By Brad Leithauser
Maybe loneliness comes not only in varying degrees but also in different varieties, and the unprepossessing man seated in the corner of the cafe--thin, neatly mustached, bourgeois-looking--suffers loneliness of an especially rich and resonant sort. Let's say the man is Constantine Cavafy, who loved cafes. Greek by ancestry, Egyptian by choice, Cavafy (1863-1933) spent his professional life in Alexandria, working solidly but hardly notably in the irrigation section of the Ministry of Public Works. His imaginative life was far less circumscribed.
Cavafy was a poet, although acquaintances in the cafe plausibly might not know this. His poems, composed in Greek, were privately printed and little circulated during his lifetime. Cavafy was also a homosexual, a circumstance that partly explains his poetry's narrow distribution. He refused to truckle. On the page, he was an uncompromising spirit, ultimately unwilling to settle for sexually indeterminate pronouns like "one" and "you." His object of desire was an unmistakable "he" (an explosive blend of ethereal Apollo and begrimed manual laborer) and his poetry pledged its allegiance to the validity--the nobility--of his yearnings.
In the English-speaking world, Cavafy's fate has been inextricably linked with that of another homosexual writer, E. M. Forster--a man whose meekness was of that stubbornly principled sort that will inherit the earth. Forster, his imagination enflamed by Alexandria, wrote an essay on Cavafy's poetry that made no reference to his sexuality. And yet the essay is wise and capacious-hearted. Forster also passed along Cavafy's poems to T. S. Eliot and others in England. It's probably fair to say that Cavafy was more readily welcomed in the English-speaking world, and eventually in far-dispersed reaches of the non-English-speaking world, than in Greece, where his outspokenness unsettled critics.
So here sits Cavafy--in a cafe, nursing a drink. He has an eye out for beautiful men, particularly those--so his poems suggest--in their early 20's, robust and self-centered. Cavafy's often unvoiced desires ultimately found a voice, in poems translated into English a number of times, now by Aliki Barnstone, in "The Collected Poems of C. P. Cavafy."
Barnstone's translations have a number of virtues--cleanliness, loftiness, lucidity. Her version of what is perhaps Cavafy's most famous poem, "Waiting for the Barbarians," displays an admirable irony and urgency:
Why did our emperor wake up so early,
and, in the city's grandest gate, sit in state
on his throne, wearing his crown?
Because the barbarians are arriving today,
and the emperor is waiting to receive
their leader. In fact, he prepared
a parchment to give them, where
he wrote down many titles and names.
At the end of the day, however, she supplements but hardly supplants Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard's "C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems," whose translations are likewise clean, lofty, lucid.
For many of us with no firsthand familiarity with Greece, it's easy to forget that its celebrated ruins are a distortion and that we behold its ancient culture in its bare-bones lineaments. The austere white buildings of the Acropolis were once painted and parti-colored structures. Much the same might be said of Cavafy's poetry. He has come down to us--however translated--as a writer of plain-spoken (sometimes monotonously plain) observation. It's a bit of a shock, then, to discover that many of Cavafy's poems were strictly rhymed and painstakingly metrical. He was fond of elaborate constructions.
Often it's unwise for a translator to attempt to duplicate prosodic complexity--the result is a cage so airtight that the poetic creatures inside it die of asphyxiation--but I'm grateful to Keeley and Sherrard for supplying detailed notes about the originals' poetic forms. A reader gets too little sense from Barnstone of how Cavafy put his poems together; she emphasizes theme to the detriment of construction.
Barnstone's introduction opens with a bit of personal history: "It was Cavafy's erotic poems that first captivated me. Now I am astonished by the prophecy of his historical poems." It's a natural division for any critic of Cavafy's oeuvre, even if, as Barnstone notes, Cavafy's erotic and historic poems are "inseparably connected." Cavafy called himself a poet-historian, and his range of reference is both dazzling and daunting. Forster pointed out "how different is his history from an Englishman's. He even looks back upon a different Greece. Athens and Sparta, so drubbed into us at school, are to him two quarrelsome little slave states, ephemeral beside the Hellenistic kingdoms that followed them, just as these are ephemeral beside the secular empire of Constantinople."
Cavafy's historical poems brood upon catastrophe. He is endlessly drawn to that edgy, haunting moment of dual vision when the manifestly doomed do not yet recognize their fate. In "In Alexandria, 31 B.C.E.," the misinformed city revels in the victory of Antony over Octavian at the battle of Actium; in truth, Antony's forces have been routed and a kingdom is about to fall.
Many Cavafy titles suggest, in their blending of the broadly far-flung and the tightly specific, the singularity of his subject matter: "Of Dimitrios Sotir (162-150 B.C.E.)," "For Ammonis, Who Died at Twenty-Nine, in 610," "Young Men From Sidon (400 C.E.)." Barnstone is absolutely right about how "inseparably connected" history and desire, Clio and Eros, are in Cavafy's inner kingdom. Time and again his poems light out for remote territory, both geographically and temporally, in order to express predictable, unshakable yearnings. Cavafy's poems obsess over the unattainable -- the pretty young man in the cafe who, in his callowness and charm, fails to recognize whose is the deepest gaze fixed upon him, or (the unattainable par excellence) the pretty young man in the market or tavern who cannot acknowledge any tributary gaze because he died centuries ago. Like another poet-classicist, A. E. Housman, Cavafy reverberated to the image of an athlete dying young.
Cavafy's poems are much taken up with little rooms -- often the "closed, perfumed rooms" of illicit appetites:
When I entered the house of pleasure,
I did not stay in the front rooms where they celebrated
conventional lovemaking with some order.
I went to the secret rooms
and I touched and lay down on their beds.
The poems themselves are like little rooms: most are of modest length, most are concerned with either private action or with scholarship's interior forays. Cavafy certainly was no nature poet. His poems give little indication that he ever saw with any clarity a tree or an animal or--despite Alexandria's maritime history--a seascape.
If Barnstone, in the long process of rendering and annotating Cavafy, was eventually most impressed by "the prophecy of his historical poems," what most powerfully struck me in her translations was how broadcast has become the work of this quiet man who long toiled in obscurity. This is prophecy of another sort--the emergence of a modern sensibility and tone that have become pervasive. These days, you seem everywhere to hear his measured voice--with its melding of fact and foreboding, lust and loss--among not only writers who were under his spell but also others who may have spent little time with him. He echoes through the pages of W. H. Auden, James Merrill, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Joseph Brodsky. The man in the cafe who loved to evoke small, closed rooms? He opened many doors.
Brad Leithauser's new book of poems, Curves and Angles, will be published this fall. He is Emily Dickinson Senior Lecturer at Mount Holyoke College.
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