My Cavafy

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:

Hidden Things

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.


  1. Constantine is both oracular and whimsical. I get the feeling I could have been sitting next to him in a card game but never known after years and years that I had been sitting next to HIM. Hard to go wrong with Constantine--if only I could read him in his orginal language. Hmmm...

  2. Ugh. A collected Cavafy is at the top of my wishlist. Awesome stuff.

  3. Charles, Charles, Charlie, I just KNEW you would like Cavafy. His work clarified many things for me. I remember reading his Collected as a grad student and feeling much like you did, that his work seemed quite contemporary. And oh how he understands the intricate facets of desire. A friend argued with me that desire is desire, but Cavafy nails gay desire, at least in a world of hatred. Our desire is like everyone else's desire, but we are hated for that desire. And so, desire for many of us, is something secret, shameful, odd, distrusted, etc. Cavafy captures that. And this is a man who understood paring the language down, long before Ms. Gluck came to town.

  4. C. Dale—I think in Cavafy's work there is no shaming of the desire or the self, but recognition that the desire must be kept secret or should be shared under the radar, so to speak. But I think just the fact that he's writing about it—and often openly—creates this interesting tension between society and desire. He's putting it out there, you know?

  5. Yay, yay, We're big on the Cavafy. Revelatory stuff. THe kind of thing that makes you want to write a poem.

  6. Charles, I too love "He Asked About the Quality." And "The Tobacco Shop Window" and "Two Young Men 23 to 24." My friend Aspasia, who is Greek, says there is a whole 'nother level, embedded in the language (pun intended), that we are not even close to seeing in the translation.

  7. Cavafy and I became good friends last semester in my craft class. He and Amichai were my favorites of the poets we read. His lack of metaphor and 'poetic' language seal the deal for me--somehow he makes his poems hit home.

    By the way, hit me up at WWL223@nyu.edu if you're up for a drink in the land of our Northern Neutered Neighbor.

  8. Ah, but we can't overlook Ithaka... a whale of a poem (excuse the sloppy animal metaphor), an obvious masterpiece. If he hadn't written that one, I somehow doubt we would be even reading him in translation today. The City very powerful, so too Che Fece-- Il Gran Rifiuto... and for some reason, an odd epitaph-like poem called Grave of the Grammarian Lycias stayed in my mind since I read it. And all those haunting loneliness poems at the beginning of the collection ... Desires, Candles, The Old Man, Monotony, Supplication,Walls. The First Step is a poem for anyone who feels he hasn't gone beyond it. Maybe none of us do...
    Ah, well, I could go on and on, and I agree, the love poems (& youthful dissipation poems)are daring & lovely and he would be a terribly dry poet if he hadn't written those. Somehow though those love poems wouldn't be so poignant if they hadn't been situated under the shadow the ruined civilization evoked in the historical poems... Cheers!

  9. yes "Ithaca" is a great poem. I did a version of it some years ago.