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Monday, October 15, 2001

Book Reviews

Cavafy in Translation: “How Sorely Wounded He Has Come to Us!”

Before Time Could Change Them: The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy, translated by Theoharis C.Theoharis, with a foreword by Gore Vidal. Harcourt Brace, New York, 354 pages, 2001, $28.00.




On the face of it, there would seem to be little need for a new translation of the work of the Alexandrian Greek poet Konstantinos P. Kavaphes, who was known to the English-speaking world as Constantine P. Cavafy. The first English translations by John Mavrogordato were followed by Rae Dalven’s The Complete Poems of Cavafy (1949, 1959) and by Edmund Keeley’s and Philip Sherrard’s C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (1975; revised edition, 1992). Contemporary American poets such as James Merrill and Robert Pinsky have also done able translations of individual Cavafy poems. In his introduction to Rae Dalven’s volume, however, W.H. Auden suggests that what is most distinctive about Cavafy’s poetry are not the “translatable elements” such as poetic form, meter, simile, or metaphor, but what Auden describes as “a tone of voice, a personal speech.” While acknowledging Cavafy’s influence on his own work, Auden is somewhat bemused by the fact that he has only known him in translation. (Auden did not know modern Greek.) Yet even for a Greekless reader (including this one), it is surely the voice in Cavafy that is most distinctive and most memorable; and any new attempt to deliver that voice, in its several registers of irony and sensual regret, is worthy of scrutiny.

“From all I did and all I said/let no one try to find out who I was,” says Cavafy in an uncollected poem entitled “Hidden Things.” And he continues, “An obstacle stood there and transfigured/the actions and demeanor of my life.” It was T.S. Eliot who made the distinction between the man who suffers and the mind which creates. He did this to discourage any easy autobiographical readings of a poet’s work; and yet, in Cavafy, the poems can most easily be divided into two groups: those that seem to testify to the clandestine ecstasies and losses of a contemporary homosexual life, and those spoken in the voices of historical personages long dead, figures from Greek antiquity and from the Roman and Byzantine empires. In his biographical note on the poet, Edmund Keeley writes that “Several of those who managed to search him out have reported that Cavafy was not only a receptive host but a learned conversationalist who had the fascinating capacity to gossip about historical figures from the distant past so as to make them seem a part of some scandalous intrigue taking place in the Alexandrian world immediately below the poet’s second-floor balcony.” For Cavafy, perhaps, the distinction between his poems of contemporary experience and his historical dramatic monologues was not as clear as it might be to a contemporary reader. It was E.M. Forster, after all, who described Cavafy as standing “absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” And this invites a reader to contemplate what connections there might be between these two apparently very different kinds of poems, between the random glimpses of love in tavernas and bedrooms and the random glimpses of life in usually – obscure corners of the usually – fading empires of the past.

Love, in Cavafy, is homosexual love, forbidden love, love therefore doomed to be clandestine and brief, and recalled, more often than not, in the onanistic misery of solitude. In this regard, Cavafy’s work bears comparison with that of English poet Philip Larkin, for instance. Yet there is a defiant ferocity to the remembering of that love in Cavafy, which transcends the scalding loneliness and stasis of recollection in the heterosexual Larkin’s work. Indeed, in Cavafy, it is possible to conclude that the origins of artistic power itself lie specifically in sexual trespass, not so much for the ecstasy of the moment as for the lifetime of vivid recollection initiated by that moment. Thus Cavafy concludes a poem entitled “Their Origin,” the first part of which describes a guilty homosexual encounter, “Yet how the artist’s life has gained./Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, or years later/the lines of power will be written whose origin was here.” In Cavafy, “barren love” may prove to be exceptionally fertile in artistic terms, and memory may prove to be recuperative. His poems occasionally strike a traditional attitude, against the mortality of their author (or speaker); thus, in 595 CE, a poet named Jason Kleander cries out against his aging, “It is a wound from a savage knife./Bring your drugs, Poetic Art,/which take away – for just a bit – awareness of the wound.” But it is society’s opprobrium, guaranteeing love’s brevity and stealth, which also seems to guarantee the intensity and posterity of these experiences in memory. Of the eyes of a lover, Cavafy writes, “Keep them, you, my memory, as they were” (“Gray”). Memory, in Cavafy, has a perpetual flush and rondure, like that which the Roman naturalist Pliny tells us made a man embrace the statue of the Cnidean Aphrodite at night, leaving stains on her body by morning. And love is best when it is broken off by circumstances, when lovers are separated “before Time could change them”

Corresponding to the brevity and stealth of the experience behind the love poems, Cavafy’s historical monologues represent the briefest of apostrophes in the enormous span of recorded time, spoken by characters who, for most readers, will be obscure. “I have two capacities,” Cavafy remarked, “to write Poetry or to write History. I haven’t written History and it’s too late now.” In his poetry, Cavafy does both write and interpret history. But he challenges us to listen to speakers other than Cleopatra and Antony and Alexander the Great. What we hear are the voices of those ordinary mortals left alive when the heroes have enjoyed their apotheoses. The speakers in Cavafy’s historical monologues are culturally, politically, or linguistically marginalized, just as the speakers in his love poems are sexually marginalized: just as a Greek writing in Alexandria was marginalized. (On the other hand, in a poem of his own that he rejected, entitled “Horace in Athens,” Cavafy suggests that the true road to linguistic ascendancy lies through sex, since the Roman poet is imagined in the company of a prostitute.) He achieves an eternal erotic present, and also an eternal historical present, by focusing on telling and forgotten moments. On the one hand, historical cataclysms render the work of art irrelevant; on the other hand, the work of art achieves its own immortality, Cavafy suggests, independent of the circumstances attending upon its creation. The poet Phernazis doggedly labors over his Greek epic about Darius the Persian even as his own doomed nation is invaded by Rome, circa 71 BCE: “But through all of this shock and turmoil,/the poetic idea also insistently comes and goes” (“Dareios”).

The invitation to the reader is always the same: to listen to these apparently minor, hidden, or forgotten voices for the wisdom they contain, a wisdom pointed up in many cases by the irony of the poet’s own voice. For Cavafy’s poems are also splendidly sensitive to the ironies and ambiguities of competing religions and geopolitical dynasties in any given historical moment. Those who survive the triumphs and cruelties of history’s victors do so because of a certain moral facility, like that which allows the cultural channel-surfing (from Platonist philosophy to politics to Christianity to paganism to sensualism) of the man of around 243 CE described in the poem “From the School of the Renowned Philosopher.” In another instance, the inhabitants of a backwater town, having guessed wrong about the outcome of the Battle of Actium, have no trouble substituting the name of Octavian for that of Antony in their pre-prepared victory proclamation. That proclamation is written in Greek, and either historical outcome spells only further cultural eclipse for these elders as far as their language is concerned (“In a Township of Asia Minor”). Finally, the speaker in the poem “Epitaph” is a Greek trader from the island of Samos who has died a slave in India and is buried beside the Ganges. He rejoices that he will be able to speak Greek at last – if only in Hades.

Irony is, of course, the weapon of the disenfranchised. If part of the challenge in translating Cavafy is to render his distinctive voice, part of that voice consists of a perfectly balanced irony. Theoharis succeeds, sometimes better than his predecessors, in conveying the bitterness of present circumstances and the intoxicating richness of recollection in Cavafy, and in approximating that language, “informal and idiomatic,” which Cavafy blended from the katharevousa and demotic Greek languages. In Cavafy’s poem “An Old Man,” Theoharis’s phrase, “the vile indignity of old age,” is more pointed than either “the scorn of his miserable old age” (Dalven) or “the miserable banality of old age” (Keeley and Sherrard). In “The Horses of Achilles,” Theoharis writes that “their deathless nature leapt in rage,” while, in Dalven, “their immortal nature was indignant” and “their immortal nature was upset deeply” in Keeley and Sherrard (both of these translations feel too stiff). Theoharis’s edition of Cavafy’s poems purports to include nine poems not previously included in English translations. Of these, “The Footsteps of the Eumenides” bears a close resemblance to the poem translated by Dalven as “Footsteps.” “The Ships,” however, provides an interesting allegorization of experience along the lines of Cavafy’s famous poem “Ithaca,” while “The Regiment of Pleasure” makes a useful companion piece to “An Old Man.” An error at the publisher’s bindery seems to have resulted in a number of copies of the first edition of this book, which omit the first 35 pages of translations and duplicate the front matter.

Given Theoharis’s own linguistic resourcefulness and sensitivity, it is odd to find (in his “Introduction”) certain assertions that seem to contradict just the poetic sensibility he has rendered so ably into our language. For instance, Theoharis states that “Cavafy preserves the refined fulfillment that charges the rare poems of perfected eros that he wrote” (xxiv), but the phrase “refined fulfillment” seems somehow too precious for the erotic urgency and loss one feels in translations of Cavafy – including those under consideration here. In addition, Theoharis’s phrases “decorous intensity” and “learned engagement with elemental experience” (xxviii), as applied to the poems of someone who lived in the world of the past, not as a historian but as a poet, seem wide of the emotional truth of these poems, even as it is felt in translation. Theoharis declares that “Cavafy moralizes often in his love poems and history poems” (xxv), yet here surely a distinction needs to be made (upon which all irony depends) between the moralizing of speakers in the poems and that of their author. Cavafy seldom moralizes; his speakers often do. Perhaps most puzzling is Theoharis’s remark about what he calls the “challenge” of history in Cavafy: “Those who fail the challenge, through venality, vainglory, cowardice, or nihilistic weariness, Cavafy treats with acid sarcasm and genial disdain.” But such editorializing would be foreign to a great poet. It is precisely in the distance we feel from his speakers – whether moral, temporal or geographical – and in the moment of our realizing that distance, that Cavafy lights the flame of true sympathy in us and ensures a permanent voice for these forgotten men and women. They will survive the ravages of time, all the more powerful for the fact that they, like us, are incomplete. Thus the satirical voice of the Greek poet Herodas (third century BCE) rises vigorous from the tattered papyrus that was excavated in 1891, when Cavafy was a young man: “how sorely wounded he has come to us!” (“The Mimiambi of Herodas”)

Karl Kirchwey is the author of three books of poems; currently, he is director of creative writing and senior lecturer in the arts at Bryn Mawr College.
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