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C. P. Cavafy: Poems

Jeffery Beam

  C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems.
C. P. Cavafy.
Daniel Mendelsohn, translator.
Knopf, 2009.
624 pages, $35 (hardcover).
ISBN: 0375400966

  C. P. Cavafy: The Unfinished Poems.
C. P. Cavafy.
Daniel Mendelsohn, translator.
Knopf, 2009.
144 pages, $30 (hardcover).
ISBN: 0307265463

Constantine Cavafy, known as "the Alexandrian," is one of the great 20th century poets, and has been translated into English a number of times, most notably in America by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard in 1975. The Keeley/Sherrard collection was, until now, considered the standard translation, but critic/memoirist Daniel Mendelsohn has taken Cavafy's distinctive voice to a new level of scholarship and accomplishment, aided in part by having been granted permission for the first time to translate a collection of poems left mostly unfinished at the time of his death. While alive Cavafy lived in genteel poverty, working a mediocre civil service job, and holding court to a select few that included the likes of E. M. Forster, Nikos Kazantzakis, Greek friends, and a few visiting foreigners. However, many of his friends were everyday people, including the young, often impoverished, men with whom he maintained secret liaisons, and who appear in many of the poems as ghosts of desire, longed for, but sullied, secrets. Cavafy's men are abstractions, described without much detail, and in a faded, even clichéd, language—a language of classic beauty. But the power of Cavafy's poems resides in his ability to transform these beloved abstractions, along with his mournful yet ecstatic historical poems, into profound intimacies of the philosophical and the personal. The men, and his desire for them, shared with them, is palpable in the poems, anguishingly so, particularly in his later work, and especially in these unfinished poems.

Abstraction and detail. Fleeting moments and secondary historical events. Hesitant revelations and pointed regrets. But not the regrets of sin, but rather the resigned regrets felt toward a world that considered these associations objectionable. As for the historic figures, taken from the obscure periods of Greco-Roman history such as the glorious Hellenism of the Seleucid Empire—the centuries of the rising and falling fortunes of the Greek and Byzantine empires—these contradictions are strengthened by Cavafy's skillful contrast and interplay of formal [Katharevousa] and vernacular language, which serves to evoke a sense of timelessness and the poignancy of memory detachment, and reserve.

Katharevousa was the official literary language hybridized at the turn of the nineteenth century by the grafting of Classical Greek onto contemporary Greek, and the elimination of non-Greek elements that had entered the vernacular (Demotiki). Mendelsohn explains, "The result is a poetry that has a unique and inimitable texture, very often plain and admirably direct, but starched too, with a loftier, more archaic and ceremonious language—like the talk of a fluent and charming raconteur (like Cavafy himself)." Mendelsohn argues further that in Cavafy's work these "strange irruptions of mandarin stiffness deserve to be heard" and that his translations are an attempt to bring these qualities into English for the first time.

Mendelsohn's achievement is stunning, receiving praise and accolades from poets and critics alike. Before the historical and erotic poems seemed like two streams of poetry flowing from Cavafy's pen, but Mendelsohn succeeds not only in bringing Cavafy's modern language (this brilliant juxtaposition of the vernacular and formal) to the English reader, and conveying the singular music and rhythm of Cavafy's poems to life; but also demonstrating in his absorbing introduction and enthralling translations that the erotic poems and historical poems are of the same source, engaging the same themes and orders of Cavafy's creativity.

As a result a poetry that could seem a dreamlike, idealized fog becomes, instead, poetry of intense passion and music. Cavafy preferred to call himself a poet/historian—for he saw himself not only as a recorder of poetic reverie, of an internal landscape of loss, desire, and half-hidden images in mirrors, but also a preserver of a history doomed to loss. His gaze falls not on the famous iconic moments and places of ancient Greek and Byzantium but on the edges of the Roman empire, Hellenic (thus in Cavafy's eyes perfected) rulers falling to despots and barbarians; elegance, sensitivity, and sensual delight giving way to crudeness, collapse, and longing. The superseded monarchs and scholars, the beggars, the boy at the corner, the histories buried in ephemeral texts and legends, all succumb to a painful quickening, not only of Desire, but of the historical moment—subtle irony become vibrating particularity . Victims of time's exorable conquering—spirit laid waste at the advance of power.

Cavafy's yearning, his desire, is more than nostalgia for lost history, for vanished and missing lovers and cultures. His radiant poems suspend Time, and bring the reader into a world hauntingly present and achingly beautiful. I first came to Cavafy's poems as a gay reader, seeking out those famous poems of lust and lost love and regret, but Mendelsohn has given this reader a vibrant whole world covering centuries—which is not a world of loss, grief, or regret—but rather one of grace, heat, sensual rightness—transformational, symbiotic—an apotheosis into a perpetual place and being. Mendelsohn's stated intention, to restore the balance in our understanding of Cavafy's work, succeeds with breathtaking dexterity equal to Cavafy's own sublime place in world poetry.

Che Fece . . . Il Gran Rifuto

For certain people there comes a day
when they are called upon to say the great Yes
or the great No. It's clear at once who has
the Yes within him at the ready, which he will say

as he advances in honor, in greater self-belief.
He who refuses has no second thoughts. Asked
again he would repeat the No. And nonetheless
that No—so right—defeats him all his life.

He Came to Read—

He came so he could read. Lying open
are two or three books: historians and poets.
But he'd barely read for ten minutes,
when he put them aside. On the sofa
he's half asleep. He's completely devoted to books—
but he's twenty-three years old, and very handsome;
and this afternoon desire has come
to his flawless flesh, and to his lips.
To his flesh, which is beauty entire,
the fever of desire has come;
without foolish shame about the form of its enjoyment . . .

Since this writing, Knopf has reissued the two-volume hardback as a single-volume papercover entitled Complete Poems: C. P. Cavafy.

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