[ilds] Cavafy - Man with a Past

Lou Minakakis minakakisl at gmail.com
Sat Mar 21 08:03:26 PDT 2009


BOOKS review of two volumes of poetry by C. P. Cavafy. Constantine Cavafy,
the greatest Greek poet since antiquity, spent thirty-three years in
Alexandria, Egypt, from 1889 to 1922, as a part-time clerk. By day, he
performed his ordinary Alexandrian act. At night he paid beautiful young
men—dishwashers and tailors’ assistants and grocery boys—for sex. Cavafy’s
work draws from two intensely private sources: the old histories of the
Hellenic world which he read in the evenings, and the nights of sex that
ensued. His readers were limited to the select group who received his poems,
privately printed on broadsheets or bound in folders. Daniel Mendelsohn has
translated all of Cavafy’s poems, including the thirty “unfinished” poems
never before rendered in English. The results—now published in two volumes,
“C. P. Cavafy: The Collected Poems” (Knopf; $35) and “C. P. Cavafy:
Unfinished Poems” (Knopf; $30) —are extraordinary, and a whole galaxy orbits
them. Cavafy thought of himself as a “poet-historian,” which meant that he
viewed all human conduct, his own included, in the light of recorded time.
He was fifty-three when he met E. M. Forster, who became a good friend, but
in certain ways his life had just begun. Cavafy was born in 1863 into a
merchant family that was prominent in Alexandria’s Greek colony. As an
adult, he took care of his mother, while sneaking out at night to cruise for
young men. Cavafy wrote a number of erotic poems in historical dress, but
until 1918 he hadn’t attempted direct treatment of homosexual desire. In the
next fifteen years, until his death, in 1933, Cavafy would complete one of
the great bodies of poetry in any literature, and the “sensual” poems, as he
called them, were at its heart. The approach feels radical. Cavafy’s
relative verbal barrenness has meaning, but the meaning depends on measuring
his deliberately flat diction against an often complex prosody. In 1975,
Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard published “C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems,”
and it became the official English Cavafy. Now a second generation of poets
was reading Cavafy, including Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Hass, and Louise Glück.
Cavafy’s idea that experience comes “to stay here in this poetry” wagers
that the poetry itself is going to stay. Yet it’s hard to know how Cavafy
envisioned his poems’ afterlives and his own posthumous reputation. He did
almost none of the obvious things poets do to rig the future in their favor.
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