Constantine P. Cavafy – Poems

poetry by Constantine P. Cavafy
translated by Manolis

Preview

Cavafy was concise and accurate; so much so that he would work on each of his verses again and again making sure that it was in its final and perfect form before he would mail it to anyone; most of this of course is lost in the translation, as such an element in writing is impossible to replicate in another language.

He drew most of his inspiration for the historical poems from the first and second centuries B.C. and the Hellinistic Era of Alexandria around and after the days of Alexander the Great. His love poems were entirely devoted to adult love between men; there is not a single mention of a woman as the subject of erotic love in his poems. The image of the kore, an erotic subject of other poets, is absent from his stanzas. Reference to women in Cavafy's work is only about older, mature and gracious figures playing out their roles in the Hellinistic era or Byzantium's golden age.

Cavafy wrote mostly in free verse although there were times when he used rhyme to emphasize irony; the number of syllables per verse varied from ten to seventeen.

Cavafy's inspiration derives from many different subjects; in one of the well known poems, Ithaka, he explores, like Odysseus on his return to his home island after the Trojan War, the pleasure and importance of the way to a goal rather than the goal itself, and shows that the process of achieving something is important because of all the experience it makes possible.

In the poem Waiting for the Barbarians we see the importance of the influence that people and events outside of the country may have in the lives of the inhabitants of a certain place and it can quite easily be related to today's doctrine of "war on terror" after the attack of September, 2001 and the role that fear of the foreigner, or the enemy, plays in the decision making process of a nation. A parallel can be drawn between today's "war on terror" and the final verses of the poem...

"And what are we to become without the barbarians?
These people were some kind of a solution."

In the poem Thermopylae Cavafy explores the subject of duty, responsibility, and most importantly, the idea of paying the "debt"; he seems to believe in the philosophical principle of the Universal Balance which exists everywhere, and when that balance is disturbed by the actions of one man another person needs to reestablish it: in this case the poem refers to the treason by Ephialtes which disturbs that preexisting balance and which the leader of the 300 Lacedaimonians, Leonidas, tries to counter-balance by his act of self sacrifice. The crucifixion of Christ has the same philosophical base. Odusseus Elytis refers to the same subject in the Genesis of his Axion Esti (It is Worthy) where he says that the Old Wise Creator prepared the four Great Voids on earth and in the body of man:

"...the void of Death for the Upcoming Child
the void of Killing for the Right Judgment
the void of Sacrifice for the Equal Retribution
the void of the Soul for the Responsibility of the Other"

Isolation and the sense of enclosure unfolds in Cavafy's poem "Walls" which is relevant to today as some countries tend to resort to it as a means of defense against foreign influences coming from the outside and changing the thinking of the people, but also as a reason for becoming self-sufficient and self-reliant.

There are a lot of satirical connotations and humor in some poems and one such poem stands out: Nero's Deadline where the poet laughs at the way a person perceives their time on earth. The same subject is referred to by the well known Greek saying: "You like to make God laugh, go and tell Him your plans..."

The extent to which a politician or a system may stretch truth in order to achieve a goal and the axiom "history repeats itself" are adamantly present in Cavafy's poetry as we see the travesty of events when presented to the public from an official position:

"...the gigantic lie of the palace–Antony triumphs in Greece."

The lies a government may throw at people in order to deceive. Today's "...war on terror..." is such a travesty and it resembles an umbrella harboring under it various means and purposes of deluding the populace; at other times this is a means of camouflaging the inability of the governing party to conduct themselves in a fair and balanced way.

Prologue

Translations, like everything else, wear out over time, as language, and those who read or use it, change. With a poet like Cavafy, who was so precisely tuned to the idiom of his peers, it is even more important to update the English versions of his poems frequently, so that they have the same immediate resonance with the times as the originals had with their time. This is, of course, an impossible task. There is no single word, much less any phrase, that has exactly the same weight and hierarchy of primary and secondary meanings in another language. Add to that the differences in sound patterns and rhythmic signatures or emphases, and it becomes clear that the best one can do is to approximate, sometimes by straying from the awkwardness of literal, dictionary definitions, the poetic effects of the original poems. Robert Lowell called his attempts "Imitations" and I think that the ambition and humility of that designation makes it a more or less accurate label for what is presented here, English versions of a celebrated body of work that could never have been written in English, much less in Canadian English with our vastly different history and culture, different even from the English that evolved in Britain over many centuries. Certainly there are problematics that have remained unresolved, and occasional passages of unavoidable clumsiness, but we have tried to approximate both Cavafy's intimate, precise sense of idiomatic speech, and his consummate ear for traditional forms revitalized by the Demotic Greek of Alexandria. If we haven't fully succeeded, our hope is that something of the poet's distinctive genius and skill remains, and remains accessible to our readers, if only as a trace element here and there, or in the cumulative force of the book as a whole.

– George Amabile, Editor

Excerpt

An Old Man
In the back of the noisy cafe
bent over a table, an old man sits;
with a newspaper in front of him, alone. 
And in the miserable scorn of old age
he thinks of how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strength, and eloquence, and beauty. 
He knows that he has grown old; he feels it, he sees it.
And yet the time when he was young seems
like yesterday. How short, how short a time. 
And he contemplates how Discretion deceived him;
and how he always trusted it–how foolish–
the liar who said, "Tomorrow. You have plenty of time."
He remembers urges he restrained; and all the joy
he sacrificed. Now for every lost chance
he scolds his foolish Discretion. 
...But from all this thinking and remembering
the old man gets dizzy. And falls asleep
bent over the table in the café.
Candles
The days of the future stand in front of us
like a line of lit candles–
golden, warm, and lively little candles. 
The days of the past remain behind,
a sorrowful line of burned out candles;
the closest ones are still smoking,
cold candles, melted, and drooping. 
I don't want to look at them; their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their previous light.
I look ahead at my lit candles. 
I don't want to look back and see in horror
how fast the dark line lengthens,
how quickly the burned out candles multiply. 
Prayer
The sea took a sailor to its depth.–
His mother, unknowing, goes and lights 
a tall candle before the Virgin Mary
for his speedy return and for fair weather– 
and she always tunes her ear to the wind.
But while she prays and beseeches 
the icon listens, solemn and sad,
knowing the son she waits for won't come back.
"When a poet translates another poet's work, it is like a musical exchange. This is exactly what Manolis did with Cavafy's poetry: unwrapping creatively the pulse and the rhythm of the original text."
– Eduardo B. Pinto

About the Author

This self-biographical note of Constantine P. Cavafy or Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis, was published in 1924 in the celebratory issue of the magazine "New Art".

"I am from Constantinople by descent, but I was born in Alexandria-at a house on Seriph Street; I left at a young age and spent a lot of years of my childhood in England. I visited that country later on as an adult although for a short period of time. I also lived in France. During my adolescence I lived in Constantinople for about two years. I haven't visited Greece for a lot of years.

My last employment was as a clerk at a Government office under the Ministry of Public works of Egypt. I speak English, French, and some Italian."

More on Constantine P. Cavafy

About the Translator

Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis) is a Greek-Canadian poet and author. He was recently appointed an honorary instructor and fellow of the International Arts Academy, and awarded a Masters for the Arts in Literature. He is recognized for his ability to convey images and thoughts in a rich and evocative way that tugs at something deep within the reader. Born in the village of Kolibari on the island of Crete in 1947, he moved with his family at a young age to Thessaloniki and then to Athens, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in Political Sciences from the Panteion University of Athens. After graduation, he served in the armed forces for two years and emigrated to Vancouver in 1973, where he worked as an iron worker, train labourer, taxi driver, and stock broker, and studied English Literature at Simon Fraser University. He has written three novels and numerous collections of poetry, which are steadily being released as published works. His articles, poems and short stories in both Greek and English have appeared in various magazines and newspapers in Canada, United States, Sweden, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Australia, and Greece. His poetry has been translated into Spanish, Romanian, Swedish, German, Hungarian languages and has been published in book form or in magazines in various countries. He now lives in White Rock, where he spends his time writing, gardening, traveling, and heading Libros Libertad, an unorthodox and independent publishing company which he founded in 2006 with the mission of publishing literary books. His translation book George Seferis-Collected Poems was shortlisted for the Greek National Literary Awards, the highest literary recognition of Greece.

More about Manolis Aligizakis

Praise

"This is a beautiful collection of poems by one of the most important Greek poets, Constantine Cavafy, translated from the original text by Manolis, another very talented Greek-Canadian poet. Translations are most effective when they pay attention to the contextual integration of the author's culture, its mannerisms, the resonance and reach of the words, making the flow from one language to the other appear natural, not acquired. When a poet translates another poet's work, it is like a musical exchange. This is exactly what Manolis did with Cavafy's poetry: unwrapping creatively the pulse and the rhythm of the original text. He doesn't disturb the breathing and fulgurations of this melodious voice from Alexandria. Actually, he joins these timeless songs which are Cavafy's poems, and sings along in a duet that bridges over from Greek into English in the most harmonious manner."

– Eduardo B. Pinto,
author of Travelling with Shadows

"Cavafy's soul is barely contained by the dam of reason. It escapes in spurts of ink. Urgency, despair, enormous guilt and anger. A tortured man seeking oblivion from himself. Time and society are his jailors. Secretly written words his only escape. A rose blooms. Petals upon petals unfold, and one awaits the time when there are no more. But there is no taking your eyes from the process. It is like peeking through a hole in the wall, watching a man undress his soul."

– Luisa Maria Celis,
author of Arrows in the Sky