Saturday, September 05, 2009

Review: Collected Poems and The Unfinished Poems of C.P. Cavafy

Collected Poems
The Unfinished Poems
C. P. Cavafy
translated with an introduction and commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

Reviewed by Richard Canning


A new English edition of the poetry of Constantine Cavafy might ordinarily not constitute news. In the past half century, plenty have come our way: six full or complete new translated collections in the last decade alone: Mavrogordato (1951), Dalven (1961), Stangos and Spender (1967), Friar (1973), Keeley and Sherrard (1975), Khairallah (1979), Kolaitis (1988), Theoharis (2001), Sachperoglou (2007), Barnstone (2007), Haviaris (2007), Sharon (2008) and Boegeheld (2009). He is, then, not only ‘the foremost homosexual poet in modern European literature’ (Christopher Robinson) but among the most translated of all twentieth-century poets – a rather startling achievement for someone of whom E.M. Forster (an early advocate) could write in 1951: ‘To be understood in Alexandria and tolerated in Athens was the extent of his ambition.’

These two volumes from Knopf, though, arrive with fanfare and a deal of advance praise (Richard Howard; Mark Doty, whose collection My Alexandria nods to his Greek forebear; Edward Hirsch), and with good reason. In Daniel Mendelsohn (The Elusive Embrace, The Lost: a Search for Six of Six Million), they have a translator of rare pedigree. He makes his way through the Ithacas and Spartas of the known Cavafy canon – comprising over 250 works, long classified as the ‘Published’, ‘Repudiated’ and ‘Unpublished’ poems - with great dexterity and a formal awareness that distinguishes the poems, as I shall show. But ardent Cavafy fans will head directly to the second book. For Mendelsohn is the first English translator to tackle the thirty incomplete poems Cavafy left when he died in 1933, which were first collected in a Greek scholarly edition, Ateli, in 1994. Though they take up only 33 pages of The Unfinished Poems (the rest is substantial textual apparatus), they illuminate the last fifteen years of Cavafy’s career in startling and diverse ways, returning to themes common in the verse we had, but also pointing to emerging preoccupations previously unsighted. This becomes even more important, given that – by general consent – Cavafy is considered a late developer; the great poems came to him in mid-life. His earlier writings were considered - even by himself during his ‘Philosophical Scrutiny’ of them at the age of forty - to have constituted a twenty-year accumulation of juvenilia.

Cavafy’s obsessive scrutiny of his own oeuvre, and the dismissal, suppression or concealment of material he did not (yet) rate (so) highly, might make Mendelsohn’s embrace of the late poems appear speculative. (Cavafy was orderly in everything. He even died on the day of his seventieth birthday.) Will these new poems bear any comparison to the known output? The answer in most cases is a definite yes. Moreover, Mendelsohn persuasively argues that Cavafy meant for all the pieces present here to be seen and recognized in due course - as with his many ‘Unpublished Poems’, to which Cavafy typically appended a note: ‘need not be published. But it may continue remaining here. It does not deserve to be suppressed.’ To him, verses were like seedlings, to be slowly nourished and encouraged until they had recognizably come to flower. (One bears in mind helpfully here Yeats’s belief that a poem is never finished, only abandoned).

C.P. Cavafy

The recent past has seen a tendency to distinguish between Cavafy’s ‘historical’ verse and the ‘erotic’ material, which is then invariably accorded lesser status. Mendelsohn challenges this, arguing that Cavafy ‘did not have two subjects – present desire and the ancient past – but looked at the decline of civilizations dead for a thousand years and the end of love affairs that sputtered only months ago with the same eye… In both cases, it is the contemplation that redeems that object from oblivion.’ I agree. To understand Cavafy’s historical aesthetic, we need to perceive the world as he did: by way of Alexandria, his home city: an ancient one, but, more importantly, a living palimpsest: a place where the past hadn’t gone anywhere. It is not merely that there are ghosts among Cavafy’s Alexandrian peers: it is that ghosts and flesh-and-blood men and women co-exist and prove – to the poet – indistinguishable. Even at their most consistently ‘historical’, then, Cavafy’s poems – like Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, many set in the Italian Renaissance – resonate with the urgency of contemporary concerns. Forster noted that there was ‘nothing patronizing in his attitude to the past’, but the truth is even stronger than this: Cavafy chose to judge, and thought it fit to judge, historical figures according to values which were not just contemporary, but perennial.

The late poems are reflective, quite frequently nostalgic, with some of the wistfulness of late Auden whenever they tackle desire. One, at least, might have been written yesterday: ‘The Item in the Paper’, where a young man reads of the murder of a boy he enjoyed a sexual tryst with: ‘The newspaper/ expressed its pity, but, as usual,/ it displayed its complete contempt/ for the depraved way of life of the victim.’ The word ‘contempt’ – its true subject – echoes through this poem, a caustic threnody to prejudice. Another poem, ‘On the Jetty’ - about an evening of illicit lovemaking – isn’t designed as a companion piece, but might well have been: ‘Night of our encounter/ on the jetty; at a great/ distance from the cafes and the bars.’ ‘The Photograph’ has the poet gazing at the ‘beautiful youthful face’ of a former lover, now dead, but adds in consolation: ‘they didn’t let any foolish shame/ get in the way of their love, or make it ugly.’ (On the subject of shame, a friend recorded how, each and every time Cavafy consorted with a male prostitute, he would return home and write the words: ‘I swear I won’t do it again.’)

‘The Bishop Pegasius’, meanwhile, illustrates Cavafy’s chronological sleight of hand. Nominally, it describes an encounter between two men of the early Christian period – the bishop and young emperor-to-be, Julian - who professed to be believers, but were secretly pagan sympathizers. Yet it resonates with a different, yet entirely comparable, erotic significance to the attuned reader:

They entered the exquisite temple of Athena
…They looked with longing and affection at the statues –
still, they spoke to one another haltingly,
with innuendos, with double-meaning words,
with phrases full of cautiousness,
since neither could be certain of the other
and they were constantly afraid they’d be exposed…

Indeed, furtiveness, suspicion, discretion and secrecy are hallmarks of the corpus of Cavafy’s poetry, including those on historical themes; these preoccupations, it seems clear, arose readily from the poet’s temperamental concerns about his sexual identity and consequent social predicament: ‘An obstacle was there and it stopped me/ on many occasions when I was going to speak.’ (‘Hidden’, an ‘Unpublished Poem’ from the Collected Poems).

Thus a poem about Justinian, the despotic Byzantine ruler savaged in his adviser Procopius’s Secret History reads:

Frequently Justinian’s gaze
caused terror and revulsion among his servants.
They suspected something that they dared not say…

Another Unfinished Poem trumpeted by Mendelsohn is ‘After the Swim’, which literally wrong-foots the reader, seeming to be set in one moment in the contemporary world, in the next, at the tail end of Byzantium: ‘They were slow getting dressed, they were sorry to cover/ the beauty of their supple nudity/ which harmonized so well with the comeliness of their faces.’ ‘Crime’ is spoken by one of a set of young thieves, who describes his partner in the crime, Stavros, unaffectedly as: ‘The best lad in our group,/ clever, strong, and beautiful beyond imagining.’ Cavafy’s attraction to the physicality of poor, working-class youths is obvious – but his rationale for imitating their direct and straightforward mode of expression relates not to his erotics, but to the obsession with secrecy and hypocrisy that Cavafy felt was part of bourgeois, hypocritical social mores (hence Forster’s reference to his ‘amoral mind’).

Daniel Mendelsohn

In one note of 1906, for example, Cavafy rewarded his simple ‘folk’ with a ‘beauty’ which, he argues, is singularly absent in ‘affluent youth who are either sickly and physiologically dirty, or filled with fat and stains from too much food and drink… you think that in their bloated or dimpled faces you can discern the ugliness of the theft and robbery of their inheritance and its interest.’ Joe Orton and Morrissey might concur. Another new late poem, ‘Company of four’, similarly observes a gang of ruffians, if from the outside: ‘The money that they make certainly isn’t honest./ But they’re clever lads, these four, and they have found/ a way to make it work and stay clear of the police.’

As well as the thirty new complete-if-unfinished poems, there are four less prepared drafts, one of which is memorable. ‘My Soul Was On My Lips’( a reference to Plato’s Symposium) is spoken by a boy of twenty-five, on realizing that his younger lover’s comment that he might soon die was no idle fantasy. He returns, seizes the boy and kisses him all over. The poem ends, however, with this proleptic denouement:

I didn’t go to the funeral. I was sick.
All alone his mother mourned for him,
over the white coffin, pure of heart.

Of the Collected Poems, it is probable that Mendelsohn will receive both praise and some censure. No translation to date has satisfied everybody. Yet it seems to me that at his best, Mendelsohn’s liberties - in at times adopting a different poetical schema for the lines; at others, in freely embracing all manner of English idiolects and coinages – renews the verse admirably without misrepresenting it. He manages, I’d hazard (though I’m not a native speaker), a version of Cavafy’s peculiar, sometimes unstable shackling together of demotic Greek and elevated idiom. Keeley and Sherrard’s versions, perhaps the best known in English, come to feel somewhat prosaic by contrast, even while they may be more literally correct. Compare ‘Walls’:

With no consideration, no pity, no shame,
they have built walls around me, thick and high.
And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
I can’t think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind –
because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they have closed me off from the outside world.
(Keeley/Sherrard)

Without pity, without shame, without consideration
they’ve built around me enormous, towering walls.

And I sit here now in growing desperation.
This fate consumes my mind, I think of nothing else:

because I had so many things to do out there.
O while they built the walls, why did I not look out?

But no noise, no sound from the builders did I hear.
Imperceptibly they shut me off from the world without.
(Mendelsohn)

It is neither apt nor fair to compare these poems in terms of accuracy (Cavafy, incidentally, being fluent in English, read over and commented on the very first translations, and, early on, even wrote three poems in English. But he was never as keen to see the approved translations published in Britain and the States as Forster expected or wanted). Vassilis Lambropoulos – in an essay in an American exhibition calalogue,‘What these Ithakas mean’ (2002), argued that Cavafy’s own use of the Greek language was ‘not diachronic but precise, or, to use his word, upright.’ Paradoxically, on the one hand then, to Lambropoulos, it ‘needs no translation: its exact vocabulary operates on a shared level of abstraction.’

Yet that’s only putting half of the case. It is also true that Cavafy sought to bring to some accommodation the span between the tradition of elevated (written) Greek literature and the contrasting example of demotic (spoken) language. The result the poet himself described as a ‘blend’. As Mendelsohn points out, it is consequently a mistake to overemphasize the supposed ‘laconic plainness’ of the verse, which is just one aspect of its texture in the original.

Consequently, while it is true that Cavafy’s language, as Lambropolous allows, ‘can sustain almost any translation: its exacting vocabulary in the end makes each new rendition its own,’ I’m persuaded that Mendelsohn’s version of ‘Walls’ is starkly the more poetic. It is more memorable, resonant, but also more spacious. Its somewhat imagistic phrasing “stutters” the reader into the predicament of the speaking poet. The poem feels more porous, itself an intrinsic Cavafyan quality. (Mendelsohn’s ‘Introduction’ to the Collected Poems makes a similar claim: that he sought to offer us ‘a Cavafy who looks, feels, and sounds in English they way he looks, feels, and sounds in Greek’). What it also manages to reflect is the fact that Cavafy had chosen a clear, if loose ‘a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d’ rhyme scheme in the original (even Forster did not realize that any of Cavafy’s verse rhymed). Mendelsohn alludes to it, and opts to echo it, without being enslaved by any demand for a purely imitative English rhyme scheme. (In his ‘Introduction’, Mendelsohn makes an equally intelligent case for aiming broadly to imitate Cavafy’s distinctive enjambment.)

It can be somewhat difficult to find particular poems that have been retitled in Mendelsohn’s version - perhaps my sole quibble. An appendix might have listed the original Greek titles, as well as those found in Keeley/Sherrard. Still, when I did get to ‘The Year 31 B.C. in Alexandria’ (a poem better known as ‘In Alexandria, 31 B.C.’), it was a revelation. Few translators have attempted to match Cavafy’s use of rhyme in this poem. Those that have done so have, arguably, done the poem a greater disservice by making it sound like ‘doggerel’, as Peter Bien characterised Mavrogordato’s rhymed version. Walter Arndt similarly came unstuck. His rhymed version nevertheless “cheats”, since Cavafy’s poem is rendered in rhyming couplets, yet Arndt opens with:

From his suburban village come,
Still dusty from the way he’d fared,
The pedlar arrived. And: “incense!” “gum!”
“The finest oil!” and “scent for the hair!”

Arendt also uses a French word, ‘canard’, to effect a rhyme in this poem’s closing lines: ‘He is tossed the prodigious Palace canard:/ Antonius in Greece is winning the war.’ As Bien has noted (again, in ‘What these Ithakas mean’), though the vowels are spelt the same, there really is no way of securing a rhyme between ‘canard’ and ‘war.’
Bien himself offers a version of this poem which closes with:

he too is tossed the gigantic palace yarn
that Antony, in Greece, has won.

He concedes, however, that ‘yarn’ is something of a stretch here. Cavafy’s Greek word would most directly become ‘lie’ in English, the word Mendelsohn prefers:

someone tosses him the palace’s gargantuan lie:
that victory in Greece belongs to Antony.

I find this the best by far of the many versions we now have. Mavrogordato’s couplet is simply ungainly:
And someone tosses him too the gigantic piece
Of palace fiction – Antony’s victory in Greece.

Keeley and Sherrard get the award for literalness, opting for ‘lie’ and also preserving the present continuous sense of Cavafy’s original (‘is winning’, rather than Bien’s ‘has won’, which is too dogmatic):

someone tosses him too the huge palace lie:
that Antony is winning in Greece.

(This is certainly superior to Dalven’s account, which manages couplets but no rhyme, and is resolutely unpoetic:

One of them hurls at him also the gigantic lie
of the palace – that in Greece Anthony is victorious.)

Yet the effect in Keeley/Sherrard is simply lacking in force, as a result of the abandonment of the original’s rhyming couplets. No translation can capture all, but I liked Mendelsohn’s resort in English to ‘victory in Greece belongs to Antony’, too, which aptly suggests imminence, rather than achievement: the victory is rumoured, not secured. Overall, Mendelsohn’s ‘The Year 31 B.C. in Alexandria’ – by responding in a relaxed way to Cavafy’s metre, but stringently to his poetics - proves succinct, memorable, dexterous, lapidary: again, Cavafy-like, in sum:

From his little village near the city’s outskirts,
still dusted with his journey’s dirt,

the peddler arrives. He hawks his wares –
“Incense!” “Gum!” “The finest oil!” “Scent for your hair-”

through the streets. But the tremendous stir,
and the music, and parades, won’t let him be heard.

The mob shoves him, drags him, knocks him down.
And at the height of his confusion, when he asks “What on earth is going on?”

someone tosses him the palace’s gargantuan lie:
that victory in Greece belongs to Antony.

Now, to complement Mendelsohn’s two volumes - perhaps to be collected into a single, indispensable paperback edition? - we might hope for a successor to Robert Liddell’s 1974 life of the poet. Still the only one available in English, while full of diverting and helpful incidents, it is marred by a somewhat meandering and incomplete narrative structure, and shows its age too in its implied approach towards Cavafy’s erotic nature.


Richard Canning’s forthcoming edited volume, 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read (Alyson, 2009) will include an essay on Cavafy’s poetry by the American novelist David Plante. He can be contacted at r.canning@shef.ac.uk

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