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:
and maaaybe The Afternoon Sun