C.P. Cavafy, “In the Same Space”
Years and years of walking setting streets -
I see cafés, houses, dreamed places fade.
Built while happy, built while sad -
bricks of light and shadow.
The wind blows soft. My memory
a feeling: city all too real.
I’ve changed a lot from the Keeley/Sherrard translation. I’ve added imagery to make it very clear from the start we’re working with a place that is the author’s construction. From there, I’ve ambiguously moved us to the “real.”
I might be getting Cavafy’s poem exactly backwards. He might want us to start with his city, then see it as his construction, then watch it dissolve into his feeling. That’s fair, but in the Keeley/Sherrard, here’s the last line:
And, for me, the whole of you is transformed into feeling.
“For me” and “of you” bring up a very significant issue that shouldn’t stay hidden: to what degree is an authorial construction solipsism? When thinking about how encompassing such self-absorption can be, I started to see that any explanation of the hometown that let it merely be sensed (walked, seen) and turned immediately into feeling would be unsatisfactory.
We don’t just feel because there’s some environmental trigger. Nor simply because some part of the brain decides to act up and push us a certain way. Ultimately, I think what Cavafy is getting at is that thinking carefully about what a place means to us yields all the other actions and reactions experienced, all the passions of others that are within our own memories. We feel revealing other feelings. I don’t want the place the author is describing, then, to simply fade away into one thing. I wanted that “sameness” of the title to be realized in its fullness and diversity.
C.P. Cavafy, “In Church”
From silver vessels
to the bronze of candle bases,
an illumined space
with iconic windows of gold -
well, I like church.
In the Greek church
arises the aroma of incense;
a chanted liturgy
brings mouths to harmony.
The priests’ majesty
in splendorous vestments
dazzles, then gestures
set rhythm solemn
as if all our history was that motion,
the great glory of Byzantium.
Not really much to say. I think what I did with the first stanza is very clear. The progression there leads to revelation; one can see the end of the first stanza as related to the end of the second.
Three senses are represented in the second stanza: smell, hearing, sight. Only the first stanza obliquely refers to taste (“silver vessels”), the second to touch (“gestures”). Thus, I’ve turned “love” in the Keeley/Sherrard to “like.” I’ve preserved a number of their phrases otherwise, but that lack of a more erotic love is striking to me as a theme. The sights in church dazzle, the speech orders, the smell distinguishes. This only adds up to a gestured history, some perhaps empty vessels.
C.P. Cavafy, “I Went”
Let out a long breath -
went, went and gnawed,
only partially tasting.
Thinking, thought I found a light,
went to the brilliant night
drinking a gallery of wine,
toasting a victory savored elsewhere.
I’ve saved a few phrases from the Keeley/Sherrard translation but I haven’t turned this into a full poem yet. I might have changed this poem in terms of theme entirely. It may be the case Cavafy’s indulgence and drinking is the life of the mind, that a victory actually was won from his hedonism. The “half-real” in the Keeley/Sherrard becomes the “brilliant night” and makes our confident hero like a “champion of pleasure.”
The direction I went was more cynical. Sometimes we put on airs of confidence and force ourselves into things we don’t understand. I’ve used only the past tense and participles to not so subtly tell where we end up. We hope taste can nourish, inform and allow us a judgment, but we need more than we’re allowing ourselves, even if we’re talking about time and space. That leads to half-baked thoughts and realizations, a plethora of images that are mere indulgences, and finally a “victory” that has nothing to do with what one might want to accomplish.
I’m not sure the direction I went tells us anything we don’t already know. A good question is whether all confidence is false confidence. If you know the result, why do you need to have faith? At the same time, there’s something like truth – maybe the right belief – that we need to be the best we can be.
C.P. Cavafy, “As Much As You Can”
You cannot shape your life.
I say to do away
with too much world,
too much business,
too much speech.
Don’t degrade, dragging life,
bringing and boasting it
in the intimacy of living rooms
or contentious little parties
until seen superfluous,
begging for attention.
C.P. Cavafy, Come Back
Return and return and possess me,
beloved feeling -
awakening of body’s memory,
desire once again
I want my lips and skin to remember,
hands feel they can touch again.
Return and possess me
in the time of dreams,
when lips and skin remember.
You can compare the Keeley/Sherrard at the link with what I’ve done. I’ve changed a lot but kept “lips and skin remember.” I think my aesthetic choices are justifiable.
It’s the theme where I’m both happy and not so happy. I’ll need more poems to explore what I really wanted out of this one. The speaker on my reading feels desire for desire. This is very strange, to say the least. Sure, there are times where we’re in love, but I think the “high” from those times, whether we’re loved back or chasing someone, has to do with the feeling we’re getting or winning something. I think a lot of the “I wish I could be in love” sentiment is a reaction to others getting or winning. “Getting/winning,” for me, speak to having a desire – one desire – that can be fulfilled.
This poem is talking about something different. “Desire for desire” forces the issue of memory. The only way you could want desire is if you had it before and now lack it. We have to grant, further, that the speaker is only mouthing the words: “desire for desire” is not actually desire. This is a prayer because it is hopeless, unfelt. While the poem does present this situation, I do think it is only temporary; the speaker is making some sort of transition.
I replaced the simple, sensual “in the night” with “time of dreams” to emphasize a movement from body to mind. The speaker is asking for a soul, for life. Again, I haven’t explored the theme as thoroughly as I should. For now, I’m treating him as literally pathetic – I don’t mean this in a bad way. Since “desire for desire” doesn’t exist, he doesn’t know what he wants. He really wants a certain memory, a certain time back. What’s amazing: in not feeling a particular desire, in not feeling anything bodily (as he thinks), he’s giving expression to feeling itself. Feeling has a sort of universality, where it takes over the mind and demands a certain reality.
C.P. Cavafy, “I’ve Looked So Much…” – note below that “falling slightly over pale foreheads” and “figures of love” are directly from the Keeley/Sherrard translation. They’re good lines.
I devoted myself
to the contemplation
of sensual form.
of the ugly, the ignoble,
the unworthy has made
my eyes, my ears, my mind -
the entire field of my vision -
nothing but beauty.
In everything I follow bodily
lines and curves to colored,
expressive lips to sensual,
sensuous limbs. As if everything
was a Greek statue, with that hair -
always lovely combed or not -
falling slightly over pale foreheads.
My poems desired such forms,
held them figures of love.
I wrote them nightly
for our secret encounters.
C.P. Cavafy, “Greek from Ancient Times”
At first, it seems Antioch permits its pride:
buildings holding light of the sky,
streets leading to unexpected treasure.
Surroundings of a pastoral paradise;
Many within the walls busy and bustling.
Proud still of pious kings,
artists and academics,
knowing and wealthy traders.
Surpassing all these noble features
is their declaration Hellenic:
through Argos, ruled by a river,
to whose heifer daughter Antioch
was dedicated. Io, loved by Zeus,
comforted by Prometheus.
C.P. Cavafy, “I’ve Brought to Art”
The template of a gray sky
holds bittersweet wonder.
I walk with my burden,
I question what has been glimpsed:
the contours of buildings,
the cloudy faces,
the loves once thought complete.
Now my submission to Art is full.
It knows, taking lines, forms –
feelings felt then and now -
projecting into the path before me,
where I must cautiously step.
C.P. Cavafy, “At the Café Door” (below, my own poem from this poem)
In the bustle, a murmur -
then from me, a seated glance
at the door. Bland lighting,
heater warmth displaced
by the quiet radiance
of a sculpture of Eros.
Your figure rejoices:
tall and shapely,
the passion invested
in the aspect amazes more.
How tender, how restrained he was
with your face. He barely brushed
a speck of dust from the hair,
the brow, the eyes.