Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We imagine that with decision and audacity
we will change the blow fate deals us,
and out we stand for combat.
But when the major crisis comes,
our decision and audacity deserts us;
our soul is shocked, it trembles, paralytic;
and circling the walls we run
looking for our safety in our flight." - Constantine P. Cavafy, from Trojans
I met a lovely woman recently, and although I may never have cause to speak to her or see her again, she did give me this- “Oh, you must read Constantine Cavafy,” her eastern European accent rolling the words extravagantly off her tongue lodging themselves in my head.
Many weeks later at the library, hoping in vain to find a translation of History Of The Peloponnesian War that I might enjoy a little more than the one I am currently reading, I thought to myself, “Cavafy.” I knew nothing about this poet. Just his name and a lovely woman’s ardor. The fact that he is particularly acclaimed for his poetry on Ancient Greece, I was ignorant. I found a book of his complete poems Before Time Could Change Them, translated by Theoharis C. Theoharis.
The book’s forward is written by Gore Vidal. At any other time that would not be so very interesting, but given that Vidal just died and was in my mind as well, well, what can I say? except - what a harlot coincidence can be.
Ancient Greece, love, Gore Vidal- I am sure mine is not the only mind to hold all three at once, although Cavafy could not have had Gore Vidal ever in his mind as his death predates probable knowledge, however, the man could not have given the other two subjects more thought, and so, he more than makes up the deficit.
Che Fece….Il Gran Rifiuto
To certain people there comes a day
when they should say the great Yes
or the great No. An instant shows who holds
the Yes ready in himself, and saying it
he crosses into limitless honor and confidence.
The naysayer does not repent. If asked again,
he would repeat the no. But he’s brought down
by that no - the fitting one - for all his life.
In many of his poems, Cavafy does not simply embody the spirit of his subject, he becomes the subject. Speaking as or to the subject with clarity and absolute fidelity to the character and historical or mythological event. Naturally there is a German word for this- what isn’t there a German word for? Einfühlen. According to Vidal, J.G. Herder invented this word to describe the act of entering and “inhabit[ing] other times.” The poem Ithaca is a wonderful example, "As you set out toward Ithaca, hope the way is long…" It’s a wonderful poem conveying the sine qua non of the journey; then, now; be you Ulysses or not, it’s all an odyssey - if you let it be.
Maybe it’s the water: I would swim anywhere, but given the choice, it would be in the Aegean. When I was in Greece, I would swim out as far as I could, turn on my back and float. Just float, suspended in the water…until an inhibiting feeling of the scandal of total freedom would make me raise my head to check on the distance between my body and the shore. The cool green water, bright sun, and intense salt is what I still crave and often dream of. Cavafy’s poems are just that - cool, bright, and intense.
In the Same Space
The houses and cafés, the quarter,
surroundings that I’ve seen and walked through; year after year.
In joy, in sorrow I created you:
with so many episodes, with so many matters.
And you have made yourself entirely a feeling, for me.
- Constantine P. Cavafy
*The title is from a poem that laughingly imagines an army of pleasure:
The Regiment of Pleasure
Do not speak of guilt, do not speak of responsibility. When the Regiment of Pleasure passes with music and flags; when the senses shudder and tremble, whoever stays far off is foolish and impious…..
Painting by Eric Ryan