls this ‘the economy of maturity’, and says of Cavafy’s use of deliberately ‘poor’ adjectives (using words in their primary meanings, like calling emeralds ‘green’ and describing bodies as ‘young and beautiful’ - in contrast to Carson, perhaps?) that it ‘creates the unexpected effect of establishing a certain mental tautology, which loosens the reader’s imagination, whereas more elaborate images or similes would capture that imagination or confine it to their accomplishments’.

The poems also became intensely erotic, but it is a retrospective eroticism, a nostalgia of the physical. ‘Ninety percent of the best lyric poetry is written post-coitum, as was Cavafy’s. ... More often than not, the protagonist of these lyric poems is a solitary, aging person who despises his own features, which have been disfigured by that very time which has altered so many other things that were central to his existence.’ (Brodsky again). Like Proust, the sex was for his art, although he didn’t know it at the time, as much as for pleasure, since memory itself is his theme, as much as it is his means of trying to regain lost time and make sense of experience, and the most forceful memories are those of desire, since the body remembers as much as the mind. Aesthetic pleasure is not so much substituted for, as made equivalent to, the sexual variety, out of sheer necessity, and there are few more simultaneously heartbreaking but pleasing paradoxes than that of someone remembering what happened to them before they even knew what it is to have a memory, much less what it means. Again like Proust, he was gay, and according to Brodsky:

In a way, homosexuality is a form of sensual maximalism which

absorbs and consumes both the rational and the emotional faculties

of a person so completely that T. S. Eliot’s old friend, "felt thought",

is likely to be the result. The homosexual’s notion of life might, in

the end, have more facets than that of his heterosexual counterpart.


What matter in art are not one’s sexual affiliations, of course, but

what is made of them. Only a superficial or partisan critic would

label Cavafy’s poems simply "homosexual", or reduce them to

examples of his "hedonistic bias".

But what it takes Proust a volume of orotund phrases and serpentine sentences to achieve, Cavafy does in five or ten deceptively simple lines. The pleasures of ‘I Went’, ‘He Swears’ and ‘One Night’ are immense. In ‘Rites of Passage’ a schoolboy’s forbidden pleasures while cruising town give an intimation of ‘the Sublime World of Poetry’, while ‘Remember, Body’ goes to the nub of the matter. ‘Tomb of Iasis’ could be read as an AIDS poem avant le lettre, never mind the malady, worthy of anything in Thom Gunn’s The Man With Night Sweats. In ‘That House’, youthful indulgence provides the basis for a transforming beatific vision in the present, while in ‘Since Nine O’Clock’ the remembered young body becomes the direct source of both comfort and elegy.

The essay by Joseph Brodsky which has been threatening to engulf this review is entitled ‘Pendulum’s Song’, and is available in Less Than One. It should be read by anyone interested in understanding more about Cavafy’s work and his world, since it explores his art with greater acuity than I could muster. In it Brodsky characterises Cavafy as swinging between the pagan Hellenistic world and the Roman Christian one. To quote one last time:

The only instrument that a human being has at his disposal for coping

with time is memory, and it is his unique, sensual historical memory

that makes Cavafy so distinctive. The mechanics of love imply some

sort of bridge between the sensual and the spiritual, sometimes to the

point of deification; the notion of an afterlife is implicit not only in our

couplings but also in our separations. Paradoxically enough, Cavafy’s

poems, in dealing with that Hellenic "special love", and touching en

passant upon conventional broodings and longings, are attempts - or

rather recognised failures - to resurrect once-loved shadows. Or:


Criticism of Cavafy tends to domesticate his perspective, taking his

hopelessness for detachment, his absurdity for irony. Cavafy’s love

poetry is not "tragic" but terrifying, for while tragedy deals with the

fait accompli, terror is the product of the imagination (no matter where

it is directed, toward the future or toward the past). His sense of loss is

much more acute than his sense of gain simply because separation is a

more lasting experience than being together. It almost looks as though

Cavafy was more sensual on paper than in reality, where guilt and

inhibitions alone provide strong restraints. Poems like ‘Before Time

Altered Them’ or ‘Hidden Things’ represent a complete reversal of

Susan Sontag’s formula ‘Life is a movie; death is a photograph’. To

put it another way, Cavafy’s hedonistic bias, if such it is, is biased

itself by his historical sense, since history, among other things, implies

irreversibility. Alternatively, if Cavafy’s historical poems had not been

hedonistically slanted, they would have turned into mere anecdotes.

Since my ancient Greek was always rudimentary and is now very rusty, and my modern Greek is limited to a few words for greeting and getting things done, I am in no position to comment on the quality of the translations. But O’Grady is the first Irish poet to translate Cavafy, with whom, after two years spent teaching at Alexandria University, he obviously feels a special affinity, and he is to be congratulated on the undertaking.

‘What is poetry?’ the critic asks, and can usually only provide the most makeshift of working answers. Perhaps poetry is that which uniquely gifted individuals like Constantine Cavafy were born to write.

First published in Books Ireland


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