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Books > the poetry of C.P. Cavafy May 25, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life.

By day, for some 30 years, he toils as a clerk in the Irrigation Service of the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria. He is shy, reserved, the buttonedup epitome of the displaced gentleman. In some eccentric way, inhibition suits him as snugly as his starched wing-collars. Whether at his desk or at home, where he lives with his formidable mother or, after her death, with his brothers, his imagination steadily takes possession of history until his own personal experiences come to seem almost indistinguishable from the events of the distant past. Recollections of the Ptolemies or of Julian the Apostate become as immediate to him as his brief, usually frustrated encounters with the beautiful young men he stumbles upon and ogles and sometimes even beds in the grimy brothels and back alleys of the city. Out of these furtive pleasures poems arise, almost always the result of remembered trysts. It is the “body’s memory” his lines evoke; in a poem from 1912, he prays, “Come back often and take me at night / when lips and skin remember.”

In the poetry of C.P. Cavafy, the skin has a long memory.And it is this tactile, almost epidermal recollection that gives his historical poems their disturbing immediacy. Pleasure is always retrospective in Cavafy, as though only remembrance could offer that final consummate shiver of erotic delight. But just as he can commemorate the reflection of a tailor’s delivery boy in an old mirror which he imagines “proud to have held the reflection / of absolute beauty for a few minutes” many years before, so too, by the same quickness of touch he can tremble to the panic of the little household gods in Nero’s palace as the “footsteps of the Furies” approach the ebony bed of the drowsing emperor. Cavafy is the great poet of the aftertaste.

The phrases quoted come from “The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy: A New Translation” (W.W. Norton, 264 pages, $25.95), translated by the American poet Aliki Barnstone. Ms. Barnstone presents all the poems in chronological sequence, together with more than 40 pages of detailed notes (assembled,like some of the translations, in collaboration with Willis Barnstone). Both the translations and commentary are excellent, but you have to hack through a lot of unCavafian verbiage to reach them, not only Ms. Barnstone’s pages of gushing acknowledgements and her uninspired introduction but a silly foreword by the poet Gerald Stern.

According to Mr.Stern,Ms.Barnstone shares in a “double diaspora” with Cavafy because she lives in Las Vegas. But could there be a better place for the translator of Cavafy? The neon amnesia of Las Vegas – and not only Caesar’s Palace – would have piqued the poet’s historical memory. A true Alexandrinian, he savored the hollowness behind all loud facades. In “The Alexandrian Kings,” he describes a royal procession, glitzy with jewels, and concludes:

And the Alexandrians thronged to the celebration,
Enthusiastic and cheering
In Greek and Egyptian and some in Hebrew,
Charmed by the beautiful spectacle –
Though they knew, of course, what it all was worth,
What hollow words were these kingdoms.

Constantine Cavafy was born in Alexandria on April 29, 1863, and died there on the same day in 1933. Though he spent seven years in London as a child and lived also in Istanbul (Ms. Barnstone persists in calling it “Constantinople,” a name it hasn’t borne since 1453), where his family originated, he was and remained quintessentially Alexandrian. This is a matter of style as well as fact. The wry, ironic, almost acrid tone; the casual erudition; the disillusion indistinguishable from clarity; the meticulous eye for the speaking detail; most of all, his indelible incisiveness of phrase – these are Alexandrian traits and they link Cavafy not only with such illustrious predecessors as Callimachus, the learned poet who headed the great Library, but with the whole Greek tradition. It is mistaken to label him an “exile.”

At first sight Ms. Barnstone’s versions differ very little from those of Rae Dalven or Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard; sometimes, too, she seems to be merely shifting synonyms around to distinguish her translations from theirs, especially in such famous poems as “Ithaka”or “Waiting for the Barbarians.” But in fact her readings are at once more literal and more concise; they preserve the succinctness of the originals.

Her translation of “Thermopylae,” which Cavafy wrote in 1903, begins:

Honor to those who in their lives demarcate and guard a Thermopylae.
Never swerving from duty, just and upright in all their acts, but compassionate and sad nevertheless.

Cavafy here invokes the hopeless battle in 480 B.C. when Leonidas and a few hundred Spartans held off thousands of invading Medes at the pass of Thermopylae, the “Hot Gates,” in Thessaly. Betrayed by Efialtis, the Greeks were finally overwhelmed and put to the sword, Athens itself was captured and the Acropolis sacked. In his eulogy for the fallen Spartans, the ancient poet Simonides wrote the (very Cavafian) line, “For lamentation they have remembrance, for sorrow praise.” But Cavafy’s point is subtler.Thermopylae was not a single heroic moment in the impossible past; rather, our lives constitute a daily succession of “Hot Gates.” True glory goes to those who remain generous, compassionate, kind, and truthful, though they know that in the end all the Parthenons will be destroyed. Of these inconspicuous Spartans, Cavafy, who was one himself,concludes,again in Ms. Barnstone’s version:

And more honor is fitting for them when they foresee (and many do foresee) that Efialtis will appear in the end, and in the end the Medes will break through.

This is one of several poems in which Cavafy, like some ancient moralist, draws a lesson from distant events. If he’s never preachy, it’s perhaps because he stepped with such freedom into vanished realms.Awkward in his body from his prim spectacles to his anachronistic spats, he was an exile of time but one to whom all times and places fell open at the lightest touch of a nerve.

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