I did not know what to expect from this book, and I was surprised. Quite excellent. It does require more readings, but they are readings I'm looking fI did not know what to expect from this book, and I was surprised. Quite excellent. It does require more readings, but they are readings I'm looking forward to doing versus dreading, as if there were more to be mined from the poem. Interestingly, this book reminds me a bit of Nikos Gatsos's "Amorgos," another book-length poem that elusive in meaning but very worthy of re-reading and contemplating....more
I have been reading Daniel Mendelsohn's translations of Cavafy: Collected Poems and Unfinished Poems. I have read Rae Dalven's translation of his collI have been reading Daniel Mendelsohn's translations of Cavafy: Collected Poems and Unfinished Poems. I have read Rae Dalven's translation of his collected poems, and while I enjoyed them, I continued to migrate my favorite modern Greek poet: Seferis. Mendelsohn's translations are revelatory. I have had several friends tell me that Cavafy's poems read in the original Greek are delicious and beautiful, but, alas, I don't understand Greek. Mendelsohn performs some magic here though.
First and foremost, both books are filled with copious notes providing context, details, and other trivia that illuminate the poems and are, frankly, interesting reading in themselves. His introduction to the Collected Poems states clearly his methodology and discusses important themes in Cavafy's work, which center around two ideas: history and sensuality. With history, Cavafy writes frequently of the collapse and breakdown of the Hellenistic and then Byzantine world. This is not exclusive, but it is a dominate theme. In the sensual area, many of Cavafy's poems are openingly homosexual, though his earlier ones are more closeted and speak powerfully to the consequences of secrets.
Unfinished Poems are the first translations into English of the poems left unfinished at the time of Cavafy's death in 1933. A Greek scholarly edition edited by Renata Lavignini appeared in 1994. Mendelsohn has removed most of the scholarly apparatus and provided these 30 poems and some fragmentary texts. Again copious notes are provided along with relevant variants, but the poems add to the themes of Cavafy's poetry and many are essentially complete.
Cavafy called himself a poet-historian, and that had special implications for him. He sought out truth in his historical settings and obtained multiple sources, but he still wrote poetry, so some of his characters and settings are fictional, though they often discuss actual events and actual people. Years before I had heard of Cavafy, I too had begun writing historically based poems. (None nearly as good as Cavafy's.) Mendelsohn's translations have brought to the fore an affection for Cavafy's historical poems that I had found interesting but not inspiring before. Now I am inspired by his work.
I want to quote a couple of things. The first bears an interesting insight to the rigor Cavafy applied to his poems. Regarding the unfinished poem "The Patriarch" Mendelsohn states: "Lavagnini notes that fully two years elapsed between the first version [a single draft:] and subsequent rewriting." In the press to get items published these days, I wonder how many poets have let an idea percolate for two years?
Finally, I think it only appropriate to quote a short poem. But instead of a historical poem, from the Unfinished Poems, one titled "Birth of a Poem" is pertinent perhaps as an ars poetica:
One night when the beautiful light of the moon poured into my room...imagination, taking something from life: some very scanty thing-- a distant scene, a distant pleasure-- brought a vision all its own of flesh, a vision all its own to a sensual bed......more