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Martin Foreman

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At an Angle to the Universe
The Poetry of Constantine Cavafy


March 2010: If there is a list of ten best-ever gay poets, it must include Constantine Cavafy. If there is a list of ten-best every poets, it must include Constantine Cavafy. In the whole of his life (he died on his seventieth birthday, on 29 April 1933), he completed only 154 poems, and during the same period he published none of them, except in small booklets that he had privately printed to give to friends.

Cavafy was born in Alexandria in the middle of the nineteenth century, at a time when the Greeks, who had
been present in the city for over two thousand years, were prospering, his father's family among them. But when Constantine was seven, his father died and his family moved for a while to Liverpool, UK, where his father had run a business and acquired British nationality.

Therein lies the first of Cavafy's many paradoxes - he was a Greek who spent almost no time in Greece and who spoke English better than Greek, yet he wrote a small number of poems that - after years of being ignored by the literary establishment of his time - laid the framework for modern Greek poetry.

Financial problems forced the family to move from Liverpool back Alexandria, then war uprooted them to Constantinople (modern Istanbul - at the time host to another significant Greek population). Only in 1885, did he return to Alexandria, where Cavafy lived for the rest of his life, working briefly as a journalist and then as a civil servant for thirty years (working for the British, who ran Egypt as a protectorate until 1926). During this period, he wrote - and rewrote and rewrote again - some of the most beautiful poetry that has ever been committed to paper.

Cavafy in later life. The British writer E M Forster described him perfectly as "a man standing at slight angle to the universe"
The beauty of Cavafy's work resides in both substance and form - what he says and how he says it. If we start with his words and style, we are immediately at a loss, because the rhythm of his Greek is impossible to translate (and there are other problems connected with translation that we will come across).

Let us admit from the start that modern Greek is not beautiful; its vowels are limited and its consonants are thick with ch(χ) and gh(γ), th(θ) and dh(δ), ks(ξ) and ps(ψ). It sounds, to untrained ears, like Italian without the music. But what it lacks in beauty it makes up in strength, particularly in rhythm. It is a language particularly suited to poetry and song. And Cavafy makes full use of that strength to produce poems that are brief and clear, often no more than a dozen lines long.

Here, for example, are the opening lines to The City transliterated with the stresses marked:

     Éépes, tha págho s'állee yee, tha págho s'állee thálassa
     Meea pólees állee tha vrethéé kallééteree ap' avtéé


     (You said, I'll go to another country, I'll go to another sea
     There will be another city better than this one.)


What makes the original so strong - and so difficult to render in translation - is the insistent beat that comes out of the repetition of the á and éé sounds. That beat conveys the determination of the speaker resolved to leave a town that he considers has destroyed. The second verse, where another voice - perhaps the speaker's conscience, perhaps his friend, perhaps Fate - tells him that wherever he goes he will find the same fate, has the same beat, but now with stressed, long u sounds that signify ultimate defeat.

Other poems are softer and use language that whispers or laughs or conspires, but which all beg to spoken aloud, declaimed before an audience. And while attempts at translation can be made, nothing approaches the strength of words in the original.

Fortunately, although Cavafy's form lies tantalisingly beyond the reach of those unfamiliar with Greek, his meaning comes shining through in every language. And it is here that he deserves his title of one of the world's greatest ever poets, gay or otherwise.

The poet himself divided his work into three, often overlapping categories - historical, sensual and philosophical. The historical poems draw upon incidences, often obscure, in Greek history. To take typical examples: The Alexandrian Kings looks at the moment when Cleopatra's children were declared kings with all due pomp and ceremony; The Serapion Priest reveals a Christian priest in the 4th century CE mourning for his dead, pagan, father; and 200 BCE gives us the Greeks bitching (there is no other word) about the Spartans.

The philosophical poems are often set in ancient times. The City (above) is an exception, but two of the most famous are Ithaca, telling of Odysseus' long journey home after the Trojan war, and The God abandons Antony. One of Cavafy's longer poems, Ithaca, is nothing less than a metaphor for life, pointing out that whatever our destination, it is the journey that matters, the journey which brings us joys and hardship, the journey, not the destination, which is meaningful. The God abandons Antony takes a similar stance as the poet whispers in Mark Antony's ear that although he has lost Alexandria and his plans are no more than illusions, stand strong and proud and bid farewell to the city that he is losing.


Candles

Our future days stand before us
Like a row of glowing little candles -
Golden, warm and lively little candles.

Days past wait behind us,
A mournful line of extinguished candles
The nearest still guttering smoke,
cold candles, melted and bent.

I do not want to see them; their shape saddens me,
As it saddens me to remember their first light.
I look to my lit candles ahead.

I do not want to turn lest I see and shudder at
How quickly the dark line lengthens,
How quickly the dead candles multiply.

translation: Martin Foreman

And the sensual poems? They were sensual indeed, but they were also gay. Cavafy was - understandably for a man of his time and position - coy and made full use of a language that allowed the gender of the protagonist or observer to remain unspoken. Like early Pet Shop Boys songs, where the innocent thought that the person being addressed was a woman but the knowledgeable knew that the situations described could only involve two men, Cavafy's description of quick, hidden love affairs, of good-looking men, of suppressed desires, of remembered loves, all of these could only ever be gay. Here are some extracts

There is the completely voluptuous tone
he wanted to put into it when he was painting the eyes,
when he was painting the lips . . . His mouth, the lips

that are made for consummation, for exquisite love-making.

from 'Picture of a twenty-three year old'

He is fully devoted to his books
but he is twenty-three and very handsome
and this afternoon love passed
through his ideal flesh
his lips.

from 'He came to read'

Body, remember not only how much you were loved
not merely the beds where you lay
but remember too those desires which for you
glowed in open eyes
and trembled in the voice
.
from 'Remember, body'

So much I gazed on beauty
that my vision is replete with it . . . Faces of love, as my poetry
wanted them . . . in the nights of my youth
in my nights, secretly we met

from 'So much I gazed on beauty'

Since nine o'clock when I lit the lamp
the shade of my young body
has come to haunt me, to remind me
of shut scented rooms,
of past sensual pleasure - what daring pleasure.

from 'Since Nine O'Clock'

If Cavafy excels at memory, at sensuality, at lust, where he fails - because, it seems, he never experienced it - is romantic love. None of his poems describe the agonies and the ecstasies of sharing one's life with another human being for more than the hour or two spent in a common bed. For him, love is purely physical, the heart yearns not for another heart or mind but for the perfection of a young body and the ecstasy it offers.

But we cannot complain, because for all of us there is a time in our life when all our emotions, all our intelligence crystallise in this one overwhelming desire and need to share our bodies and to rejoice in the body of another. By holding a up mirror to our deepest carnality, Cavafy shows us its beauty and its strength.

more about Greece:
Ancient Greece     Sunday Morning (1975)     Nikolas and Nikos (2010)

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