Reconnecting with Cavafy
DEREK TURNER reviews the latest tribute to Greece’s greatest modern poet
Shades of Love – Photographs Inspired by the Poems of C. P. Cavafy
Dimitris Yeros, poems translated by David Connolly, Insight Editions, San Francisco, 2010, 165 pps, $75
Your nightingales, your songs, are living still
And them the death that clutches all things cannot kill (Callimachus)
This volume landed in my postbox burdened by the weight of its handsome format and approval from such luminaries as Gore Vidal, Edward Albee, Jeff Koons, Olympia Dukakis and even the American Library Association. That is not to mention the awesome responsibility of repackaging for new readers the classic works of Constantine P. Cavafy, generally agreed to have been the greatest Greek poet of the 20th century – and who is furthermore notoriously difficult to translate. But Dimitris Yeros is deservedly highly-regarded as an artist-photographer, and David Connolly has stepped assuredly up to the mark made in 1975 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Shades of Love is derived from a short poem, “To Call Up The Shades”, oddly not included in this 67 poem strong collection.
Cavafy is venerated by educated Greeks because of his wistful evocations of the great Hellenic past, which seems all the more resplendent in contrast with today’s diminished (and still diminishing) country. His works have also accrued international admirers, like Forster – who quoted Cavafy in his Alexandria, and described him memorably as “a man in a straw hat, standing at a slight angle to the universe” – T. E. Lawrence, Eliot, Toynbee, and Durrell. Here is a more recent example of the poet’s lasting appeal – Sean Connery reciting “Ithaca” to the music of Vangelis. But then who could not be moved by such expansive sentiments, such an imaginative itinerary across the Inland Sea? Yeros has illustrated this poem with a study of Gabriel García Márquez, because of that writer’s “life rich in adventures and experiences”; this is one of the more oblique and therefore most successful picture/poem pairings.
Cavafy’s “Thermopylae” likewise throbs with transcendent chivalry (and a rare respect for conservative impulses). Here is Connolly’s rendition of that noble work (American orthography retained):
Honor to those who in their lives
resolved to defend some Thermopylae.
Never wavering from duty;
just and forthright in all their deeds,
but with pity and compassion too;
generous whenever rich and when
poor, still generous in smaller ways,
still helping all they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hatred for those who lie.
And still honor is their due
when they foresee (and many do foresee)
that Ephialtes will eventually appear,
and the Medes will, in the end, get through.
All Westerners should value this hierophant of Hellenism, but Cavafy speaks first as a Greek to Greeks, a man whose modest mode of living – civil servant (1), private dreamer, washed-up exile-of-a-kind in once-important Alexandria – might epitomize his country’s disastrous most recent century.
Yeros clearly revels in Cavafy’s Greekness, but he has opted to emphasize Cavafy’s non-nationally-specific other side – his homosexuality. Homoerotic sentiments are proudly overt and liberally distributed throughout the canon, and it is impossible to separate the poet from his proclivities. Yeros is not the first artist to have zeroed in on this; as long ago as 1966, David Hockney illustrated twelve of the poems in similarly lithe (if less lavish) vein. But some of the images unfortunately supplant rather than complement the verse. This is always a risk when illustrating poetry, perhaps especially when the verse is subtle, and concerns a subject which is still surrounded by moralism and mystification. Yeros also used some unpublished and “not very good poems” because they gave him an idea for an image. Would a poet of Cavafy’s notorious perfectionism have wanted these efforts to be included in such a prestigious collection – and would a man of his period and cultivation really have wanted his sexual orientation to be the first thing the American Library Association remembers? The poet enjoyed Alexandria’s blowsy underbelly – but he was also a private person of surpassing seriousness, a man who lived alone for much of his life, an Orthodox observer interested in “the feelings of my own people” (2) and “the great glories of our race, / To the splendour of our Byzantine heritage” (3). In the end Yeros is constrained to admit “I do not know whether Cavafy himself would have approved of these photographs”. In any case – if at the risk of sounding like a serious version of Ed Zern (4) – to the general reader all this eroticism is likely to be less interesting than Cavafy’s numinous exactitude, gossipy historical immediacy and wry humanity.
Cavafy is big enough to accommodate all kinds of interpretations, and as the subtitle “Photographs inspired by…” makes plain, this was always intended to be a visual rather than a literary treatment. In any case, it is by any reasonable standards a thoughtful and generous tribute, a labour of love that does credit to its producers. Thanks to its technical excellence, and clever co-option of some unexpected public figures as Cavafyites, it will also help keep the poetry alive into an increasingly less Western world. Yet it seems a shame that it omits gems like “The City”, “Waiting for the Barbarians” and “The God Abandons Antony”. Maybe Yeros thought them too obvious; yet they are obvious for a reason. It would have been fascinating to know how Connolly would have Englished those, and see what subtle beauty they would certainly have elicited from Yeros’ highly-attuned apparatus.
Greek Alexandria has gone the way of the Great Library and the Pharos, drowned like Rhakotis or exported like Cleopatra’s Needle – and now even the Greek homeland teeters on the brink of dissolution, its social model sullied seemingly beyond catharsis and foundering under uncontrolled immigration, its economy mortgaged to the World Bank, its politics beholden to Brussels, its streets at times a battle-zone between murderous extremists. Yet through Cavafy as filtered by Forster, Durrell, Eliot, and now Yeros we can still connect with this endangered inheritance. Like Antony, legendarily listening to the music of Hercules’ departing retinue, we can
…go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion,
but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen – your final pleasure – to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
- Cavafy’s Pooterish-sounding profession was Special Clerk in the Irrigation Service (Third Circle) of the Ministry of Public Works
- “Since Nine O’Clock”
- “In Church”
- In 1959, Ed Zern wrote a spoof review of Lady Chatterley for Field and Stream – “This fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping”