In a prose piece, C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) describes the process of creating art as a voyage on a ship with containers of highly precious cargo: “even with all the care in the world many shatter when transported, and many others shatter upon unloading.”1 The outpouring of praise for Cavafy in the English-speaking world has been so overwhelming—the list of first-rate writers and artists who have testified to his influence, the number of translations that have appeared and stayed in print—that it threatens to jostle and abrade what remains a very strange and delicate oeuvre.
Certainly a reader who encounters him for the first time may wonder what the fuss is all about. In isolated poems, Cavafy’s style, devoid of many of the resources of language, like metaphor and image and specificity, can seem flat and dull; Charles Simic goes so far as to say that Cavafy, while a great poet, was often clichéd, especially in his psychological notations.2 But Cavafy becomes more complex as one reads him and as one makes connections among his historical poems—the ones that probe various wounds in the Greek amour propre, especially the doings of failed imperial personages in Byzantium—and his erotic memory poems, which offer the paradox of being both honest about his homosexuality and intensely private and unyielding. More so than with most great poets, there is a cumulative effect in Cavafy, buttressing the emotional architecture of any given poem.
The adjectives—someone is “beautiful” or “handsome,” youth is “exquisite,” a body is “lovely,” an emotion is “sensual”—can be alienating in their flatness, somewhat like ancient Egyptian wall painting. In this example, note the non-specificity of the body and of the “emotion” and “feeling”:
In the Entrance of the Café Something they were saying close to me drew my attention to the entrance of the café. And I saw the lovely body that looked as if Eros had made it using all his vast experience: crafting with pleasure his shapely limbs; making tall the sculpted build; crafting the face with emotion and leaving behind, with the touch of his hands, a feeling in the brow, the eyes, and the lips. —C. P. Cavafy (translated by Daniel Mendelsohn)
If these “weak” adjectives, as Joseph Brodsky called them, serve the purpose of opening the reader’s imagination,3 they do so in a circuitous way. Gradually, as one reads more of the poems, the adjectives begin to have the quality of Homeric epithets, acting as mnemonic devices or loci for the speaker’s memory palace. The denuded poem becomes a performance from memory by a singer—an aoidos—who exists in the constant tension between remembering and forgetting, like all live performers. At the same time, Cavafy’s performance is entirely interior. Even when he locates a source of the downfall of ancient Greek culture in the actions of a dissipated or misguided ruler, he doesn’t argue for his affronted nationalism; as with his erotic memories, he simply states his ironies or his regret, as if unaware that an audience might wish to be convinced or to learn the specifics of what he remembers. These choices—refusals, if you will—lend an appearance of utter privacy to the poems, turning them into personal mementos to which we never have full access, at times vaguely onanistic, with the queasiness and uncertainty that a partial glimpse of someone’s private life bestows on us.
The enigma of Cavafy’s deliberate avoidance of specificity is, for me, the most resonant question in his work. His favorite poets—Keats and Shelley, Browning and Tennyson, Verlaine and the Parnassians—are notable for their generous detailing and ornamentation. Perhaps E. M. Forster comes closer to Cavafy’s actual style when he suggests that Callimachus is his literary ancestor;4 the epigrams in particular possess some of Cavafy’s tonal and stylistic qualities. And W. H. Auden hints at a reason when he states that, although “every line of [Cavafy’s] is plain factual description without any ornamentation whatsoever,” what survives translation is “a tone of voice, a personal speech.” “All one gets is the sensibility,” he says, “and either one likes it or one does not.”5
And what is this sensibility? Surely it is one that values the memory of forbidden erotic love and the memory of what shaped his identity and heritage (the anecdotes from Late Antiquity and Byzantium), but does so with a clarity and moral irony that avoids obviousness and moralization. If, according to James Merrill, Cavafy does not “pretend interest in anything so conventional, so conjectural, as one young man’s inner life,”6 the choice cannot be anything but a deliberate impoverishment of the imagination. Within the great bravery of Cavafy’s openness about his homosexuality lies the wound of his difference. Reading him, I ask myself what type of person wishes to assert the absolute beauty of a memory but refuses to subject it to the full imagination of human connection. And my answer is: an afflicted one, a cosmopolitan one, a proud one, an almost terminally lonely one. As Merrill writes, “[O]ne way to sidestep any real perception of others is to make gods of them.” And if Cavafy’s “beautiful” young men are gods, the poems themselves are something once removed: statuary of gods, etched in stone, with the hardness and permanence of stone, as if to forestall the absolute evanescence—almost none of Cavafy’s young men have ever been identified—of the lives they memorialize.
Of course, it may also be true that Cavafy has a historian’s sensibility and his omissions mimic the lacunae that a scholar encounters while reviewing an eroded funerary inscription on a tomb (see the poem “In the Month of Hathor”), but it would be an awfully strange monument from which the elements effaced only the adjectives. What I know of memory, human nature, and imagination tells me that Cavafy’s choices are not what we experience when we remember a lover in the past. We fill in lacunae. Even if it was thirty years ago, we recall the hue of his eyes and skin and hair, the way in which the hair fell over his forehead, the mole on his left cheek. We recall the pleasurable grain of his shoulders on which our fingers alighted, the torso’s pale ripple, muscular but just going to seed, the way the tendons in his neck adjusted with a slight tense awkwardness as he made a grimacing twist sidelong across the bed and smiled. We know the freshness of his scent after a bath and the crisp feral undertone after he came in from his job as an apprentice at a dilapidated bakery just outside Attarin, the red-light district. We can smell the heel of bread he brought home from work and see the fly on the crumb next to his coffee, which he shoos away even now. We remember the neatly folded cash we left on his flimsy table, and how we saw him one last time, his face puffy, degraded, in a male brothel at the Al Salam. The beauty and mystery of Cavafy is that he refuses to say any or all of these things, and yet through his poetry I know them.
Days of 1908 That year he found himself without a job. Accordingly he lived by playing cards and backgammon, and the occasional loan. A position had been offered in a small stationer’s, at three pounds a month. But he turned it down unhesitatingly. It wouldn’t do. That was no wage at all for a sufficiently literate young man of twenty-five. Two or three shillings a day, won hit or miss— what could cards and backgammon earn the boy at his kind of working class café, however quick his play, however slow his picked opponents? Worst of all, though, were the loans— rarely a whole crown, usually half; sometimes he had to settle for a shilling. But sometimes for a week or more, set free from the ghastliness of staying up all night, he’d cool off with a swim, by morning light. His clothes by then were in a dreadful state. He had the one same suit to wear, the one of much discolored cinnamon. Ah days of summer, days of nineteen-eight, excluded from your vision, tastefully, was that cinnamon-discolored suit. Your vision preserved him in the very act of casting it off, throwing it all behind him, the unfit clothes, the mended underclothing. Naked he stood, impeccably fair, a marvel— his hair uncombed, uplifted, his limbs tanned lightly from those mornings naked at the baths, and at the seaside. from the Greek of C. P. Cavafy (translated by James Merrill)
The Gods in Their Wisdom Antioch, you’ll be the death of me. I’m nearly penniless, and before long I’ll be evicted, thrown into a stinking gutter, And it’s you who are to blame, fatal, Extravagant, whorish city of Antioch! Then again, I’m still young, in good health, And not bad-looking, and my mastery of Greek Is second to none. I know Plato and Euripides, Backwards, and orators, sophists ad libitum Nor am I entirely ignorant of military affairs: I count some of the mercenary chiefs among my friends. Even in government circles, I have a foot in the door, And last year I spent six months in Alexandria, So I know a thing to two about the place that could Be useful: the depravities of Kakergetes, and so on... In sum, I consider myself eminently qualified To serve my native country, beloved land of Syria! In whatever position I’m placed, I’ll strive to act For the general good. That at least, is my sincere intention. If, however, they thwart me with their intrigues (You know the kind of creatures I’m speaking of) If, as I said, they thwart me, it is none of my doing. Firstly, I’ll apply to Zabinas, But, if that blockhead doesn’t recognise my talents, I’ll turn to his rival Grypos, and if that numbskull Won’t offer me a place, I’ll go immediately to Hyrcanos. I’m confident one of them will take me on. The fact that I don’t give a damn which one it is Doesn’t trouble me. My conscience is clear, since All three of the sons-of-bitches are equally bad For Syria. I’m down on my luck, what else can I do? The Gods in their wisdom might have taken the time To produce a fourth man who was upright and honest. To him I would gladly have pledged my allegiance. —John Ash (from “After Cavafy” in In the Wake of the Day)
- From “The Ships,” by C. P. Cavafy, translated by Manuel Savidis. (back)
- Charles Simic, “Some Sort of Solution,” a review of the Sachperoglou and Haviaras translations in The London Review of Books. (back)
- From “Pendulum’s Song,” Brodsky’s essay on Cavafy in Less Than One. (back)
- E. M. Forster, “The Poetry of C. P. Cavafy, in Pharos and Pharillon. (back)
- Introduction to the Rae Dalven translation of The Complete Poems of C. P. Cavafy. (back)
- “Unreal Citizen,” in Collected Prose, by James Merrill. (back)