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A Way Back to Romance: The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy

by Robert Israel
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Monday Nov 2, 2009
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C.P.Cavafy
C.P.Cavafy  

Constantine P. Cavafy’s Collected Poems and The Unfinished Poems, both translated and edited, with introductions and commentary, by Daniel Mendelsohn (Alfred A. Knopf, New York), bring new light--and hopefully many new readers--to the sublime and entrancing works of one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

Who was Cavafy? What makes his work so compelling? Even with the publication of these two books, with their extensive notes about his life and writings, and a host of appreciative works by other artists and writers (more on that later), he remains enigmatic.

Born in the port city of Alexandria, Egypt to Greek parents, he had his first gay encounter when he was 20 years old. He remained in Alexandria for most of his life, sharing his writing only among a small circle of friends. He died on his 70th birthday in 1933, having published only a couple hundred poems. He left behind a scant 30 unfinished poems; the publication of Mendelsohn’s book of his "Unfinished Poems" makes these writings (they had not met his exacting standards) available for the first time in English.

Cavafy wrote about ancient history.He wrote about Greek mythology. He wrote philosophical poems. He described haunted, ancient landscapes. And - often with a sense of wry detachment - he wrote about his attraction to other men. He has much to teach us today because he expresses, in taut, emotionally charged language, the eroticism, fleeting fulfillment, and melancholy of love.

But first an incomplete cataloging on All Things Cavafy that attests to his global celebrity:

• His apartment in Egypt is now a museum, and is visited by thousands of fans each year.

• Leonard Cohen has changed the name of Cavafy’s beloved Alexandria to the name of a woman, Alexandra, in the song "Alexandra Leaving"; Cohen incorporates Cavafy’s lines verbatim into his song.

• Greek director Ioannis Smoragdis has transformed Cavafy’s life’s story into a steamy feature film; an actor, who portrays Cavafy, has torrid love scenes with men in seedy brothels.

• Sir Sean Connery has narrated a video travelogue (it’s available on YouTube) and recites Cavafy’s poem "Ithaca" with such a heavy Scottish brogue you’d think Cavafy hailed from Glasgow.

• Artist David Hockney has issued a sheaf of graphic homoerotic drawings based on fourteen of Cavafy’s poems; online art dealers sell signed copies for thousands of dollars.

Cavafy urges us to seize and to savor the moment. His poems unlock the secrets sealed within our memories, within our hearts.

• Photographer Duane Michals brings color and humor to Cavafy’s memory through the medium of posed black and white portraiture featuring movie actor Joel Gray (the Emcee in "Cabaret") in "The Adventures of Constantine Cavafy," recently published by Twin Palms Publishers in San Francisco. In one of Michals’ photos, the impish Gray is "cheating" at a game of cards, while a handsome youth with tousled hair sits beside him, stripped down to his skivvies.

In acknowledgement of Cavafy’s increased popularity, Mendelsohn credits the poet’s "sensual" poems about gay love as at least partially responsible for his fame. He notes that Cavafy’s "desire and longing for men only makes him seem the more contemporary, the more at home in our own times."

Indeed, the poem, "Days of 1908," which is set on the seashore in Alexandria, could be written today:

"Your vision preserved him/as he was when he undressed, when he flung off/the unworthy clothes, and the mended underwear./And he’d be left completely nude; flawlessly beautiful;/a thing of wonder./His hair uncombed, springing back;/his limbs a little colored by the sun/from his nakedness in the morning at the baths,/and at the seashore."

Cavafy’s style reads like prose, Mendelsohn notes, and falls upon the ear with matter-of-factness. Yet the poems are perfectly constructed with a rich, erotic tension, and contain music and rhythms few writers have captured so effectively, as in this short poem, "Come Back":

"Come back often and take hold of me, /beloved feeling come back and take hold of me, /when the memory of the body reawakens,/an old longing once more passes through the blood;/when the lips and skin remember,/and the hands feel like they’re touching once again./Come back often and take hold me at night,/when the lips and skin remember."

What is particularly enticing about Cavafy’s works is his insistence on memory as the vehicle of these sensually-charged portraits. Within memory is truth. It is truer than a photograph, a locket of hair, or an undergarment worn by a loved one still perfumed with that person’s scent, items he references which serve as catalysts for his remembrances. In poem after poem Cavafy has trained his senses to capture, and to seal in the vault of memory, all that is potent, all that is tender, all that is fleeting.

He practiced discretion in his personal life: Mendelssohn notes that not much is known about his love affairs, except for a proclivity to frequent brothels. Yet reading his poems, we learn so much about his anonymous lovers; we see the men he met in barrooms; we are there as he glimpses them seated at cafés; we are voyeurs peering from behind the curtains in rooming houses.

Cavafy takes us to Alexandria, his Mediterranean hometown where he found an abundant harvest in all things sensual. In numerous poems we feel the heat rising from the streets; we see the blue of the sea, the blinding whiteness of the beach sand. Cavafy ingested the aromas of the sea, the pleasures of the flesh.

His poems are never coarse, never vulgar, yet often describe wanton acts. They are born anew as if his words, like skin, had pores. The reader adopts these poems as his own, reminisces about his own losses or triumphs in love, or his reveries about loves just beyond his reach. And therein lays the universal appeal and magic of Cavafy’s artistry: we have all felt these stirrings, these raptures, these heartaches.

Today, in our era of graphic internet personal ads and pornographic web sites, the language of romance is lost. Cavafy offers a way back. It’s no wonder that artists, photographers, writers and readers find in him a kindred spirit. He urges us to seize and to savor the moment. His poems unlock the secrets sealed within our memories, within our hearts.

by C.P. Cavafy, edited by Daniel Mendelsohn

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.

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