Tuesday, April 17, 2007

POETRY | Cavafy Poetry Threesome

Imani got me thinking about Cavafy, which got me all nostalgic and pensive. Never a good thing. ;)

Many years ago I was at a low point of my life. I came to the poetry of Cavafy and it felt as though he spoke to me. I shared The City -- one of the Cavafy poem I love -- with a colleague. She read it, I asked her how she felt. She replied:

"Now I'm depressed."

I laughed. But much later the truth in the poem hit me. I was forced to look back at the wreckage of my life, and there was no clean slate, no fresh start; There was no forgiveness, no redemption. The wreckage that was my life I will bring with me no matter where I go. As the poem goes, "As you have ruined your life here/in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world". The only way is to build on the ruins of my regrets.


The City


You said, "I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, better than this.
Every effort of mine is condemned by fate;

and my heart is -- like a corpse -- buried.
How long in this wasteland will my mind remain.
Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look
I see the black ruins of my life here,
where I spent so many years, and ruined and wasted."

New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
in these same houses you will grow gray.
Always you will arrive in this city. To another land -- do not hope --
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have ruined your life here
in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.


There was a time I questioned my direction and my choices in life. What do I really want? Have I stayed true to my dreams? Have I sold out to an easy, comfortable job and lost my way? I wondered if I was like The Satrapy.


The Satrapy

What a misfortune, although you are made
for fine and great works
this unjust fate of yours always
denies you encouragement and success;
that base customs should block you;
and pettiness and indifference.
And how terrible the day when you yield
(the day when you give up and yield),
and you leave on foot for Susa,
and you go to the monarch Artaxerxes
who favorably places you in his court,
and offers you satrapies and the like.
And you accept them with despair
these things that you do not want.
Your soul seeks other things, weeps for other things;
the praise of the public and the Sophists,
the hard-won and inestimable Well Done;
the Agora, the Theater, and the Laurels.
How can Artaxerxes give you these,
where will you find these in a satrapy;
and what life can you live without these.


In life, one can only aspires to the expansive soul that was King Demetrius. We all come to a role in life, and when it is time for the curtain-calls, grace asks that we step down, move on. Nothing is permanent, not love, not hate, and definitely not your job. There were some changes at work some years back -- I took it badly because all that I have built the past 4 years seemed for naught. It was until much later that I saw how foolish I had been.


King Demetrius

Not like a king, but like an actor,
instead of his royal robe, he put on a
gray cloak and stealthily departed.
PLUTARCH, "Life of Demetrius."

When the Macedonians abandoned him,
and proved that they prefer Pyrrhus,
King Demetrius (he had a great soul)
did not--so they stated--behave
in the least like a king. He went
and took off his robes of gold,
and cast off his purple shoes.
He dressed hurriedly
in simple clothes and went off.
Behaving like an actor
who when the performance is over
changes his clothes and departs.

7 comments:

Imani said...

For some reason the first poem did not make me quite as depressed as I thought it would. I found the inescapability of that home somewhat comforting because in it is the possibility of beginning again after you have fucked up all you could? Less literally, that you have one life, one identity, that at least is stable and even if it is ruined, is not static. Not inherently inert.

The prospect of a false escape, repeating the same mistakes, unconsciously perhaps, until near the end of your life you realise what you've done...that strikes me as an even more horrific end.

But I am an enternal optimist. I love Satrapy. Along with Jack Gilbert I find Cavafy to be one of those poets who can use the Graeco-Roman myths and make them personal to the reader, very immediate, rather than as trimming or a nice allusion to lend the work some weight.

The Traveller said...

Satrapy is great! All the poems are - even though reading them makes me remember times when I've thought all those things, when I've thought one little thing has ruined my life forever in all places, seeing those words written down makes something in me rebel against those feelings. Really great post. And thanks for the intro to a new poet!

Dark Orpheus said...

Imani: I agree with you on false escape - but it's instinctive for a lot of us - to want to run away from pain or failures. Pretend you have a clean slate when you run, pretend it never happened.

Maybe I'm just morose - still, I admire your optimism. It takes a lot more strength to stay hopeful in the face of human failures.

You mentioned Jack Gilbert - I've never heard of him. Any recommendations on where to start?

Traveller: Glad you like Cavafy. It's wonderful how one can identify so easy with what he's saying and respond to it.

jenclair said...

I love these. I was not familiar with Cavafy, but will be seeking an anthology now. Thanks!

Imani said...

I've actually just gotten to him myself, when he was interviewed and his work published in the Paris Review. Here's a link to one poem I posted on my blog that illustrates what I was talking about: Ovid in Tears

Sarah Louise said...

ooh, I've heard of Jack Gilbert...

and love this trio. I'd read the first one before, and the part about the city will follow you is true of me and Pittsburgh, so I didn't really explore the ruined part, just the reality that I can't seem to leave da Burgh. I'll have to re-read it with new eyes. There's a Russian folk tale about a man who loved his city and fell in love with a mermaid...I'll have to see if I can find it.

Gordon said...

Hi
I really like this post.
Cavafy if often quoted in Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet which you may know.

And your post made me think of this poem that I put on my blog:

Ah so, how stupid of me!
Living a life not quite adept
Whom did I give my youth to,
And whose gray hair did I accept?
Now that I’m anxious to find out,
I’m searching, but I’m still inept

“How Stupid of Me” by Kim Soojang 1682-?