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Good Letters

In a conversation featured in Image 100, poets A. E. Stallings and Adrianne Kalfopoulou recount their experiences with Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees now living in an unauthorized settlement in Athens, Greece. In bringing the arts to displaced families living on the margins of an ancient city, the two found themselves drawn into the lives of those they served. That, in turn, transformed their own lives, their friendship, and their poetry. Late in their conversation, they linger a moment over “The City,” a poem by the beloved Greek poet C. P. Cavafy that they both find keenly relevant. With classic Cavafian irony, the poem answers a longing for a new start in a new country with a worldly-wise admonition that one’s past failures and traumas are inescapable. “But you will find no other lands, no other seas discover. / This city will pursue you,” is how Stallings renders Cavafy, in a translation included in the issue. And then, in a lovely engagement of literary tradition through what T. S. Eliot calls “the present moment of the past,” Stallings and Kalfopoulou offer their own poetic reinterpretations of “The City” in light of their refugee work.

That alone would have been sufficient cause to revisit Cavafy’s meticulously-crafted verse, but Image 100 also includes four recent sonnets by Aliki Barnstone, whose vibrant translations of Cavafy, published in 2006, come with exhaustive notes to navigate the poetry’s many historical and linguistic references. Taking the hint, I pulled from my bookshelf several translations (nerd alert!), their pages dog-eared to mark my favorites, and reentered the uncanny world of an early twentieth century poet who conjures voices from the past.

Constantine Peter Cavafy (Κωνσταντίνος Πέτρου Καβάφης), was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1863 and died there on his seventieth birthday in 1933. In a lifetime that spanned from the American Civil War to the rise of Adolf Hitler, Cavafy lived nearly all of it in the Greek expatriate community of his birthplace. Described by E. M. Forster as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe,” Cavafy curated his own marginality. He held a modest job in a municipal bureaucracy, living with and caring for his mother until her death in 1899. What poetry he saw to publication appeared in local newspapers or in broadsheets circulated among friends. Even these he continued to revise and tweak, cataloguing each iteration in an elaborate system of folders. Appreciation of his work came late. Rather like Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Cavafy wrote at least a generation ahead of his time. Living within the overlapping reach of the Ottoman and British Empires, Cavafy had reasons for keeping a low profile: he spent his nights visiting male brothels or paying for sex with young men who caught his eye. Whether by disposition or social circumstance, he showed little interest in what we now call “a long-term relationship.” Though his later work is filled with homoerotic imagery, Cavafy’s days and nights defined a double life.

Until the turn of the century, his poetry was unremarkable, conventionally sweet and mannered. Then, in the words of Cavafy’s friend and fellow poet, George Seferis, “something extraordinary happened.” A series of family deaths, including his mother and three brothers, coincided with intensive reading in ancient history, after which he subjected the entirety of his written work to a merciless “philosophical scrutiny.” What little poetry survived and all that followed is spare, dryly-rendered, devoid of metaphor, at once detached and intimate, refracting the particulars of loss through an ironic prism. Critics sometimes discount Cavafy’s stylistic minimalism as little more than “stacked prose,” overlooking how exactingly he selects and places his words like tesserae in a mosaic, the subtle iambs and “tango rhythms” of his otherwise free lines, and his tactical use of rhyme. Cavafy also augments his otherwise flat poetic diction by blending everyday demotic Greek with Katharevousa, a “purified,” officially-sanctioned high dialect meant to reappropriate the literary grandeur of ancient Greece. All of these, of course, are more readily apparent in Cavafy’s Greek originals than in English translation, yet his poetry has attracted and influenced major English-speaking poets who read Greek, like T. S. Eliot and M. S. Merwin, as well as many who could not, such as W. H. Auden. Indeed, Auden, who knew Cavafy only in English and French translation, confessed, “I can think of poems which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently or perhaps not written at all.”

Critics who prefer neat categories typically divide Cavafy’s mature work into the historical poems and the erotic ones. The former group covers more than a millennium of Greek history, from the Hellenistic kingdoms that divided Alexander the Great’s conquests, through the uneasy coexistence of paganism and Christianity in fourth century Rome, and on into Byzantine era. The erotic poems recall brief, intense encounters with young, beautiful men. Daniel Mendelsohn, whose English rendering of Cavafy’s complete works many consider – for now at least – definitive, claims this division misses an underlying thematic unity: time. The “historical” poems evince the characteristically Greek sensibility that the past is never really past, that Mark Antony and the Emperor Julian remain, if not alive, then still within living memory. The “erotic” poems are dreamlike evocations of present longing and palpable loss. Time in Cavafy’s work is very near the heart of human experience and riddled with irony: youth surrenders to age, beauty fades, good fortune turns to bad, security is an illusion.

In “Nero’s Term,” the thirty year old emperor revels in sensual delights, confident that a Delphic warning that he “fear the seventy-three years,” means decades ahead “given fully to days of pleasure.” Meanwhile, in Spain, an army secretly trains under the military governor who will soon topple him, “Galba…that old man of seventy-three.” In “Since Nine O’Clock,” the aging speaker, realizing he’s spent three and a half hours alone, reminiscing over youthful passions, lost cityscapes, and family sorrows, concludes, “Half past twelve. How the time has passed. / Half past twelve. How the years have passed.” (To get a sense of Cavafy’s stature in Greece, watch a Greek audience’s reaction as Daniel Mendelsohn recites the original poem from memory.)

History and Eros meet in “Caesarion,” in which a book’s chance mention of the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar brings the imagined physical beauty of young Caesarion to life in the speaker’s mind. Yet the poem goes on to remind us what the boy could not know: that Octavian, soon to become Augustus, will command Caesarion’s death with a Greek pun, recalling a line from the Iliad, that “too many Caesars” is a bad thing.

If I’ve given the impression that Cavafy prefers history’s lead actors, that’s easily corrected. I’m particularly drawn to his dramatic monologues, delivered anonymously and in characteristic Cavafian deadpan, without the personalizing flourishes of Robert Browning’s lush soliloquies. In “Myres: Alexandria, AD 340,” for example, a pagan pays an uneasy visit to a Christian household on the occasion of a young friend’s death. As the Christians eulogize and pray for the dead Myres, the unnamed pagan recalls how readily his friend joined in the pleasures and amusements of the world. Yet, the speaker recalls, Myres scrupulously avoided pagan observances, distancing himself from the group when they offered libations to Poseidon. And then, in a triumph of revelatory minimalism, the speaker remembers how one youth called the favors and protection of Apollo on the group, while Myres murmured under his breath, “Except for me.”

Why should writers and artists of faith read Cavafy, given his nocturnal habits and obscure historical fascinations? Two reasons come readily to mind. First, Cavafy is a modern master, and anyone concerned with the intersection of art and faith will delight in – and learn from – work so exquisitely done. The fruit of Cavafy’s “philosophical scrutiny” embodies Strunk and White’s non-negotiable requirement for vigorous writing: “that every word tell.” That poets like Auden, Czeslaw Milosz, and Scott Cairns have turned to Cavafy for inspiration suggests there’s more than enough there to merit careful reading.

Second, I think Cavafy – who maintained at least a nominal allegiance to Greek Orthodoxy – engages time and tradition in ways quite consonant with a life of faith. Like Aslan in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Cavafy “call(s) all times soon.” He communes with the dead, re-membering them in word and presence. Thoroughly formed by tradition, he converses with it as if Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” were his playbook. And, as Stallings and Kalfopoulou demonstrate, he’s amenable to ongoing conversation, inviting us to reinterpret his work through words and events of today.

I could go on, but my many words have already betrayed Cavafy’s blessed rage for concision. Go and read him for yourself with an open heart and a thirst for beauty. For starters, and as an evocation of holy joy for this life in light of the hoped-for life to come, I suggest Cavafy’s “Ithaka.” One would be hard-pressed to do better.

image: ©2004 The Image Works / TopFoto

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Brian Volck

Brian Volck is a pediatrician who received his undergraduate degree in English Literature and his MD from Washington University in St. Louis and his MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of a poetry collection, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words. His essays, poetry, and reviews have appeared in various periodicals and journals, including DoubleTake, Health Affairs, and Image. He provides clinical care in Maryland and on the Navajo Nation and is working on a book on the Navajo, history, and health.

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