Tag Archives: Constantine P. Cavafy

The Luminous Interval

But O the sudden blasts of earth that sweep my breasts
and shake me to the bone!
O Zeus, the seas are heavy, and my unloosened locks
sink me like a stone.
Ángelos Sikelianós,  from Anadyomene, (211) – Modern Greek Poetry,  translation and introduction by Kimon Friar


Eric Ryan doing underwater archaeology work in the Aegean Sea

It is a different experience to read a translator’s monograph, rather than a poet’s. Kimon Friar’s book, Modern Greek Poetry is comprised of the work of some thirty poets, but of course, the words come from one man: Friar. He begins his compilation with a very interesting history of Greek poetry and language, or languages- one written one spoken which began the split, but which has never been, Friar explains, so different from each other as the English of Beowulf would be to a modern English reader— despite twice the length of time which separates modern Greek from Classical compared to modern and Old English (13).  He then gives a short history of the “schools” of modern Greek poetry and the major poets within.

No cleft can be widened without desire of widening
Sometimes we become hourglasses
And sponges throb to every single drop of ours
-Andréas Embirícos, from Moment of Porphyry (351)

Poetry is a language of darts meant to pierce one’s soul. There were many poems in this book which took my breath away, and many instances, as in the excerpt above where I marveled at the skill of Friar—his use of the word “cleft,” left me in awe. Of course it is entirely possibly that it’s just me, but that’s as it will be, I found the word to be the door into the entire poem, grounding it in the corporal, the consonants’ journey from back of the throat to teeth, sensual and powerful. I don’t read Greek, I have no way of knowing if it is simply a case of a perfect transposing, or if Friar had to truly translate, search his mind to find the word that would transport a reader such as I.


Sleep came and lay between us
like a rival. He took your eyes
and closed them; he took your lips
and swept away your smile and your kiss.

Your pale hair was combed by the tranquil
waters of Lethe that bore your beloved body
away to the world of stars and shadows.

Filters of silence are forcing your sealed lips,
sleep-living voices our ears, and in you veins
I hear the deep rumor of the voyage.


You have emerged from the depths of sleep
with stars and seashells in your hands
and in your eyes the dark coolness
       of seas.

When you open them, I want to be the first to receive
their glance, that I may capture before it fades
the meaning of that world which has kept you away
       the night long.

-Alexander Mátsas

It was through a conversation with fellow blogger and wonderful poet Tom Simard that I was pointed in the direction of this beautiful work of Friars, and I thank him for the recommendation.  Of the poet’s represented, I was only familiar with Constantine Caváfis, but there again, I find the translators’s hand a fascinating thing. Friar’s choice of which of Caváfis poems to include was revealing of what pierces his own soul, and then there is Ithaca.

Last year while reading Caváfis I was working as a caregiver, and one of my oldest clients (over 100) loved the poem Ithaca. We bonded over our mutual sentimental attachment to Greece, the work of my father (who died when I was two) was much influenced by the Aegean and she and her late husband had taken a sublime trip to Greece early on (they met and befriended Mark Rothko on the ship over) to see some newly discovered temples…she had a sweet spot in her mind for the memory and with such a long life, the theme of Ithaca moved her deeply. But there were many poems in my book of Caváfis of more, shall we say- passionate verse…I lent her the book and she was a bit bemused by her nobel Platonic Caváfis writing so much about love, or even lust! That, of course, was what I most loved about him, but she wasn’t so much amused by her discomfiture as I was – oh I do miss her. But I digress…Modern Greek Poetry is an ambitious yet focused book….truly lovely lovely lovely. O my heart.


I move my body, and my soul moves,
I put it to sleep, it sleeps.
I love, and my soul loves,
It tastes my body and my blood.
I sniff the air, and my soul sniffs also.

It is I who hunger, it is I who thirsts
In my soul, it is I who suffer.
It is I who wound my fingers


We shall never have enough, O my soul. – George Thémelis (325)

No, we shan’t.

* Title from prologue of Nikos Kazanantzákis’ poem  The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises. “We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life” (164).

The Regiment of Pleasure

Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We imagine that with decision and audacity
we will change the blow fate deals us,
and out we stand for combat.

But when the major crisis comes,
our decision and audacity deserts us;
our soul is shocked, it trembles, paralytic;
and circling the walls we run
looking for our safety in our flight.”  – Constantine P. Cavafy, from Trojans

Painting by Eric Ryan

I met a lovely woman recently, and although I may never have cause to speak to her or see her again, she did give me this- “Oh, you must read Constantine Cavafy,” her eastern European accent rolling the words extravagantly off her tongue lodging themselves in my head.

Many weeks later at the library, hoping in vain to find a translation of History Of The Peloponnesian War that I might enjoy a little more than the one I am currently reading, I thought to myself, “Cavafy.” I knew nothing about this poet. Just his name and a lovely woman’s ardor. The fact that he is particularly acclaimed for his poetry on Ancient Greece, I was ignorant. I found a book of his complete poems Before Time Could Change Them, translated by Theoharis C. Theoharis.

The book’s forward is written by Gore Vidal. At any other time that would not be so very interesting, but given that Vidal just died and was in my mind as well, well, what can I say? except – what a harlot coincidence can be.

Ancient Greece, love, Gore Vidal- I am sure mine is not the only mind to hold all three at once, although Cavafy could not have had Gore Vidal ever in his mind as his death predates probable knowledge, however, the man could not have given the other two subjects more thought, and so, he more than makes up the deficit.

Che Fece….Il Gran Rifiuto

To certain people there comes a day
when they should say the great Yes
or the great No. An instant shows who holds
the Yes ready in himself, and saying it

he crosses into limitless honor and confidence.
The naysayer does not repent. If asked again,
he would repeat the no. But he’s brought down
by that no – the fitting one – for all his life.

In many of his poems, Cavafy does not simply embody the spirit of his subject, he becomes the subject. Speaking as or to the subject with clarity and absolute fidelity to the character and historical or mythological event. Naturally there is a German word for this- what isn’t there a German word for?  Einfühlen. According to Vidal, J.G. Herder invented this word to describe the act of entering and “inhabit[ing] other times.” The poem Ithaca is a wonderful example, “As you set out toward Ithaca, hope the way is long…” It’s a wonderful poem conveying the sine qua non of the journey; then, now; be you Ulysses or not, it’s all an odyssey – if you let it be.

Maybe it’s the water: I would swim anywhere, but given the choice, it would be in the Aegean. When I was in Greece, I would swim out as far as I could, turn on my back and float. Just float, suspended in the water…until an inhibiting feeling of the scandal of total freedom would make me raise my head to check on the distance between my body and the shore. The cool green water, bright sun, and intense salt is what I still crave and often dream of. Cavafy’s poems are just that – cool, bright, and intense.

In the Same Space

The houses and cafés, the quarter,
surroundings that I’ve seen and walked through; year after year.

In joy, in sorrow I created you:
with so many episodes, with so many matters.

And you have made yourself entirely a feeling, for me.

– Constantine P. Cavafy


*The title is from a poem that laughingly imagines an army of pleasure:

The Regiment of Pleasure

Do not speak of guilt, do not speak of responsibility. When the Regiment of Pleasure passes with music and flags; when the senses shudder and tremble, whoever stays far off is foolish and impious…..