Twenty or so things you can write on a plastic cup other than your name this holiday season

Plastic cups photograph

One time someone called me Henry for a week (that’s not my name), and it was because I had written “Henry” on a red plastic cup to differentiate it from everyone else’s. When she finally confronted me about it, I stated as honestly as I could, “I just can’t write my own name.”

Another time–I was already beginning to work out a theory of non-identification at gatherings where drinks our served in plastic glasses–I was expanding on this theme. Lauren nodded in agreement, and turning her plastic cup around to show me the name, said, “Yes. And I don’t even know who Katie is. I found this at the sink.” Theory, as bell hooks points out, is a social practice. And in the interest of bearing no ill-will towards the ones who named us, it’s not just non-identification.

Hakuin wrote, ‘If you forget yourself, you become the universe.’ That mysterious factor of surrender, the creative surprise that releases us and opens us up, spontaneously allows something to arise.
Stephen Nachmanovitch Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art

The season of sharpies and plastics is upon us, and I think it’s high time we shook things up a little bit, let things rise to the surface, experienced surrender, opened ourselves to the “plentiful imagery of the world.”  It’s high time we identified with the universe. And when we shake the trees, who knows what will fall out of our consciousness. I’ve been “Baby” before. I’ve also been “Arturo” and “Felicia.” But I recommend starting with your own culture. Write down the name of your first dog. Write down the name of your great grandmother. I can’t, but write it in the cyrillic alphabet. And move beyond the personal. Write down “San Leandro.” Write down “Jamaica Plain.” Write down “Tolstoy’s Russia.” Go deeper. What political theory are you invested in? Write down “Consent of the governed.” Write down “All human life is but one life.” Write down “Mary Wollstonecraft.” Too universal? Because isn’t Thanksgiving at least in part an American holiday? Show your patriotism: “We cannot hallow this ground.” A haunting phrase. Walk up to that person whose cup reads “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” Make sure you’ve read the Lincoln book. (I haven’t.) Talk about America. And if there must be poetry, let there be poetry. “The lips of time leech to the fountainhead,” you can say. Or “como las huellas de las gaviotas en las playas.” Write down, “The quality of mercy is not strained,” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” and “It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding.” If the music fills you, “No Woman No Cry,” “Palestrina,” and “The _______ album.” Choose your own heart. And, for the times you just need to get really practical: “License plate number DR4183M your lights are on!” “Wash, rinse, repeat,” (another haunting phrase) or, more directly, “Tanya, remember to feed the fish!”

But lest we forget the hidden, the transformative power of naming…

Are names more properly said to be the names of things, or of our ideas of things?
John Stuart Mill A Sytem of Logic: Of Names

Last night, alone in my house, chairs arranged for playable action, tables set for festivities, plates and serving bowls filled with the best that Trader Joe’s can offer, water hissing in the kettle, I etched into the ridges of the inaugural cup a simple statement of truth: the word “Sunset,” a name for myself. And when I held the marker to the crystal-cut plastic (I’m cheap but I’m not that cheap) and prepared to fill its curvature with my own linear sign…in that moment I knew, in the depths my heart lives in, that part of me was this vision of my boyhood curiosity, this landscape of adolescent loneliness, this image of adulthood longing: I was the organ of the sky being played on by a wind of yellow light.

Advertisements

Poème d’octobre: A translation

Sometimes I think I feel the most like myself while riding on a train. I wrote this Sunday afternoon coming home from New York, not on a train but on a Greyhound bus. It rained the whole time. The English translation follows.

“Poème d’octobre”

J’en ai marre des feuilles mortes. Elles sont biens des feuilles, elles connaissaient une fois la tendresse du soleil, elles savaient bien sûr respirer, absorber, plier, répondre. Une fois. Mais nous promenons dans cette saison un jardin de morts, d’odeurs de la tristesse, de regrets. Nous nous trouvons seules au fond imprévisible du musée, entourée de peintures desséchées, de paysages dénaturés, de fictions désespérées. Les odeurs me fait dégueuler. Les images me piquent. Je m’en fou de la décomposition d’automne.

Vous allez encore vous promener dans cette forêt, ressentir la fraicheur de ces bois. Dans les ombres sous les arbres vous reprendrez du repos. Des ouvertures ensoleillées vous surprendront.

Vous aurez du courage en trouvant les beaux anciens chemins même de sentir les parfums des morts. Parmi les feuilles vous allez trouver le pardon. Dans l’acte de pardonner vous n’allez pas vous faire peur.

Les silences vous offriront le calme pour lequel vous avez tant agacé. La musique de vent, le noir du soir vous accorderont la paix.

Vous allez monter dans les hauteurs. Votre regard va percer des branches. Vous aurez le droit de contempler les paysages lointains.

Vous verrez les étoiles. Vous tremblerez dans la lumière. Votre cœur aura des rêves d’automne dans l’abri d’une nuit profonde …

Nous nous touchons les mains.

Je lui fais un regard et tiens la main qui reste ouverte,
celle qui a saigné autant que les yeux.

Il m’invite à déshabiller,
lui qui a déjà mis ses robes,
en me montrant leur tissue léger.

Entouré d’un multitude frères et sœurs
aussi nombreux que les chambres de la forêt,
doucement, pleinement, et sachant que je révèlerais mes blessures
j’enlève mes vêtements, mes peurs si proches
qu’ils ont imprimés leur marques sur la peau,
mes feuilles mortes et meurtrières.

Une fois nus, nous montons ensemble
dans la robe de tissu rayonnant,
celle où est brodé le longueur de nos histoires,
structurée dans le profondeur de nos pardons,
façonnée à l’ampleur de nos amours.

Liés, nous dansons jusqu’à l’aube.

“October Poem”

I’m sick of dead leaves. They are leaves. They once knew the tenderness of the sun. They knew how to breathe, absorb, bend, respond. Once. But in this season we walk a garden of deaths, scents of sadness, regrets. We find ourselves alone in the back corner of a museum, surrounded by dried up paintings, denatured landscapes, desperate fictions. The smells sicken me. The pictures sting. I’ve had enough of the decomposition of the fall.

You will still walk in this forest, feel the freshness of these woods. In the shadows under the trees you will rest. Openings filled with sunlight will surprise you.

You will have courage in finding the beautiful old paths, enough even to smell the scents of deaths. Among the leaves you will find forgiveness. In the act of forgiving you will not give yourself fear.

The silences will offer you the calm for which you have so long agitated. The wind’s music, the evening darkness will grant you peace.

You will go up in the heights. Your eyes will pierce branches. The distant landscapes you will have the right to contemplate.

You will see the stars. You will tremble in the light. Your heart will have dreams of autumn in the shelter of a deep night …

Our hands touch each other.

I give him a look and hold his hand which remains open,
the one that bled as much as his eyes.

He invites me to undress,
he who has already put on his robes,
showing me their light fabric.

Surrounded by a multitude of brothers and sisters
as numerous as the rooms of the forest,
gently, fully, knowing that I am revealing my wounds,
I take off my clothes, my fears so close
that they have printed their marks on the skin,
my dead and murderous leaves.

Once naked, we rise together in the robe of radiant fabric,
the one that is embroidered with the length of our stories,
structured in the depths of our forgiveness,
shaped to the fullness of our loves.

Linked, we dance until dawn.

Two poems of love and marriage: Translations

380542_3038663248627_1297965095_n

1. Les vœux

Une fois je t’ai promis le tout
quand je t’ai offert ma vie.

Je t’ai promis les nuits et les soirées,
les matins ensoleillées, les journées de pluie.

Je t’ai offert la bouche qui sait désirer,
le front qui sait rêver dans tes caresses,
les bras qui gardent leur chaleur.

Je t’ai offert des sensations et des sensitivités
des mots justes et des sonorités.
Le lustre et les sauvageries une fois je t’ai représentés.

Je t’ai promis l’amour sous la souffrance,
le cœur qui ne cesse pas de se donner.
Les pleures et les regards ne t’ai-je pas jurés ?
Les yeux qui comptent les larmes,
mes propres sentiments ne t’ai-je pas offerts ?

Accepte donc la totalité de mes promesses,
l’addition, la somme, le début et la fin du compte.

Veuille recevoir alors la signe de mes promesses,
la main droite tremblante, la vérité blessante, la sincérité.

Et je te supplie, chère toi qui as déjà mon cœur,
qui as mes veines, mon souffle et mon sang,
d’entendre la voix de mon serment,
celle-là tout bas,
comme si elle venait de lointain,
obscurée de doutes,
celle-là que peut-être tu trouves trop tendre,
celle-là qui ne cesse pas de poser la question,
celle-là qui attend de toi une réponse.

Dis-moi.
Notre vie ensemble n’est-elle pas qu’une promesse ?

1. Vows (English translation)

I once promised you everything when I offered you my life. 

I promised you nights and evenings, sunny mornings and days of rain.

I offered you a mouth that knows desire, a brow that can dream in your caresses, and arms that can keep us warm.

I offered you sensations and sensitivites, right words and sonorities. Of brightness and wildness I gave you a vision.

I promised you love underneath suffering, a heart that never ceases to give of itself. Didn’t I promise you weaping and eyes that see you and eyes that count tears. Have I not offered my own feelings ?

Accept, then, the totality of my promesses, the sum, the bill, the beginning and end of the account.

Receive the sign of my promesses, a trembling right hand, truth that hurts, and my sincerity.

And I beseech you, you my dearest who have already my heart, you who have my veins, my blood and my breath, to hear the voice of my pledge to you—the voice soft and low as if it were coming from far off, obscured by my doubts, the voice that maybe you have found too tender, the one that will not stop asking the question, the one that is waiting for a response :

Tell me, is are life together not a promise?

2. La fête

Qu’il y aient à notre mariage des violons,
des bouquets de fleurs et des parfums de roses,
à chaque table des tintements de verres.

Qu’il y aient des costumes gris et des tissus légères,
de nouvelles robes et des aromes de cuir.
Pour chaque jubilation, une danse.
et pour chaque silence, une pause.
De la fraicheur à chaque fenêtre
et à chaque table une carafe d’eau.
Que les danseurs viennent mouiller leurs lèvres desséchées.

À tous ceux qui veulent causer, un partenaire.
À tous ceux qui veulent danser, des battements de cœur.
Et à tous ceux qui veulent en contempler, des points d’or
au moment où la marée nuageuse révèle ses perles.

Et que nous quittions, ma chère, la salle de danse,
avant que les pétales sortent de leur bouquets et les carafes se vident.
Avant les tremblements de branches
et les premiers soupirs du vent,
avant l’avance rosâtre aux champs
et les premières étoiles aux cieux,
que nous retrouvions notre propre espace de cœur.
Là nous nous donnerons notre amour.

Que nous nous offrions nos chuchotements
alors que les cadences des violons commencent à s’allonger.

Car notre amour est comme une fleur rare
si fine et si inconnue
qu’elle n’a qu’un seul nom dans une seule langue.
Or, notre amour est comme un chant,
si intime, si inscrutable
qu’elle ne fait aucun rythme ni aucun sens
aux ceux qui en déchiffreraient.
Mais que nous sachions, ma chère, mon cœur à moi,
quand nous partageons nos secrets
que nous touchons un amour de si sacré et de si commun
que les amoureux de tous les pays
ont pour lui leur propres adresses,
leurs propres salutations,
leurs propres tendres noms.

Que cet amour soit suffisamment grand pour entourer
un univers de solitude et de pertes dans son étendue.
Que le vent du soir, mêlé à la musique,
soulage chaque blessure.
Qu’ils trouve à chaque souffrance un regard,
à chaque espoir un accord.

Qu’il y aient des violons et des extases,
des saveurs, des danses et des parfums,
des carafes d’eau et des perles d’étoiles
l’entrechoquement de verres, des roses, des rires,
et à chaque table, des rêves du cœur.

2. The feast (English translation)

May our wedding have violins,
bouquets of flowers and perfumes of roses,
at each table the clinking of glasses.

Let there be gray suits and light fabric,
new dresses and smells of leather.
For each cry of joy a dance,
for each silence, a moment of stillness.
At every window may there be cool air
and at each table a carafe of water.
May the dancers moisten their dried lips.

To all who want to talk, may there be a partner.
To all who want to danse, stirrings of the heart.
And to all who would contemplate it, points of gold
at the moment when the tide of clouds reveals its pearls.

And let us, my love, leave the dance hall
before the petals spring from their bouqets and the carafes run dry.
Before the trembling of the branches
and the first sighs of the evening wind,
before the fields are filled with their pink
and the skies are filled with stars,
may we find our heart’s own space.
There, we will give each other our love.

When the cadences of violins begin their lengthening
let us offer each other our whispers.

For our love is like a rare flower
so fine, so unfamiliar
that it has only one name in one language.
Or it could be that our love is like a song,
so intimate and inscrutable
that it makes no sense or rhythm
to those who would decipher it.
But may we know, my love, my own heart,
when we share our secrets
that we touch a love so sacred, so common
that those who love from every country
have for it their own titles,
their own greetings,
and their own tender names.

May this love be big enough to circle
a world of losses and loneliness in its reach.
May the evening wind, mingled with violin music,
salve each wound.
May those who suffer find one who sees them,
and may those who hope find an answer.

Let there be violins and ecstasies,
flavors, dances, and perfumes,
carafes of water and pearls of stars,
the clinking of glasses, roses and laughs,
and at each table, dreams from the heart.


 

My Pablo Neruda scrapbook: This week

Para que tú me oigas
mis palabras
se adelgazan a veces
como las huellas de las gaviotas en las playas.

…like the tracks of the seagulls on the beaches.

Who introduced me to Pablo Neruda? It has to have been Joshua. He posts his poetry all the time and I think it was he who told a beautiful story–an incredible story–about a Spanish speaking worker, or someone like that, who discovered that they shared an affinity, and maybe developed one for each other, when the man noticed Joshua’s book of Neruda poems on his dashboard. I also had friends in college before this who read to each other poems and stories and translated vocabulary pages at the same table as me. It could have been a few months ago too, when I read as many banquet speeches of the Nobel literature prize as there were writers I was familiar with. I recommend Márquez’s, Camus’s, and Svetlania Alexiavich’s. I had to have at least recognized Neruda by then.

In his banquet speech, Neruda offered thanks and said that he would return “to the blank page which every day awaits us as poets so that we shall fill it with our blood and our darkness, for with blood and darkness poetry is written, poetry should be written.”

Part of me thinks of the suffering of political prisoners in Chile as Neruda knew it and in every civilization that oppresses its workers.

…porque con sangre y sombra se escribe, se debe escribir la poesía.

The Christian in me thinks of Jesus.

The still growing up part of me wants to shout, “This is when art is” and return to browsing the movies in the HBO GO account I don’t even pay for. And count out my likes later.

The child in me wants to share this with all of my friends.

And then they will come watch with me the 2016 film Neruda, directed by the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. It made me want to visit Chile–its cobbled streets lined with plane trees, its mountains filled with snow. It made me want to sing when I read poetry aloud. It made me want to read Spanish detective novels in bed and fall in love. It made me above all want to read more of his poetry.

maxresdefault

I texted my sister on Wednesday night saying, “I wrote a love poem in French. I’m a poet now.” She said something like, “Send it to me.” My sister “reads” paragraphs to me from French philosophical treatises on the subway in New York City. She even does her own “translations.” One time, in 2009, she was reading to me about the horse négligée that Lindsay Lohan once wore. My sister is as obsessed with language as I am. She does Spanish toasts in weddings. She has studied for the GRE.

I wanted to be as free as he was. I wanted not just to see the evening haze rise into the hills across from San Francisco, I wanted to feel it roll through me, like spirit. One of my favorite images from scripture is the Spirit of God moving in our hearts, filling them with love.

But I still get caught in the rhythms of what love poetry was supposed to be, what it must have meant for Victor Hugo. What people who love each other say out loud. “I strove to love you in the old high way of love,” wrote Yeats. And doesn’t language too often have a way of smoothing–as with a rich butter on a piece of crust–the sensations of our life together? I wasn’t picturing someone I’ve been in love with. That would have been different. That wouldn’t have been“Come to me, I see you standing by the lake.” It wouldn’t have been “The moon is rising on your skin.” These sound like bad translations of Chekov. We can’t be more in love with the moon than we are with the one we love or the words of love we share. It would have been “Your body is wet with the crests of waves. I’m chasing you.” It would have been “Your hair is dripping in shiny pearls, falling on your chest,” if I were picturing someone whom I loved.  Nevertheless, this is what I wrote, trying to be free.

Les eaux sont calme ice-bas, ce soir.
Les eaux qui te caresseraient le visage
qui t’appeleraient et qui t’emmèneraient au plus profond
qui t’embraseraient avec leur fraîcheur
ne sifflent plus, ne tremble plus,
ne chuchote qu’en mots d’écume.

Et toi qui savais une fois danser
qui exultais dans la valse vagueuse
de touches brusques, de secrets partagés, et de douces retraites,
es capté par le même silence
la même intransigence,
la même crépuscule douloureuse.

Veille bien tendre l’oreille,
faire descendre la main,
regarder autour de toi.
Fais un seul pas.
Toi, qui ne vois qui l’image d’amertume,
le reflet fixe, la surface mate,
tu vas voir le monde contorsionne à fleur d’eau.
Toi, qui ne sens que l’air frigide, tu vas réussir à sauter
avec des cris de joie.
Et toi, qui n’entends rien de vagues ni de soupirs de vent
tu vas ressentir, même au centre de cette nuit pesante,
les palpitations du cœur qui bat.

The water is calm here this evening, still.
The waves that would caress your face
that would call to you and lead you farther out
that would embrace you with a cool kiss
no longer stir, or tremble,
or whisper anything but words of foam.

And you who once knew how to dance,
who gleamed in the waves’ waltz
of quick touches, secrets shared, and soft goodbyes,
are stuck in the same silence,
the same intransigence,
the same painful obscurity of the evening.

 But come incline your ear,
lower your hand,
look around you.
Make just one step.
You, who only see the bitter image
of your fixed reflection, a matte surface,
you will see the world twist itself on the upper layer of water.
You who who only feel the frigid air
will rise to jumping with cries of joy.
And you, who now hear nothing of waves
or the breathing of the wind
will feel, even in the middle of this heavy night,
the palpitations of a beating heart.

 

The Nobel prize committee in 1971 evoked Pablo Neruda’s sense of, his yearning for, man’s harmony with nature. Some day, we’ll find this harmony. We won’t dream of disaccord and intransigence. We won’t be an unsettled people. We’ll sing our suffering and our jubilation, ours and each others, from the fullness of our breaths in our once sunken chests. Some poets have reached this. Some poets have lived this. Some poets have died for this. For the rest of us, and until then, we will have them–the ones like Neruda–to help us search our darkness and find our blood still moving in the life inside.

 

 

My romanticism: a trip to Merced

tree_mountain.jpg

This break I’m going full Romantic poet.

It crept up on me.

There was a train ride. I was disappointed by the lack of fog. I sat backwards-oriented as the car glided out of the station, leaving Stockton for the memorable names of towns like Turlock, Modesto (where one can smoke for five minutes), Merced. I had the phrase “rapidly vanishing countryside” stuck in my head, and the sensation of barreling through farmland, rushes, meadows, streams, trailer parks and the like, a hundred changing vistas, glimpses of sun-kissed hills, furrows in our common humanity. But I was at this point still reading Virginia Woolf. I had only a historical interest in these things. What would Wordsworth think about the trains? Or Dostoevsky’s Russians? Not “Whence come ye? To what end?” I couldn’t feel the tracks in my bones. Not yet.

Coffee helped my mind flower. Once in Merced, Bethany and I had three cups. We put the baby down for a nap, and we cracked open our phones. Who was it that mentioned Victor Hugo in the first place? In a breath we were encircled by first lines. Stars were points of gold visible through dark branches. Night anointed the solitary traveler with its thick oil. The morning laughed itself to tears on the rose petals.

We went for a walk. (Check plus.) Carrying the young Ezekiel, (Another. Am I making the grade?) I pointed out a fallen leaf and attempted to draw a lesson. (Here the poet professor makes a faint underline and leans forward in his chair. The familiar creak. The inquisitive puff of tobacco smoke). “Leaves are the shape of tears,” I told baby Zeek, “and with reason.” Finding this lesson too harsh, though Bethany quickly pointed out that yes, winter is a time of mourning and dying and Zeek acknowledged that the leaf was indeed red–he might actually have said “truck,” we remembered that leaves can also resemble stars, perfect circles, and those silver fish that sometimes fling themselves in bright schools out over the crests of waves, arching their terrifically frigid bodies in giddy resolve because they too can rise and fall like Mother water, that cyclic medium within which they can hope to paint their lives. But what are they called? I’ll never remember their name.

“Leaves perhaps,” added Bethany, “are the fish of the sky.”

Here the poet wakes with a jolt from that great reverie–Reflection–and he makes some indecipherable but undeniably derisory comment on the margins of our hopes, spilt ink on the manuscript of our daydreams. Better for us to have included our last line in a footnote.

But I redeemed myself on the train home. Again finding myself backwards-oriented, this time returning to some distant home (remember I’m a Romantic poet now), I saw the mountains. We forget them when we trudge the valley. Un gran sierra nevada said the forgotten warrior between campaigns. The violence remains, we can’t forget it: sufferings, slaughters, from Mendocino through Madera. But so does the poetry. We name them together. Something we still need to be redeemed of.

There was a man across the aisle from me. He had the word “fuck” tattooed in cursive on his cheek. “How’s it going, bro?” he asked.

“I’m just looking at the mountains,” I said.

For three long breaths we stared out the window together at the mountains. White. Sunlit. Imposing sentinels but witnesses of all lightness.

The train hurtled on.

The Great Snow

My sister texted me from New York last week saying, “First flurries!!”

I have never written about snow itself. My first image is of something like heavy wet feathers falling onto the glittering icy lawn in the shape of blotches of mascara– the same sadness, the same hush, white on the face of the clean sky.

But flurries make me want to dance. To hold a festival. To sing. To throw my scarves off and attack strangers with handfuls of ice. To laugh at a whole street of people slipping and falling like penguins. To slip myself. To shiver. To cry. To look loved ones in the eye. To catch my breath. To gather up my clothes again. To shake the flakes out of my hair. To smile to sigh and wait for still more snow.

Today is Thanksgiving. Here is a poem about snow by the great French author Yves Bonnefoy who spent some time in New England writing dozens of poems about snowflakes and storms. “Does snow fall the same in every language?” he asks. Here is the poem, followed by a translation by Emily Grosholz.

“La parure”

Il neige. Âme, que voulais-tu
Que tu n’aies eu de naissance éternelle?
Vois, tu as là
Pour la mort même une robe de fête?

Une parure comme à l’adolescence,
De celles qu l’on prend à mains soucieuses
Car l’étoffe en est transparente et reste près
Des doigts qui la déploient dans la lumière,
On sait qu’elle est fragile comme l’amour.

Mais des corolles, des feuilles y sont brodées,
Et déjà la musique se fait entendre
Dans la salle voisine, illuminée.
Une ardeur mystérieuse te prend la main.

“The Gown”

It’s snowing. Soul, what were you wishing for 
That you did not possess eternally?
Look, there you have
An evening gown for the occasion, death.

One of those gowns for adolescent girls,
That we take delicately in hand
Because the fine material’s transparent, gathered
Against the fingers that unfold it in the light;
Like love, we know it’s fragile.

But wreathes and foliage are embroidered over it,
And in another, brightly lighted room
Music has already started.
A mysterious ardor takes you by the hand.

…..and, perhaps strangely, the translator invents a final line which captures all of my feelings about the snow, cultivated during all those hours as a four-year-old at the window pane waiting for these very first flurries my sister called to mind…

You walk, heart pounding, into the great snow.

 

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.