Selected poems, by C. P. Cavafy, trans. Edward Keeley & Philip Sherrard [E]

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.1.2018
Book from: Personal collection

All links below go to reproductions of Keeley’s translations by the official Cavafy Archive.

Cavafy is considered the greatest modern Greek poet. Gay, eccentric, private (though not reclusive), and obscure as a poet during his lifetime, he wrote poems during the late 19th and early 20th century, both about his sensual life, and about life in antiquity (often political life) through a deeply personal, everyday lens. His historical poems made immensely more sense to me after I saw translator Keeley report that he “had [the] fascinating capacity to gossip about historical figures from the distant past so as to make them seem a part of some scandalous intrigue taking place in the Alexandrian world immediately below the poet’s second-floor balcony.” Illustrative poem title: “For Ammonis, Who Died at 29, in 610

Cavafy’s poems also often deal with questions of the many possible spheres of Greek cultural identity: Alexandrian, Hellene, Pan-Hellene… all versus, of course, barbarian. I can’t pretend to understand all the nuances of historical and cultural reference that Cavafy draws upon, but I did come away with a sense of the vivid importance for him of embodying belonging to not only an ethnic group or city, but a way of living and bearing oneself, a proud weight of cultural and historical inheritance.

At the same time, “quirky” is actually the first word that came to mind when I thought about how to describe the feel of Cavafy’s poetry. His language is typically flat in tone and diction, yet his point-of-view is always wry, quirked, with an odd and wistful twist often arriving at the end – “Waiting for the Barbarians” probably being the most famous example on that front, but “Morning Sea” being my personal favorite. His attitude towards himself is self-deprecating, self-effacing; likewise he plays with wry affection on the pomposity, short-sightedness, and pettish egos of the ancient historical figures whom he brings to life for brief flashes.

And what of loveliness? The loveliest Cavafy poems have a soft, understated glow of sensuality, tenderness, regret; they distinctly evoke for me the hour or two after sunset, the lucid glow on the horizon, a harborside town rousing to a nocturnal life of furtive delights that quickly slip away.

I end with an attempt at picking out my three favorite Cavafy poems, both for that wistful evening quality, and in general:

The God Abandons Antony

Body, Remember

and maaaybe The Afternoon Sun

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More poetry reviews on The Black Letters


A peopled silence

I’m trying to remember how Walter de la Mare’s 1912 poem “The Listeners” ended up in my to-read pile, and I suspect it was by way of Robert Aickman, whose cagey, elliptical, and exceedingly unsettling tales of the supernatural I’m just beginning to plumb. I haven’t read enough of either yet to make any interesting judgments about de la Mare’s influence on Aickman, so for now, here’s “The Listeners.” The poem conjures a creeping, velvety sense of estrangement, and of the sort of pressure that the unseen can begin to exert on the imagination at night, and in solitude.


The Listeners

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champ’d the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Lean’d over and look’d into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplex’d and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirr’d and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starr’d and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
‘Tell them I came, and no one answer’d,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

“Summers at Blue Creek, North Carolina”

Apologies from both of us for the long hiatus in posting – I’m trying to get back into the swing of things, but there’s always so much to do… I’m still toiling away on a huge review backlog, but in the meantime, here’s a seasonally appropriate poem that’s been my most re-read poem for the past few weeks:

Summers at Blue Creek, North Carolina

There was no water at my grandfather’s
when I was a kid and would go for it
with two zinc buckets. Down the path,
past the cow by the foundation where
the fine people’s house was before
they arranged to have it burned down.
To the neighbor’s cool well. Would
come back with pails too heavy,
so my mouth pulled out of shape.
I see myself, but from the outside.
I keep trying to feel who I was,
and cannot. Hear clearly the sound
the bucket made hitting the sides
of the stone well going down,
but never the sound of me.

– Jack Gilbert

The simplicity and precision of the language are so pleasing and effective. Like the narrator, we’re easily led into imagining the whole scene – dusty summer heat, the child’s methodical toiling – but can’t gain access to the interior of any of it, the inner life of the child who’s the kernel of the scene. And so at the end there’s this sudden, disorienting, frightening absence of even the outer signs of life (“the sound of me”). The empty shapes of the buckets, the burnt-out foundations, the well, all echo this absence. The adult narrator’s attempt to draw up or tap back into his earlier consciousness parallels the process of lowering the buckets into the well. Reading it this way, I can’t help but imagine “the sound/the bucket made hitting the sides/of the stone well going down” – a physical detail that confirms the reality of the scene while heightening the eeriness of the absence of consciousness – as a kind of plumbing, an attempted sounding of the depths.

I’ve been particularly fascinated with this poem because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about development of self-knowledge that comes with the formation of an adult personality, and the corresponding distance that it’s created between my earlier self and the self (I think) I know now. I can remember a lot of the things that I thought when I was younger, and why I arrived at those thoughts, but not really how I arrived at them – I’m so hyperconscious now of my thought processes that I have trouble imagining now how it would feel to not be constantly running over them and teasing the wires apart and trying to trace them back to their sources. Younger self was not a very self-analytical beast, for the record. It’s temptingly easy to imagine a semi-verbal, unreflective little animal still hunkering down somewhere in the middle of me.

Really, though, it’s quite probable that I haven’t changed as much as I think I have, and that I’m still running on almost all of the same basic processes and impulses, it’s just that I’ve learned to recognize and suppress or manipulate a significant-seeming subset of them, enough to fool myself into thinking I’m a lot more self-aware and self-civilized than I actually am.

I’m not sure that this train of thought ended up going anywhere, perhaps appropriately…

– E

“Song of Wandering Aengus”

Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,

I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

– W. B. Yeats

No real commentary, just some Yeats love. I love the coolness and silvery-darkness of all of the images in the first and second stanzas contrasted with the “fire in [his] head,” and the way the meter and slant rhyme/consonance of “hollow lands and hilly lands” echo the rolling, repetitious feel of the image itself.

– E

“The Story of the Hinge”

A snippet of a larger (but still very short) prose piece, “Nothing Began as It Is,” from Merwin’s The Book of Fables:

The story of the hinge is that it is learning to fly. “No hinge has ever flown,” the locks tell it again and again. “That is why were are learning,” it answers, “and then we will teach the doors.”

– E

Go to:
“Where Laughter Came From”


This has been my generally favorite thing since I found it last week. I’ve been reading it a couple times a day since, and it still hits me every time – it’s like being grabbed by the sternum and then having the rug pulled out from under my innards. whaaaaaat. But no, seriously, I love and am extremely envious of this poem.


People looking at the sea,
makes them feel less terrible about themselves,
the sea’s behaving abominably,
seems never satisfied,
what it throws away it dashes down
then wants back, yanks back.
Comparatively, thinks one vice president,
what are my frauds but nudged along
misunderstandings already there?
I can’t believe I ever worried
about my betrayals, thinks the analyst
benefitting facially from the sea’s raged-up mist.
Obviously I’m not the only one suffering
an identity crisis knows the boy
who wants to be a lawyer no more.
Nothing can stay long, cogitates the dog,
so maybe a life of fetch is not a wasted life.
And the sea heaves and cleaves and seethes,
shoots snot out, goes to bed only to wake
shouting in the mansion of the night, pacing,
pacing, making tea then spilling it,
sudden outloud laughter snort, Oh what the
heck, I probably drove myself crazy,
thinks the sea, kissing all those strangers,
forgiving them no matter what, liars
in confession, vomitters of plastics
and fossil fuels but what a stricken
elixir I’ve become even to my becalmed depths,
while through its head swim a million
fishes seemingly made of light
eating each other.

– Dean Young

“raged-up mist,” “cogitates the dog”! I need to find and read more Dean Young, clearly. One or two of the more obviously sonically playful bits sound more decorative than meaningful (it’s mainly “stricken / elixir” that bothers me), but overall this poem is so on. The humor, the psychological understanding, the perfect fit and clarity of the final image…

“Lover and long-legged girl”

Maxine Kumin reads “Looking Back in My Eighty-first Year” (via Poems Out Loud)

I got to hear Maxine Kumin read this past autumn, and enjoyed the clarity and directness of her language – qualities particularly appreciated during a reading, I’m not gonna lie.

I’ve been zigzagging through her Selected Poems, 1960-1990 since then, and have enjoyed just about every one of her gardening poems and horse poems in particular, though her intensely meditative voice makes her personal poems generally excellent. Still underwhelmed on the political poems front.

To get back to the link at hand, “Looking Back in My Eighty-first Year” moves me to the point of being inarticulate about it, so I’m just posting the link and leaving it at that. Hope some of you will enjoy.

– E

“Where Laughter Came From”

As this is still in copyright, I am figuratively glancing about surreptitiously and wondering if I’m allowed to post this – but I can’t resist.

Where Laughter Came From

Laughter was the shape the darkness took around the first appearance of the light. That was its name then: The Shape The Darkness Took Around The First Appearance Of The Light.
The light still keeps trying to touch its lips. The lips of darkness.
The light’s hand rises but the darkness is not there. Only laughter.

– W. S. Merwin

From his 2007 collection of prose poems, The Book of Fables.

I like it when poems are resistant to easy interpretation in a playful, secretive, mythological way, rather than being abstruse or strenuously allusive. (Although the latter kind are fun in their own way, especially when generously footnoted for the uninitiated.) I’m having a lot of fun putting my brain into origami pleats trying to grasp all of this one at once.