Mixing History and Desire: The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy
Mendelsohn's answer is "to restore the balance," by which he means, to restore Cavafy's particularity. Previous translations have often aimed to make his work accessible by drawing out what appears universal in it; Mendelsohn wants to deepen and complicate--to make Cavafy less our contemporary and more his own, sometimes abstruse and often enigmatic Alexandrian self. Cavafy's best-known work in English falls into two groups. There are the few great "philosophical" poems ("The City," "Waiting for the Barbarians," "Ithaca"), which seem to contain a message and which lend themselves to anthologizing and occasional use. Then there are the poems of desire, startlingly modern in their intimacy and vulnerability. Here is the end of "On the Stairs," from 1904, which Mendelsohn translates with a hint of Whitman's rhythms:
And yet the love you wanted, I had to give you;
the love I wanted--your eyes told me so,
tired and suspicious--you had it to give me.
Our bodies sensed and sought each other out;
our blood and skin understood.
But we hid from each other, we two, terrified.
In these poems men exchange glances on the street or in shops, where their hands touch furtively over the merchandise. They wait for their lovers in bars; feel jealousy or shame; fall on disheveled beds, "flawlessly beautiful"; remember, later, after years have passed, "The body's lines. Red lips. Limbs made for pleasure." Many of them are dead before their time, like the Homeric heroes whose beauty haunts their bearing, or otherwise lost to the poet. They may be wealthy, living in Hellenistic or early Byzantine times, like Cleitus, whose old nurse prays to the pagan gods to save him from a fever: "The foolish woman/doesn't realize that it matters little to the black demon/whether a Christian is or isn't cured." They may be working class, in "threadbare clothes" and "workshoes split apart." Or they are classless, timeless, as plausibly New Yorkers of the twenty-first century as they are Alexandrians of the late nineteenth. From "In the Street":
His appealing face, somewhat pallid;
his chestnut eyes, looking tired;
twenty-five years old, but looks more like twenty;
with something artistic about his clothes
--something in the color of the tie, the collar's shape--
aimlessly he ambles down the street,
as if still hypnotized by the illicit pleasure,
by the very illicit pleasure he has had.
Mendelsohn is at his best as a translator of these poems, rescuing them from the slight coyness that dogged earlier versions with a voice as tender and forthright as Cavafy's own. (This is not an easy task. Some of Cavafy's favorite words have no good English equivalent. Idoni, from which we get "hedonism," is deeper and richer than "pleasure"; aisthitikos combines refinement, sensuality and beauty with a faint hint of the consciously decorative.) Rightly, though, Mendelsohn wants his readers to look beyond Cavafy as gay icon avant la lettre and comprehend his whole artistic project, which "holds the historical and the erotic in a single embrace."
Cavafy was approaching 50 before he published an overtly homoerotic poem. His idealized men and boys appear, at first, as art: sculpted in Parian marble ("The Retinue of Dionysus"), etched on a coin ("Orophernes"), conjured from stone and dream ("Sculptor From Tyana"), immured in marble tombs. Or they are mere suggestions, invisible interlocutors: many poems are written in the second person or as dramatic monologues, implicating the reader. Taking shape as stone or voice but not (yet) flesh, the objects of his longing are shadowy presences. The moment of fullness, triumph, consummation is always skirted or longed for; remembered, short-lived, doomed. This is as true in history as it is in love. Cavafy describes the battle of Actium from the point of view of a peddler knocked down by the crowd ("The Year 31 B.C. in Alexandria") and sets a swaggering poem about Alexander's triumphs at the moment when the Greek kingdoms are about to fall to Rome ("In 200 B.C."). Poems that savor memories of love are interspersed with historical ones that hinge on hindsight's ironies. Love fails and kingdoms fall; young men grow cold in graves. In the act of arresting time, art makes death visible.