Mixing History and Desire: The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy
THE CAVAFY ARCHIVE
The poet Constantine Cavafy was a cosmopolitan by both birth and inclination. His parents were Constantinople Greeks of what was then known as "good family"; by the time their youngest son was born in 1863, they were settled in Alexandria, Egypt, prosperous pillars of a thriving community. But after his father's death in 1870, the family fortunes failed and Cavafy's mother took her sons to live for a few years near her late husband's relatives in Liverpool and London. (It's said that afterward Cavafy's Greek retained a faint English inflection.) The dimly remembered life of parties and servants was gone; in the early 1880s the British bombardment of Alexandria destroyed the family home. By the time the novelist E.M. Forster met Cavafy in 1918, he was living in a small apartment on the run-down Rue Lepsius. Alexandria, wrote Forster, "founded upon cotton with the concurrence of onions and eggs," was "scarcely a city of the soul."
For Cavafy, it was home. Living outside the young Greek state among Egyptians, Greeks and Jews, he could remain committed to a fading, idealized Hellenism free from the crude taint of nationalism and borders. He told Forster that the Greeks and the English were almost exactly alike, except for one crucial difference: "We Greeks have lost our capital--and the results are what you see. Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your capital."
By "capital" he meant both Constantinople and a less tangible inheritance, one that lies close to the bone of his precise and parsimonious work. All his life, he was drawn to what was lost: forgotten Greek kingdoms on the edge of the Roman empire, backwaters of Byzantium, beautiful boys glimpsed once or briefly held and never seen again. "The memory of that long and haphazard pursuit," writes Daniel Mendelsohn,
speaks of a certain kind of relation to the rest of the world: experience rejected in favor of remembrance, the center rejected in favor of the margin. A sense of the beautiful hovering just beyond your reach, to be reflected upon and considered. The reflection becomes, in its own way, another kind of possessing.
Or, to transpose that feeling to the political realm,
Here was a culture...that had created a great romance out of a great defeat, a civilization that had been able to endure loss and real privation because it believed in its own myth of lost beauty, the possession of which, however brief and long ago, elevated the lovely and effete vanquished far above the crass, practical victors.
These Cavafian meditations are not from Mendelsohn's excellent introduction to the Collected Poems (which he has translated with a slim volume of unfinished work, appearing here for the first time in English) but from his graceful memoir The Elusive Embrace, published ten years ago. The first passage glosses an early pursuit of Mendelsohn's own; the second describes not Greece but the American South, where Mendelsohn studied classics as an undergraduate. (His family memoir, The Lost, evokes another vanished world, that of his European relatives who died in the Holocaust.) Together, they begin to suggest why this eloquent critic felt compelled to learn modern Greek and to enter as deeply as he could into Cavafy's world of stoic longing and elusive memory, intense desire and cool, appraising intellection.
Cavafy did not publish a book in his lifetime; he preferred to distribute his poems to a few close friends in pamphlets printed at his own expense, partly in order to avoid the corruptions of the marketplace. But long before Forster "discovered" him, he was consciously writing in a cosmopolitan tradition. As well as Robert Browning, whose dramatic monologues inform Cavafy's own, Tennyson, Keats, Wilde, Emerson and Whitman all left traces in his work; Baudelaire and the French Parnassians were another important influence. After Cavafy's death in 1933, his sensibility began to color the work of other poets, among them Auden, Brecht, Brodsky, Milosz and Montale, as well as the Americans Robert Hass, Louise Glück, James Merrill, Rachel Hadas and Mark Doty. It was Auden who brought Cavafy's work to a broad American readership by introducing Rae Dalven's translation of the Complete Poems in 1961: "I can think of poems," he wrote, "which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently, or perhaps not written at all." The first edition of what became the canonical English Cavafy, a clean, transparent Collected Poems translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, appeared in 1975. The past five years have produced a flurry of new versions, by Aliki Barnstone, Alan Boegehold, Stratis Haviaras, Evangelos Sachperoglou and Avi Sharon. Why, then, do we need another?
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.
Cavafy called himself a poietes historikos: a poet-historian, or historical poet. It was through history that he found a way of writing openly about his desire and escaping the cul-de-sac of pure aestheticism. Cavafy's daily life was urban, indoor and narrow. For more than thirty years he worked as a clerk in the Egyptian government's Third Circle of Irrigation; he had dinner each night with his mother, the imposing Harikleia, until her death in 1899. Though he was an Alexandrian to the end, the modern Egyptian city is not explicitly present in his work except, perhaps, in the poems of desire and in "Sham-el-Nessim," an early, repudiated work about a spring festival. Two poems, "Walls" and "The Windows," suggest a sense of confinement imposed from the outside: "Without pity, without shame, without consideration/they've built around me enormous, towering walls."
Yet that confinement--whether one reads it as a metaphor for the closet, exile, provincial ennui, historical belatedness or textual frustration--also helped to shape Cavafy's poetic strategy. With the breadth of contemporary life shut out, he could concentrate on the long corridor of time and its play of ironies. As Edward Said observed, even in "Ithaca," the quintessential poem of possibility, which praises the delights of the journey over the destination, the pleasures are all specified in advance:
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire the finest wares:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind
Having already made his voyage, the speaker knows what it is to arrive at the disappointing end, to understand with the cool wisdom of age "what these Ithacas mean." (Or, as Mendelsohn rather oddly has it, following the Greek word order, "these Ithacas; what they mean.") The poem's sensual pleasures are both spiced and softened by hindsight, and by the suggestion of regret in the repeated phrase "hope that the road is a long one." And that regret, in turn, deepens the note of subtle tenderness in the older man's advice.
It is this combination of honesty and sympathy that underpins and complicates Cavafy's historical ironies. As Mendelsohn explains in his introduction and exhaustive notes (which parse the most difficult poems for those of us who can't tell our Lagids from our Seleucids), Cavafy's mature poetry owes much to his engagement with two very different historians: the Enlightenment Englishman Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire took a dim view of Byzantium and Christianity, and the Greek romantic nationalist Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos, whose work constructs a line of Greek identity from ancient times to the modern nation-state. The poems set in doomed Hellenistic kingdoms on the outskirts of Roman power, or in the Byzantium of Julian the Apostate (an early emperor who tried to restore the Olympian gods), or in distant provinces where petty officials pride themselves on their Greek ("unhellenized we are not, I rather think")--all these press delicately against the bruise of Greek decline while seeing, with Gibbon, its inevitability. At the same time, they keep in view the crude and ephemeral nature of all temporal power, a source of both consolation and regret.
In his best historical poems Cavafy maintains a scrupulous suspension, so that each reading suggests a different balance of insight and empathy. Is he describing self-delusion or heroism? Artistry or conceit? Often the ambiguity emerges at the point where public identities blur. In "Darius," the poet Phernazes is writing an epic in Greek about the Persian ancestor of his own Hellenized king, somewhere in Asia Minor. As he tries to imagine Darius' feelings on seizing the Persian throne ("arrogance and intoxication, perhaps; but no--more/like an awareness of the vanity of grandeur"), he hears that war with the Romans has begun. In the instant of danger he becomes neither Greek nor Persian but Cappadocian, rooted in his local world: "Great gods, protectors of Asia, help us." And yet his epic rhetoric has its own gravitational pull: with the enemy at the gate, "arrogance and intoxication" suddenly seems the more appealing choice. The inconclusive flickering of personal ambition, political interest, local allegiance and anxiety is made visible here at the moment when power shifts.
Cavafy's interest in equivocal identities also, of course, reflects his own experience as a Greek in Alexandria and as a homosexual raised in the Orthodox Church, whose pagan ancestors once valued same-sex love. The pain of double loyalties stands out in some of the poems about young men's deaths, where history and desire most obviously clasp hands. In the beautifully translated "Myres: Alexandria in 340 A.D.," we overhear the thoughts of a young pagan who has gone to the house of his dead Christian friend and stands, as boys so often do in Cavafy, out in the corridor, watching the preparations for the funeral. By the end, Christianity has become death's threatening accomplice:
Vaguely I had the feeling that
Myres was going far away from me;
had a feeling that he, a Christian, was being united
with his own, and that I was becoming
a stranger to him, very much a stranger...
I flew out of their horrible house,
and quickly left before their Christianity
could get hold of, could alter, the memory of Myres.
Myres has many cousins: Ianthes, the Alexandrian Jew who cannot help but give himself to Hellenism ("Of the Jews"); Leucius, whose half-eroded tombstone mentions both Jesus Christ and the Egyptian month of Hathor ("In the Month of Hathor"); and Ammon the Egyptian poet, dead at 29 in the year 610, whose friend commissions a Greek epitaph for him ("For Ammon"). Mendelsohn's version of this last poem captures the speaker's half-articulate longing:
Your Greek is always beautiful and musical.
But now we want all of your craftsmanship.
Into a foreign tongue our pain and love are passing.
Pour your Egyptian feeling into a foreign tongue.
Raphael, your verses should be written
so that they have, you know, something of our lives within them,
so that the rhythm and every phrasing makes it clear
that an Alexandrian is writing of an Alexandrian.
"For Ammon" is partly about translation's impossibility, which is also a metaphor for the way words can't hold life: the "foreign tongue" (in this case, Greek) itself becomes Ammon's tomb. As a poet who lived in several languages, Cavafy knew this well; Mendelsohn feels it, too. Writing about mirrors in The Elusive Embrace, he thinks of Catullus' (heterosexual, Latin) version of Sappho (bisexual, Greek): "If you hold Catullus up to Sappho, an infinitely long corridor of reflections opens up. If you lose yourself in it, you can learn something about desire." Translation is the most intimate form of criticism, requiring you to inhabit another's verbal skin, try out his gestures, guess how he would move if your mother tongue were his.
Mendelsohn wants nothing less than Ammon's friend: to offer, "as much as possible, a Cavafy who looks, feels, and sounds in English the way he looks, feels, and sounds in Greek," which means translating meter as well as meaning. Dalven, Keeley and Sherrard dispensed with rhyme and made Cavafy sound modern; Forster announced in an essay that Cavafy didn't use rhyme at all. Until now, only the early versions by John Mavrogordato and the poet's brother John (worth reading, and available on the website of the Cavafy Archive: cavafy.com) tried extensively to reproduce the poet's formal choices. Mendelsohn analyses them in detail in his introduction and sometimes manages to find English approximations--for instance in "Walls," where rhymes (in Greek, homophonous line endings) add to the feeling of being trapped, or in the Symbolist-influenced poem "Chandelier," where blazing candles evoke the bliss and danger of consuming passion:
The light that appears is no ordinary light.
The pleasure of this heat has not been fashioned
for bodies that too easily take fright.
Mendelsohn also appreciates Cavafy's subtle use, in almost every poem, of Greek's different registers--the formal katharevousa, or purified tongue, invented by Enlightenment scholars, and the colloquial demotic--and does his best to find English equivalents: Latinate words and formal syntax versus Anglo-Saxon phrases.
But every translation involves inevitable loss. Some of my reservations about Mendelsohn's are admittedly pedantic, and wouldn't arise had he not set the bar so high. History is visible inside the Greek language like gradations of blue in deep water; the very useful division into formal and demotic can't quite account for that continuity. As a classicist, Mendelsohn tends to favor the root meanings of words, many of which have changed over the centuries, rather than the medieval or modern ones. Often this is enriching; sometimes, though, it seems unnecessarily fussy. In the great poem "The God Abandons Antony," the painful, ordinary word apetychan ("failed") is rendered as "ill-starred" because its root is tychi, "luck" or "fortune"; something of the poem's pathos is diminished. Not surprisingly, he is also less attuned to Cavafy's Byzantine resonances. A meter Cavafy favors in which short half-lines are vertically broken by white space is not just "jaunty," as Mendelsohn puts it (following, to be fair, the Greek poet George Seferis, who called it a "tango" rhythm), but also evocative of the Orthodox liturgy, adding a further twist to Cavafy's ironies.
A larger problem, for me, has to do with Mendelsohn's ear for English iambic rhythms. Music, as he acknowledges, was vital for Cavafy, whose Greek iambs have such fluency that early critics dismissed him as prosaic. At times, Mendelsohn catches this perfectly, as in his version of the short poem "Voices," which is the best I've read:
Imagined voices, and beloved, too,
of those who died, or of those who are
lost unto us like the dead.
Sometimes in our dreams they speak to us;
sometimes in its thought the mind will hear them.
And with their sound for a moment there return
sounds from the first poetry of our life--
like music, in the night, far off, that fades away.
Elsewhere, though, the lines seem to limp and trip--like the last line of "Ithaca"--often because they stay too close to Cavafy's syntax. Here, for example, is the last stanza of "Sculptor From Tyana":
But this work here is my favorite of all,
which I made with the greatest care and deep feeling:
him, one warm day in summer
when my thoughts were ascending to ideal things,
him I stood dreaming here, the young Hermes.
The natural stress of the words ("favorite of all," "deep feeling," "young Hermes") pushes against the meter in a way that contributes nothing to the sense; Cavafy's metrical variations are precisely placed, reflecting the sculptor's slightly nervous efforts to impress the visitors he is showing around his studio. In Greek it is common to begin a sentence with an accusative pronoun ("him") for emphasis, and "dream" is often used as a transitive verb; in English both feel awkward and undermine the suggestion at the poem's close that the sculptor's feelings soar before the image of his desire. As an inflected language, Greek has a very variable and expressive word order, which means quite differently from word order in English; to reproduce it literally only flattens the English verse and makes the poem seem construed rather than reimagined. Cavafy's delicately delineated characters--confections of tone and nuance, allusion and elision--don't always survive their journey into a foreign tongue.
Mendelsohn's may not be a great poet's Cavafy. (For a hint of what that could be like, read the small handful of translations by James Merrill, first published in Grand Street in 1987.) But it is perhaps the next best thing: the Cavafy of a brilliant critic who has a true and deep affinity for the poet--and who has succeeded in giving him to us whole for the first time. Somewhere, in some neo-Platonic heaven, the Greek and English tongues may touch in a more perfect union. In the meantime, as the Alexandrian knew so well, every great labor carries its flaws within it. And if that labor was undertaken for love, as this one surely was, they are all the more poignant and forgivable.