Reading Cavafy

“Yes, I can write about desire and pleasure, I can write about kisses and heat, about blood, about tensions, I can write about folding into another, but I have no words for sexuality, I do not know how to write these scenes, it would be vulgar, it would be too common…there are authors who mask themselves, others who have chosen the truth, I am in between the two…If I had to write about the girls in the Clermont forest, I would write about height, the hand, the voice, nothing of their nights, nothing, the words slide over this.” — Nina Bouraoui, Mes Mauvaises Pensées

Sometimes I talk about the time my professor introduced me to C.P. Cavafy, the modern Greek poet. I had been feeling reluctant to spend one of my first Saturdays in college on a dorm trip to New York City, especially since I had been invited to a conference in the woods near Milton, and I happened to tell my professor about it that Friday afternoon. On my way out of her office, I remarked that I liked reading the poems she had pinned to her door, one of which was the breathtaking “Song of Ionia” (Because we smashed their statues all to pieces, / because we chased them from their temples– / this hardly means the gods have died.) I could picture the trace of the spirit who “makes its way along your crested hills,” but I did not even need to say so, because my professor picked a book off her shelves and handed it to me. “Take this for the weekend,” she said. “Don’t feel like you need to read it all. Read ‘Ithaca’ and choose one more, at your leisure. Enjoy your time in the woods.”

So I sat there the next morning on a picnic table under the Pennsylvania September leaves trouncing through the poems. “Ithaca” felt kind of trite to me then. I was only nineteen! (Reading it last month, I found it revelatory.) And then I came to the devastating poem, “The City.” It was arresting to me. Truth always is.

And it would not be the last time Cavafy would make me feel this way. I remember the time I sent a poem to Joshua. Somehow I had missed the quiet eroticism of the poem (or I probably would not have sent it), but I was struck by the way art breathes into art, by how he envisions art as a refuge to the artist, by the connection between the poet’s life and the painting of a beautiful youth, “a lovely boy,” he repeats twice, lying in the grass. “Like this, for some time,” reads the poem, “I sit and gaze. And once again, in art, I recover from the strain of creating it.”

It’s hard, sometimes, for me to read Cavafy’s poems. Sometimes it makes me covetous of the richness and boredom of an amateur of cosmopolitan European culture. Sometimes it makes me romanticize the intensity of the cravings of a poet of nineteen, especially when I still recognize something of myself in them. Often, I feel sad when I hear his characters reject, with so clear (and beautiful) a voice, the faith and the truths I’ve come to hold onto, the way I love people.

 When they saw Patroclus had been killed,
he who’d been so brave, and strong, and young,
the horses of Achilles began to weep:
their immortal nature was indignant
at this work of death, which it now beheld.
They’d shake their heads and toss their flowing manes,
     and with their feet they’d stamp the ground and grieve
for Patroclus who they knew was lifeless–undone–
shabby flesh by now–his spirit vanished–
     left without defenses—without breath–
returned from life unto the great Nothing.

Beautiful is very much the right word for Cavafy. Radiant is another one. Didactic. And yes, sensual. “Golden luster,” “tenderness,” “ironic and rueful” –all the reviewers of new translations say the same things. But his beauty…Cavafy uncovers beauty in a way I usually expect only from music, as in a good Romantic concerto, of any instrument. In the stirring, silvery lines, the escalations, the knots of motifs and positioning, where suddenly, joined by the full orchestra, the soloist leads the roaring restatement of the first theme, the conditions of our life–our struggles, our ambitions–rearrange. Sadness, the lonely desperation, becomes full-throated supplication. Agony, no longer seasoned with bitterness and unreflected hatred, can quench its great thirst. Melancholy, once a faint dying, becomes a glowing expanse. Longing strains towards yearning, restlessness is metamorphosed into grief, and shame rides in its long canyon to a kind of victory. This beauty makes me weep, not just because I can feel the scar of the pain or reach the exuberance of some bright dream, but because I believe that the voice that sings so distinctly has to be heard, that the tangle of feelings are right to be felt, are even necessary, and that the words, pronounced in so big a way, are justified in their speaking. The conditions of our life take on new flesh.

In the theatre of Olympus, in it worthy dust,
Hippolytus, Ajax, Alcestis, Clytemnestra
tell the story of our terrible, cruel life

and upon the ruinous earth there falls a drop
          of divine pity.

I can’t always read Cavafy, but in the moments I choose to, I am awakened in some way, and as I first experienced in the woods near Milton, arrested.

Here are three more moments.

*  *  *
All the waiting was exhausting him. Because,
alone as he had been for many hours, he
began to be possessed by irksome thoughts…

But when he saw his friend come in –all at once
the weariness, the boredom, the thoughts all fled.

His friend brought some unexpected news:
In the card game he’d won sixty pounds.

Their handsome faces, their exquisite youth,
the sensitive love that they shared between them,
was refreshed, revived, invigorated by
the sixty pounds from the game of cards.

*   *   *
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 sensed besides
a certain doubt coming over me: perhaps I had been fooled
by my passion, had always been a stranger to him.
I flew out of their horrible house,
and quickly left before their Christianity
could get hold of, could alter, the memory of Myres.

*   *   *
Aphrodite, sweet affection,
keep from me your wreaths.
Though I’ve searched every footpath,
Of love I want there is none left:
The heat of the archer’s breath
in the hush before the violence
and after the release.