Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Pride Month Profile: C.P. Cavafy

Journalist, Poet, Civil Servant

Temporary Clerk (one-year appointment), Third Circle of Irrigation, Ministry of Public Works, Cairo, 1892-1922

Published only in private editions for friends during his life, Cavafy is now renowned as the 20th century's greatest poet in the Greek language. He died on his 70th birthday, after a brief illness.

Writing in The New Yorker in 2009, Dan Chiasson describes the evolution of Cavafy's verse as he passed the piled-up monuments of history along the streets of his native Alexandria by day:
Sometime before 1450 B.C. in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis, the pharaoh Thutmose III ordered a pair of obelisks. They were to be cut from red granite and erected at the Temple of the Rising Sun. Two hundred or so years later, Ramses II had them inscribed with boasts about his military triumphs. In 13 B.C., Augustus had the obelisks transported to Alexandria and installed at the Caesareum, Cleopatra’s tribute to her husband, Mark Antony. There they stood sentry for another two thousand years, as the Caesareum and every subsequent building on that site got pulverized. By the time Napoleon entered Alexandria, in 1798, the obelisks—now known as Cleopatra’s Needles—had taken on the “Ozymandias” look so fashionable then: one erect, one toppled, surrounded by “lone and level sand” on an empty beach. In the nineteenth century, Egypt gave the needles away: one to England, where it stands on the Victoria Embankment, in London; the other to the United States, where it stands in Central Park, near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Early in the third millennium A.D., when I lived in New York, that’s where I walked my dog. 
On the spot in Alexandria where the New York needle had stood were the offices of the Third Circle of Irrigation, which managed the water pumped from the Nile to the cotton and cornfields south of the city. This is where Constantine Cavafy, a member of Alexandria’s large Greek colony and the greatest Greek poet since antiquity, spent thirty-three years, from 1889 to 1922, as a part-time clerk. Cavafy had visited the needles in their last days on Alexandrian soil. The city, pillaged for centuries, then left for dead, had few such treasures left. The body of St. Mark was supposedly stolen from the city in 828 by a band of Venetians, probably not the weirdest looting incident in Alexandria’s history. On Cavafy’s walk home from work he passed St. Saba’s, erected on the site of an ancient Byzantine church, and, nearby, the Greek Hospital, where Hadrian was said to have built his Egyptian palace. A few steps from Cavafy’s apartment was where Alexander the Great’s body had once lain on display, encased in a gold sarcophagus.
Then, nearing fifty, something happened:
Cavafy would write a number of erotic poems in historical dress—“Caesarion” is one—but until 1910 he hadn’t attempted what Pound called “direct treatment of the thing.” “The thing,” in Cavafy’s case, was homosexual desire, a difficult subject to treat directly at the time. Oscar Wilde had, within memory, spent two years in prison for “gross indecency.” Cavafy had a model for sexual frankness in the Greek Anthology, that remarkable compilation of ancient insults, boasts, epigrams, and erotica, much of it recovered from mummy wrappings and pottery shards. But many of those writers were anonymous, and all of them had the advantage over Cavafy—a towering advantage if one wants to talk openly about gay sex—of having been dead several thousand years. 
During the next two decades, until his death, in 1933, Cavafy would compile one of the great bodies of poetry in any literature, and the “sensual” poems, as he called them, are at its heart. These poems apply to Cavafy’s own past the descriptive rations that had to do for Lysias the grammarian, say, or Herodes Atticus. The approach feels radical. Cavafy had read and absorbed the English Romantics, and is sometimes described as a latter-day Romantic. But his model of recollection differs from Wordsworth’s the way an outline on tracing paper differs from a Delacroix. Here is “He Came to Read—,” a poem from 1924, in full: 
He came so he could read. Lying open
are two or three books: historians and poets.
But he’d barely read for ten minutes,
when he put them aside. On the sofa
he’s half asleep. He’s completely devoted to books—
but he’s twenty-three years old, and very handsome;
and this afternoon desire has come
to his flawless flesh, and to his lips.
To his flesh, which is beauty entire,
the fever of desire has come;
without foolish shame about the form of its enjoyment. . . . 
That implied quotation—we hear the phrase “completely devoted to books” in the boy’s voice—sketches and erases the boy’s presence in a single gesture. Otherwise, the poem is a checklist. Which lover was this? The one who had come to read. Handsome, check; flawless, check; beauty, check. There was a negotiation, or the pantomime of one: the boy protested; Cavafy, with that one word, “foolish,” prevailed. There would be no more reading that day. 
Most of Cavafy’s erotic poems look back to these moments, “before time could alter them,” of a young man’s perfect ripeness. This is the moment when any young man becomes, by the transitive property of beauty, every young man, and these poems hit the same ironies over and over: beauty fades, good fortune dries up, youth gives way to decrepit old age.  
This is well-known information, to say the least. But Cavafy suffers it afresh with every instance, and he suffers it entirely, without the comforts of metaphor: nobody is ever compared to a falling leaf, a dewdrop, or a sapling cypress. His tone, though it admits of tenderness, is stoical. His claims for art are insistent but rather modest. We feel the pressure of all these refusals in “To Stay,” a poem about an anonymous liaison “in a corner of that dive; / in back of the wooden partition”: 
Delight in flesh amidst
clothes half undone:
quick baring of flesh—the image of it
has crossed twenty-six years; and now has come
to stay here in this poetry. 
Mendelsohn translates the Greek verb manei not, as most translators have, as simply “to stay” but as “to stay here.” Like a weary lodger, “the image . . . has crossed twenty-six years” perhaps just to stay the night. Cavafy invalidates his own boast; he knows what happens to Greeks when they boast.

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