At C. Dale's encouragement, I read Cavafy's Collected Poems this past week, and happily, the referral was just what I needed. Cavafy's poems are surprisingly modern to me—both in subject and language, especially in contrast to some of his more formal contemporaries. I enjoyed his more erotic poems more than his historical poems, naturally.
What's interesting to me about Cavafy is how he positions desire (in his case, homoerotic desire) in his poems. Without trying to confuse a popular notion from queer theory, there's a sort of triangulation at work: for Cavafy, desire is the intersection of person, place, and moment—a beloved is rarely evoked beyond the context in which they are initially or repeatedly encountered. For example, several poems take place in bars or taverns where the speaker and his beloved once gathered, or used to frequent, or even, in some cases, the place where the speaker first glimpsed a hauntingly beautiful stranger and continues to wait for his reappearance.
In college, I used to write in a coffeeshop near my dorm, and most of my love poems were about (surprise) hot guys in coffeeshops. There was one guy who looked sort of like a grizzled James Dean, and he had my coffeeshop heart for a long time—he smoked Camels; in the process of doing the crossword puzzle, he'd doodle and scribble all over the comics. We went on this way—me, pining; he, puzzling—until the fateful day when he thrust his index finger deep, deep into his nostril, dug around a bit, and pulled it back out, bearing...bearing the fruit of his labor.
Back to Cavafy: one of my favorite poems is "He Asked About the Quality," in which a customer discusses scarves with a clerk under the watchful eye of the shopkeeper:
"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 closer together as though by chance—
a moment's meeting of limb against limb.
Quickly, secretly, so the shopowner sitting at the back
wouldn't realize what was going on."
It's surprising to me how contemporary this scene could be; I think nearly every living homosexual can identify with this scene, or with the sense of cloaking desire under the eyes of the heterosexual other. I wonder now if "quality" is a pun, as in the Friends joke of Chandler's fuzzy queerness: "You have a quality."
By far, though, my favorite poem of Cavafy's was this one:
From all I did and all I said
let no one try to find out who I was.
An obstacle was there that changed the pattern
of my actions and the manner of my life.
An obstacle was often there
to stop me when I'd begin to speak.
From my unnoticed actions,
my most veiled writing—
from these alone will I be understood.
But maybe it isn't worth so much concern,
so much effort to discover who I really am.
Later, in a more perfect society,
someone else made just like me
is certain to appear and act freely.
As though every poem I write doesn't hope for this same thing.