Konstandinos Mahoney on Constantine Cavafy: Poet of Alexandria (1863-1933)

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Note: You can watch Dino’s short film, The Poet of the City  by clicking on the title

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The EssayThe Poems

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CAVAFY: POET OF ALEXANDRIA (1863-1933)

Finally, here I am, Rue Lepsis, a narrow dusty street in central Alexandria, looking up at the second floor balcony, the only one on a shabby, turn of the century, mixed residential and commercial block – it’s the balcony from which Cavafy would sprinkle cooling water over the grateful bordello girls below. On the wall by the main entrance, a dusty plaque, in Arabic and Greek – Constantine Cavafy, 1863-1933, Poet of Alexandria – the great poet identified by a city, not a state. I walk through the open entrance door into an open stairwell area, graffiti on the flaking walls, a skewered heart, a phallus. On the second floor, a small sign at the side of an apartment door – Constantine Cavafy. I knock. Wait.

Cavafy lived on Rue Lepsis, renamed Shem Al Shiekh, from his mid-forties to his death from throat cancer at seventy.  Most of the 154 poems in his canon were written or finished here when he was in his middle and later years – useful to remember Cavafy was an older poet, many of his poems reminisce in the way of older men, back to encounters of youthful days,

While looking at a half-gray opal
I remembered two lovely gray eyes-
It must be twenty years ago I saw them …

…………………………………

We were lovers for a month.
Then he went away to work, I think in Smyrna,
and we never met again.

Those gray eyes will have lost their beauty-if he’s still alive;
that lovely face will have spoiled.

Memory, keep them the way they were.
And, memory, whatever of that love can brig back,
Whatever you can, bring back tonight.

( ‘Gray’ Trans: Keeley & Sherrard)

Cavafy worked nearby as a clerk at the Department of Irrigation, his undemanding day job leaving him free to cruise the teeming side streets of his neighbourhood after work, stopping at a café for a glass of raki, stepping into a local casino to try his luck, window shopping for hot men –

He left the office where he’d taken up
a trivial, poorly paid job
(eight pounds a month, including bonuses)—
left at the end of the dreary work
that kept him bent all afternoon,
came out at seven and walked off slowly,
idling his way down the street. Good-looking;
and interesting: showing as he did that he’d reached
his full sensual capacity.
He’d turned twenty-nine the month before.
He idled his way down the main street
and the poor side-streets that led to his home.
Passing in front of a small shop
that sold cheap and flimsy things for workers,
he saw a face inside there, saw a figure
that compelled him to go in, and he pretended
he wanted to look at some colored handkerchiefs.

He asked about the quality of the handkerchiefs
and how much they cost, his voice choking,
almost silenced by desire.
And the answers came back the same way,
distracted, the voice hushed,
offering hidden consent.

They kept on talking about the merchandise—but
the only purpose: that their hands might touch
over the handkerchiefs, that their faces, their lips,
might move close together as though by chance—
a moment’s meeting of limb against lim

(‘He Asked About the Quality’ Trans: Keeley & Sherrard))

Nowadays C.P Cavafy Street, formally Sharm El Shiekh and before that, Rue Lepsis, is on the tourist trail. Trip Advisor ranks The Cavafy Museum 19th of 57 things to visit in Alexandria, after sites such as: the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Roman Amphitheatre, Pompey’s Pillar, Abu Abbas al-Mursi Mosque, Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, Fort Qaitbey, the Corniche – landmarks of a Cavafian cosmos.

As a young man, half-Greek, wholly homosexual, drunk on Cavafy’s poems, I was in love with the idea of Alexandria – poetic, hedonistic, historic. But when I finally made the pilgrimage, Cavafy’s polyglot, cosmopolitan, sensuous city had evaporated. After the Suez Crisis time was up for not only the English and French in Egypt, but also for the Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities, many, particularly the young, emigrating to the New World. Alexandria slowly morphed into a mono-cultural, Islamic city, the Greek coffee shops, casinos, bars, bordellos, a thing of the past; there is still a bustling souk, but it is a place to buy fruit and vegetables for the family table, not a place for cruising. In the sixties, David Hockney visited Alexandria looking for inspiration for etchings to be based on Cavafy’s homoerotic poems; missing the erotic vibe, Hockney went on to Beirut for inspiration, a sophisticated, secular, multi-cultural city with a famously dazzling and eclectic nightlife, a city much closer to Cavafy’s Alexandria.

I returned in the nineties to make a documentary about the poet. I was just in time to interview a few ancient Greek Egyptians who had known him, and his long-term intimate, Alekos Sengopoulos, a fellow Greek-Alexandrian. Cavafy made Sengopoulos his heir and literary executors; he was probably the closest Cavafy ever got to having a steady gay relationship – though they never lived together. When I interviewed Panayotis Soulos, former owner of the luxurious Metropole Hotel and Honorary President of the Hellenic Community, a gaunt vulture of a man in his regal galabeya, we gossiped away about Cavafy as if he were still living around the corner, his preference for young working class men, and Sangopoulos, his boyfriend. I also caught the legendary Greek-Alexandrian, Madame Kristina, owner of the Elite Café where Cavafy and Sangopoulos used to go; warm, extrovert, flamboyant, but with a failing memory, I had to reintroduce myself each time I met her, ‘You remind me very much of a very nice English gentleman I met yesterday,’ she would say to me with a charming smile. Her long term memory, however, was robust. She vividly recalled how Cavafy was terrified of death, which made me think of his great poem, ‘Candles’, /The days that are to come, they stand before us/like a row of lighted candles – / brilliant, and warm, and lively little candles/. The poem goes on to express a dread of looking back at the ever lengthening, ‘cold crooked’ burnt out candles following behind. And I interviewed Costis Moskoff, the Greek Cultural Attache in Egypt, poet and founder of the Cavafy Museum, an interesting and knowledgeable man in his early fifties who was to die prematurely a few years later. Moskoff spoke of Cavafy as an intellectual who found material for his verse in everyday life and turned it into, ‘big poetry’. He also saw Cavafy as writing in the classic Greek tradition that makes no distinction between the material and the spiritual – flesh is spirit, spirit, flesh, all is one.

Since his early championing by Forster and Auden, Cavafy has grown into a global poet, quite a feat for a poet who stopped writing poetry in English in favour of a minority European language. Cavafy is now better known than Nobel prize-winning Greek compatriots, the Smyrnan, Georges Seferis, a life long champion of his work, and the Cretan, Odysseus Elytis. His 154 poems, is modest by the standards of many established poets and the poems are short, rarely spilling over onto a second page. His work falls broadly into two camps – homoerotic and historical, memories of one night stands, reimagined characters and events from Greek history. The Greece in Cavafy’s poetry is not the Greece of the classical age, but the long period of Hellenistic culture in decline, the fragmented, middle eastern world after the break up of Alexander’s Empire until the shrinking territories of Byzantium.

Two outstanding poems in Cavafy’s canon are, ‘Ithaca,’ and ‘The City’ – both poems ostensibly about travel. ‘Ithaca,’ an unrhymed poem of five stanzas of varying length, draws on Homer’s Odyssey, but the tone is conversational not heroic, advice given to a young traveller setting out on a long journey. The poem begins –

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

(‘Ithaka’ Trans: Keeley and Sherrard)

Like Baudelaire’s poem, ‘Le Voyage,’ the journey in ‘Ithaca’ is a metaphysical one, a journey of self-discovery. Cavafy was a great admirer of, ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’, relishing Baudelaire’s Corinthian decadence; Cavafy’s decadence was more Doric. Cavafy wrote the first draft of ‘Ithaka‘ in 1894, revising it over the next seventeen years until its publication in 1911 – that easy conversational, demotic voice, that blend of airy wisdom, myth, sensuality, achieved over multiple meticulous revisions, close attention paid to syntax, meter, diction, rhyme. Cavafy himself was not a great traveller, he did most of it in the early part of his life, London and Liverpool from nine to sixteen, his father’s native Istanbul from nineteen to twenty one; but after that, apart from a few trips to Athens, he stayed put in Alex.

‘The City ‘, is also about a journey, moving from one city to another, a poem about the impossibility of escaping your own shortcomings, no matter where you go, you will make the same mistakes – classic Greek fatalism. The poem can also be interpreted through a queer lens, the homosexual who cannot escape his sexual desires no matter where he moves to – queer here, queer there, queer everywhere. The poem is a dramatic dialogue, the first verse in direct speech, the voice of a bored man dreaming of emigrating to a new city, renewing his interest in life –

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

The second verse is the dark voice of fate contradicting and crushing the hopes and dreams expressed in the first – location may change, the voice says gloomily, but the man remains the same – man and city are one.

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

I love reading this poem aloud in Greek, the crushing inevitability of fate majestically rendered in Sophoclean absolutes.

Καινούριους τόπους δεν θα βρεις, δεν θάβρεις άλλες θάλασσες.

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[NB: You can hear this poem in the original with English subtitles hereEditor]

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My mother used to read it to me on the balcony of our Greek summer retreat. The daughter of Smyrnan refugees who fled the immolation of their city on a boat bound for Alexandria, she herself later fled an unhappy and repressive mother, running off during the Greek Civil War with a London Irish Tommy. She felt ‘The City’ spoke directly to her, described her life, her flight from Athens to London. We never read the gay poems – she had inherited the homophobia handed down to her generation of Greeks through the Orthodox Church, though she did have a particular liking for, ‘Desires,’ a poem I interpret as a warning to gay men not to repress their sexuality. She often said she, ‘adored aesthetics’, and this poem encapsulated her idea of what aesthetics were. On her deathbed she asked me to read it to her –

Like beautiful bodies of the dead who did not grow old,
And were shut away with ears in a splendid mausoleum,
with roses at their head and jasmine at their feet –
that is what those desires are like, which have passed
without fulfilment, not one of them ever granted
a pleasure’s night, or a pleasure’s radiant morn.

(‘Desires’ : Trans: Evangelos Sachperoglou)

E.M. Foster was the first to bring Cavafy’s work to an English speaking audience – he famously described Cavafy as, ‘a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe’. Foster himself lived for three years in Alexandria, 1915-1918 becoming friends with Cavafy. Perhaps following Cavafy’s example, the long repressed Forster had his first gay sex in Alex, meeting and having a love affair with a local lad, Mohammed El Adl, a tram conductor. Foster wrote an essay introducing Cavafy’s work in, ‘Pharos and Pharillon’ (1923), a collection of writings about Alexandria; the year before he published Cavafy’s first poem in English translation, ‘The Gods Abandon Antony,’ in, ‘Alexandria: History and Guide’ (1922). It is a poem in Cavafy’s historical style, a reimagining of Alexandria’s Greco-Roman past based on a story from Plutarch – the defeated Mark Anthony witnesses a musical procession, the exit of his protector, the god Bacchus, from Alexandria, abandoning Antony to his tragic fate:

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

(‘The Gods Abandon Antony’ Trans: Keeley & Sherrard)

Many unpublished, his handwritten poems circulated among a few discerning friends, Cavafy’s work after his death was in danger of being neglected in the English speaking world. It was the sixties that brought Caavfy roaring back to people’s attention, a permissive decade ideal for the reception and appreciation of his poems. Lawrence Durell’s got the Cavafy ball rolling with his best-selling Faber paperbacks, ‘The Alexandria Quartet,’ bringing Cavafy and his poetry to the attention of a whole new readership. In 1961, hot on the heels of Durrell’s Quartet, The Hogarth Press published, ‘The Complete Poems of C P Cavafy,’ translated by Rae Davlan and with an introduction by W.H. Auden – Durrell’s readership, fed tantalizing scraps of Cavafy in ‘The Quartets’, now had the collected works to feast on. David Hockney, an iconoclastic star of the art world, attracted to the homoerotic poems embarked on, ’Illustrations for 14 Poems from C. P. Cavafy‘ drawing attention to Cavafy’s poems through frank images of naked men sprawled on a bed, more controversial than the poems themselves.

Since then Cavafy’s reputation has continued to grow, boosted by an explosion of excellent new translations; Cavafy’s directness, lack of literary ornamentation, make for a clean transition into English – poems that do not have that slightly awkward feel that translated poems are prey to – his poems do not shrink in the wash. Auden himself remarked that the tone in Cavafy’s poems seemed to survive translation. That’s not to say translating Cavafy did not have its challenges. Cavafy wrote in a mix of demotic and classically based purist katharevousa, tricky to render into English with its potentially jarring jumble of registers. This linguistic mélange of demotic and kathourevousa was wholly appropriate for a poet obsessed with time, past and present, historical Hellenism, a demotic recent past. Some chose to ignore the more formal diction, others, like Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, to engage with it. Of the many excellent translations of Cavafy’s work, the best is probably Keeley and Sherrard (1990). Publication in 2009 of Daniel Mendelsohn’s translation of Cavafy’s thirty unpublished poems completed the translated canon of his work.

A major boost to the global accessibility of Cavafy’s work was the acquisition of the Cavafy Archive in 2012 by the Onassis Foundation. The Foundation digitized the entire archive and put it online, free for anyone anywhere to access. The following year, 2013, saw the 150th anniversary of Cavafy’s birth. In collaboration with the Foundation celebratory events were held worldwide: Athens, Oxford, New York, major American universities, Mexico City, Santiago de Chile with artists, musicians, actors, writers commissioned to create new works in dialogue with Cavafy’s poetry. In 2015 the Journal of Greek Media and Culture published, ‘Cavafy Pop: C P Cavafy in Popular Culture,’ Cavafy’s poetry is not just to be read in books but in a host of media from animation to photography, from cinema to cartoons and pop songs. This expansion of Cavafy’s influence into new media demonstrates his appeal to a new generation, testimony to his contemporary relevance.

As well as translations, there is a growing body of poems written in response to Cavafy’s work, poems inspired by the spirit of his poems, written in his style, with his tone, exploring his themes in new ways and contexts – or poems written more specifically to dialogue with or mirror a particular Cavafy poem. In 2015 novelist, Louis de Bernieres published a debut poetry collection, ‘Imagining Alexandria : Poems in Memory of CP Cavafy’. The list of poets who have written Cavafy inspired poems is long and distinguished and shows the influence Cavafy’s work has had on major modern poets, among them: Michael Longely, Derek Mahon, Michael Donaghy, David Harsent, Roy Fuller, Don Paterson. Louise Gluck’s, ‘Crossroads‘ is a free version of Cavafy’s, ‘Body, Remember.’ In the Cavafy poem a man talks affectionately to his old body reminding it of the desire it once inspired – the tone is gentle, nostalgic, his words stroking the wrinkled skin.

Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
not only the beds you lay on,
but also those desires that glowed openly
in eyes that looked at you,
trembled for you in the voices—
only some chance obstacle frustrated them.
Now that it’s all finally in the past,
it seems almost as if you gave yourself
to those desires too—how they glowed,
remember, in eyes that looked at you,
remember, body, how they trembled for you in those voices.

(‘Body, Remember’ : Trans: Keeley & Sherrard.)

Gluck’s poems is similarly dualistic – body and soul (consciousness) as separate entities, the soul addressing the mute body. Her tone is more cerebral than Cavafy’s and in Gluck’s the relationship with her body seems more complex, more detached with a movement towards rapprochement, apology, request for forgiveness –

My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,
like what I remember of love when I was young —

love that was so often foolish in its objectives
but never in its choices, its intensities
Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —

My soul has been so fearful, so violent;
forgive its brutality.
As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,
not wishing to give offense
but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:

it is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.

(‘Crossroads’ Louise Gluck)

It’s the end of the day, I’m sitting on my balcony watching the sun set over the distant mountains of Arkadia – in the fading light I can just make out the final lines of the poem I am reading –

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(‘Ithaka‘ Trans: Keeley & Sherrard)

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Konstandinos (Dino) Mahoney: Two Poems

THE ALEXANDRIAN

Round spectacles, dapper suit and tie,
portfolio tucked primly underarm,
from Rue Lepsius he makes his way,
past brothel, church and hospital,
a clerk en route to his ministry,
the Water Board, his satrapy,
Third Circle of Irrigation,
British colonial administration,
the daily grind, the Archimedean screw,
and in return, his monthly due.

At night he cruises Boulevard Ramelah,
pick ups in the Souk Al-Attarine,
hook ups at The Café al Salam,
payment in Egyptian pounds,
sex with sailors, waiters, stevadores,
muscled torsos, alabaster,
ideal bodies, olive skin,
mechanic’s grease, sweet jasmine,
salt tasting kisses, aniseed,
fulfilling deep dark secret needs.

Careless of fame and publication,
ducking censure and tradition,
without fuss, shame, inhibition,
abandons English, convention, rhyme,
writes free iambic, classic, demotic,
Hellenic, syllabic, homoerotic,
passes, to a few discerning friends,
hand-written poems fastened with a pin,
history made flesh, memory revived,
a marble korus opens living eyes.

Rich with all he’s gained along the way,
a line of burnt out candles in his wake,
cancer grabs him by the throat,
on the same day he was born, he dies,
leaves the body, and the work,
reminding us, and all who follow,
to make our journey brave and long,
full of passion and instruction,
free of guilt and inner demons,
undeterred by angry Poseidon.

CAVAFY ON THE BALCONY

Kiria Olympia, woozy after her afternoon snooze,
hears a voice, looks down through the railings,
spies her summer neighbours – Greeks from England.

She’s reading in the original, Η Πόλις, ‘The City’, her favourite,
her life – Athens, London. First verse hopeful – new city,
new life. Second verse, the inevitability of tragedy,

the futility of escape – ‘as you’ve wasted your life here,
you’ve wasted it everywhere’. She lowers the book.
Beautiful, he says. My life, she sighs.

He asks her to read another poem, short one, Μια Νυχτα,
‘One Night ‘ – they’ve never read a gay one before.
She reads it like a news bulletin, a weather forecast –

Η κάμαρα ήταν πτωχική και πρόστυχη – a sordid room
above a narrow street, on a bare bed he tastes the red lips,
after so many years, still remembers the ecstacy.

And that’s it. He feels deflated, the poem defused.
He realises there is no reference to gender, no ‘he’,
no ‘his’ – those ‘lips‘ could belong to a girl.

Kiria Olympia massages a crick in her neck.
She wonders if the mother knows – the son’s friendship
with a young waiter, Albanian, good-looking.

Note: ‘Η κάμαρα ήταν πτωχική και πρόστυχη’ (Ee kámara eetan ptochikée keh próstychee – with ‘ch’ as in German ‘ich’):  ‘The room was cheap and sordid’. (from ‘One Night’).

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London based Greek-English-Irish poet and playwright Konstandinos (Dino) Mahoney, won publication of his collection, Tutti Frutti, in the Sentinel Poetry Book Competition 2017, and is winner of the Poetry Society’s 2017 Stanza Competition. He is also part of Dino and the Diamonds (shortlisted for Saboteur Award, 2018) a group that performs his poems as songs. He teaches Creative Writing at Hong Kong University (visiting lecturer) and is Rep for Barnes & Chiswick Stanza. Recent poems have appeared in in Perverse, Butcher’s Dog, Live Canon, The New European.

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