Category Archives: Cavafy, CP

The brilliant blue of the morning sea, of the cloudless sky,

Collected Poems, C.P. Cavafy, translated by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard

Back in 2015 I reviewed the Penguin Classics little black book edition of Avi Sharon’s translation of Cavafy poems. It was an excerpt from a longer Penguin Classics edition and whetted my taste for Cavafy.

I talk quite a lot in my 2015 post (here) of the different Cavafy translations currently on offer: the Sharon, the Daniel Mendelsohn and the Keeley/Sherrard. Of the three it was the Keeley/Sherrard I decided to press on with.

Every translation involves choices between accuracy to the text of the original and accuracy to its spirit. There’s no right answer to that dilemma: just sometimes the right translation for a particular reader. I decided that the Keeley/Sherrard translation was the right one for me.

Cavafy’s themes as a poet were typically melancholic reveries of past desire; poems inspired by or drawing upon Greek myth and history; and to an extent certain technical challenges which are difficult to translate and even more difficult for me to understand. Not everything fits those boxes, but they’re a decent guide as to what to expect.

For me, and I think for most readers, it’s the personal meditations on desire that are most effective. I have a decent(ish) grasp of Classical Greek myth and history but not at anything like the level of familiarity Cavafy had. His poems drawing on the lives of classical figures are (I understand) often technically impressive but the resonances are lost to a reader who doesn’t get the references.

Here’s one of the more accessible examples of the classically inspired poems:

THE GLORY OF THE PTOLEMIES

I’m Lagides, king – through my power and wealth
complete master of the art of pleasure.
There’s no Macedonian, no barbarian, equal to me
or even approaching me. The son of Selefkos
is really a joke with his cheap lechery.
But if you’re looking for other things, note this too:
My city’s the greatest preceptor, queen of the Greek world,
genius of all knowledge, of every art.

Like many of the poems in this edition this one comes with explanatory notes in an aftersection. Here they read:

First version written August 1896
Rewritten May 1911, and published September 1911
The metrical pattern is 15-14-14-15-14-14-16-12 syllables, rhymed abbaccc.
Cavafy does not specify the identity of the Lagid (i.e., a Ptolemy king of Egypt) and of the Selefkid (i.e.  king of Syria); the period would, however, be between 323 and 221 B.C.

I described that one as more accessible because even without any idea who Lagides and Selefkid are (and even the translator doesn’t know that) it’s pretty clear what kind of people they are. With others the clue as to what they’re like lies in knowing who they are, and if you don’t the poem risks leaving you pretty cold (or did me anyway).

There are notable exceptions. The tremendous “Waiting for the Barbarians” (which is a bit long to reproduce here but can be found at this link) works whether you know the event which inspired it or not and has a killer of a punchline. Others bridge the gap between Cavafy’s two styles, as here where the Classical and the personal intertwine:

IONIC

That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

Regret is a key Cavafy theme. In most cases it’s personal regret: a memory of a past love that couldn’t grow because it had to be furtive, hidden (Cavafy was gay). There’s a strong sense of loss in Cavafy’s work, both in the loss of the greatness that was Greece and the loss of the love of young men each met in a café or shop and briefly loved in some rented tenement room.

In some cases Cavafy goes beyond regret and loss, and instead explores a sense of sheer waste as here in one of my favourites:

THE CITY

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart – like something dead – lies buried.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed
them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighbourhoods, turn grey in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things
elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

This is a counterpoint to Cavafy’s possibly most famous poem Ithaca (read here by Sean Connery with a Vangelis soundtrack no less! I’m not actually that fond of the poem but for many it’s a favourite). In Ithaca the journey is the destination. Here the journey is pointless as the “you” will carry their own devastation with them. On reflection, those messages are more connected than I first thought, since in each your destination carries only the meaning you bring to it.

Incidentally, the endnotes reveal that, in the Greek, The City has “elaborate metrical patterns” and “mostly homophonous” rhymes. For those interested in the architecture of poetry my impression is that Cavafy is actually pretty sophisticated, but unfortunately I’m not so it’s hard for me to comment further.

I’ll turn now to Cavafy’s more personal poems and the ones which for me are most effective. Cavafy is a poet of extraordinary sensuality, and his poems of loves lost combine the physicality of desire with the tenuousness of memory.

Here’s two examples:

AT THE CAFÉ DOOR

Something they said beside me
made me look towards the café door
and I saw that lovely body which seemed
as though Eros in his mastery had fashioned it,
joyfully shaping its well-formed limbs,
moulding its tall build,
shaping its face tenderly,
and leaving, with a touch of the fingers,
a particular impression on the brow, the eyes, the lips.

IN THE EVENING

It wouldn’t have lasted long anyway –
years of experience make that clear.
But fate did put an end to it a bit abruptly.
It was soon over, that wonderful life.
Yet how strong the scents were,
what a magnificent bed we lay in,
what pleasures we gave our bodies.
An echo from my days of indulgence,
an echo from those days come back to me,
something from the fire of the young life we shared:
I picked up a letter again,
read it over and over till the light faded.

Then, sad, I went out on the balcony,
went out to change my thoughts at least by seeing
something of this city I love,
a little movement in the streets, in the shops.

At the Café Door is a personal favourite of mine, but In the Evening is strong too with its emphasis on “scents” and playful repetition of the word “echo”. Café of course brings back those Classical Greek themes with a light reference there to Eros.

In Café there isn’t even an affair. The narrator simply sees someone beautiful and for a moment is transported by their sheer presence. It’s a could-have-been, or perhaps not even that but simply an admiration.

In the Evening by contrast is a classic Cavafy reflection in age on a passion of youth. There’s a lot of poems exploring that theme and they’re generally among the strongest. There’s a sense of youth as a fire and the long years after as a sort of wasteland. Relationships are doomed by illegality and desire by time.

Cavafy’s poetry is melancholic and beautiful and this is still I think a definitive collection. It’s far from the only strong choice – as was commented under my last Cavafy piece there’s something of a Cavafy industry – but at a little over 200 pages it’s portable and digestible and the translations are lively and evocative.

One thing that I would recommend with Cavafy is spacing the poems out. I read this collection over perhaps a two year period and it was better for that. Many authors and poets return to the same issues over and over, but when you’re reading a poetry collection the impact is diminished if you’re reading your fourth meditation on lost love or third elegy to past greatness. In this case the poetry is like brandy, you can only take so much at one sitting.

I’ll end with one final poem (I cut so many that I wanted to include here). This one because in the context of Cavafy’s life it’s both heartbreaking and prophetic. For all the problems of our time, and I know they are many, we do at least live now in the “more perfect” society he dreams of here:

HIDDEN THINGS

For all I did and all I said
let no one try to find out who I was.
An obstacle was there distorting
the actions and the manner of my life.
An obstacle was often there
to stop me when I’d begin to speak.
From my most unnoticed actions,
my most veiled writing –
from these alone will I be understood.
But maybe it isn’t worth so much concern,
so much effort to discover who I really am.
Later, in a more perfect society,
someone else made just like me
is certain to appear and act freely.

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a feeling on the brow, in the eyes and on the lips

Remember, Body …, by CP Cavafy and translated by Avi Sharon

When I read recently Mathias Enard’s Zone, I made a note of some writers mentioned in the text that I wanted to follow up on. One was the Greek poet CP Cavafy, whom I’d never even heard of before (even the most famous poets tend to be pretty obscure if they’re not studied in schools, and Greek poets aren’t studied in UK schools).

It turned out that presently there are at least three competing major translations of Cavafy. I settled on the Keeley and Sherrard translation, the longest standing of the current crop, but it was a close run thing.

Then though Penguin had it’s rather wonderful Little Black Classics idea, and one of them was an excerpt from its own Cavafy translation by Avi Sharon. I’d already committed to the Keeley/Sherrard, but the prospect of a pocket Cavafy was too tempting to resist.

Cavafy Penguin

Cavafy is a poet of desire and regret. Most of the poems here are very short, a paragraph or two. They exist primarily in memory, a reverie of loves once known and lost. Cavafy was gay at a time when that was illegal, and his encounters are therefore both circumspect and fleeting.

The poems are written from the perspective of age, brimming with nostalgia for moments stolen from the world years before. For Cavafy, youth and beauty are linked. To be old is to be separated from that you most want to possess, leaving only the wistful recollection of pleasures past.

There’s a limit to how much I want to say about what is a very short collection (though a very good one). Some of Cavafy’s “greatest hits” are left out, most notably Ithaka which is his most famous work (a poem I find a bit trite, not true for most of his). Penguin though would obviously like you to treat this as a taster and to move on to the full collected works they publish, and that’s fair enough.

Sharon’s translations are smooth and evocative, reading as if poetry written in English. Whether they’re faithful I can’t say, I don’t speak Greek, but they work here. Put simply, this is a great little collection. It’s a marvellous introduction to Cavafy, and while I’d already bought a larger collection of his work if I hadn’t this would definitely have convinced me to do so.

All that said, there’s no better way to illustrate a poet than by quoting from their poetry. Here are two complete Cavafy poems from this collection, both of which were among those I particularly liked. I had planned to also quote his wonderful The Café Entrance, but WordPress breaks the lines which isn’t fair to the poem.

The Tobacconist’s Window

Near the brightly lit window

of a tobacconist’s shop, they stood amid a crowd of people.
By chance their gazes met
and hesitantly they half expressed
the illicit longing of their flesh.
Later, after several anxious steps along the pavement –
they smiled and gently nodded.

Then the closed carriage …
the sensuous mingling of their bodies;
the hands, the lips coming together.

One Night

The room was shabby and miserable,
tucked above a suspect tavern.
A window opened on to the alley,
narrow and unclean. From the tavern beneath
came the voices of workmen playing cards and carousing.

There, in that humble, commonplace bed,
I possessed the body of love; I possessed
those sensual, rose-red lips of intoxication –
red lips so intoxicating that even now,
as I write these lines, after so many years
all alone in this house, I am drunk with it again.

As a note by the way on different translations, that poem I mentioned above titled The Café Entrance is differently titled in the Keeley/Sherrard translation as At the Café Door, while in the highly regarded Daniel Mendelsohn translation it’s In the Entrance of the Café. Tricky stuff, translating poetry. To illustrate quite how tricky, here’s two other versions of One Night:

One Night – Keeley and Sherrard translation

The room was cheap and sordid,
hidden above the suspect taverna.
From the window you could see the alley,
dirty and narrow. From below
came the voices of workmen
playing cards, enjoying themselves.

And there on that ordinary, plain bed
I had love’s body, knew those intoxicating lips,
red and sensual,
red lips so intoxicating
that now as I write, after so many years,
in my lonely house, I’m drunk with passion again.

 

One Night – Daniel Mendelsohn translation

The room was threadbare and tawdry,
hidden above that suspect restaurant.
From the window you could see the alley,
which was filthy and narrow. From below
came the voices of some laborers
who were playing cards and having a carouse.

And there in that common, vulgar bed
I had the body of love, I had the lips,
sensuous and rose-colored, of drunkenness –
the rose of such a drunkenness, that even now
as I write, after so many years have passed!,
in my solitary house, I am drunk again.

The Mendelsohn works least well for me here. Having a carouse seems odd, like something from a Carry On film, and I dislike the use of the exclamation mark (though I understand it’s in the original). Threadbare and tawdry too has less impact for me than cheap and sordid or shabby and miserable.

Getting even more specific, Mendelsohn’s choice of the word restaurant is interesting. Taverna is a much more colloquial term, one that for me immediately evokes a certain kind of restaurant. Tavern to a degree does the same, but is less specifically Greek, it’s a halfway house between the Mendelsohn and Keeley/Sherrard versions.

Aguably, however, Taverna is redundant. It’s essentially a word for a small Greek restaurant, but it’s obvious this isn’t a grand establishment from the rest of the poem. Mendelsohn is perhaps being more precise by avoiding the more clichéd term (and there’s no confusion in his version as to what kind of place Cavafy is remembering). I think though that Mendelsohn pays a price for his precision with a certain loss of romance compared to the Keeley/Sherrard. Sometimes, cliché works.

Another point I noted is that the Sharon uses intoxication and intoxicating where the Keeley/Sherrard repeats intoxication and Mendelsohn repeats drunkenness. I think drunkenness loses a sense of liberating joy, but coupled with rose-colored it does bring to mind the famous wine-dark seas of Greek myth which is surely no accident. Sharon avoids repetition, but at a cost to rhythm.

It would be fascinating, though beyond my current appetite, to go line by line comparing each version of the poem. Greek doesn’t map directly to English, what language does? Every translator then makes choices, and every choice carries nuances, and in poetry nuance is everything. I doubt there’s a right or wrong here, just decisions as to fidelity, atmosphere, structure, meaning, and how to balance between them.

Ultimately, all three are very highly regarded translations. The Cavafy reader is spoiled for choice, which is why I spent a good couple of hours in Foyles deciding which version I wanted for myself. I’ve criticised the Mendelsohn here most, but I was actually very impressed by it and while ultimately I thought the Keeley/Sherrard better for me that wasn’t a quick or easy decision. Similarly, the Sharon’s worked well, read well, had power. It’s hard here to make a bad choice.

Other reviews

I don’t know of any on the blogosphere, but if you do please let me know in the comments and if you’ve reviewed it yourself please feel free to leave a link to your review below.

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