The Past is Present

October 2, 2018

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, the past is present. I like to think that I don’t have a favorite poet. I like a lot of poets. But if you tied me up and beat me over the head with a big anthology, I would say Cavafy. Constantine Cavafy, the great Greek modernist. If you’ve never read him, I envy you, because you’re in for a literary feast like no other. Here to serve the first course is Daniel Mendelsohn. He’s an author, a critic, an essayist and for our purposes here a translator. You may have seen his work in one form or another in the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books. His latest book is An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic. In 2009, Mendelsohn came out with a translation of all of Cavafy’s poems. He joins me now from Long Island. Hi Daniel.


Daniel Mendelsohn: Hey, how are you doing?

Curtis Fox: Good. The best way into any poets work is just to hear a poem, and I’d like to start with the first poem of the first collection that Cavafy ever put together. Can I get you to read “The City”.


Daniel Mendelsohn: Yes, sure.


(reading in a foreign language)


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 like something dead.

How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?

Wherever I turn, wherever I look,

I see the black ruins of my life, here,

where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”


You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you.

You’ll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.

You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:

there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.


Curtis Fox: That was “The City” by Constantine Cavafy, translated and read there by Daniel Mendelsohn. Cavafy worked on that poem for 15 years before it was published in 1910. Daniel you say that by putting it first in his first collection, he positioned this poem as one of the portals into his work. How so?

Daniel Mendelsohn: Cavafy fussed a great deal about the order in which these poems would appear in the collections he self-published at several times during his life. Arguably by positioning this one first he’s making a very dramatic statement about what this collection was meant to be about. In this case, it’s the inescapability of the past. It’s a very Alexandrian poem. Of course, “The City” is the title of the poem; he never actually says what city he’s talking about, but of course one always knows in Cavafy that the city is Alexandria, which when he’s writing this poem had become a provincial backwater, but of course in the ancient world was one of the most important and vibrant metropolises and particularly intellectual centers. The city itself has undergone the experience which the anonymous speaker in the poem is describing, which is oppressed by thoughts of the past, a bleak future and a noble resignation to the facts of history.


Curtis Fox: You mention Alexandria, that’s Alexandria Egypt which is where Cavafy lived most of his life and where he’s really profoundly associated with. Can you tell us a bit about him and the world he inhabited?

Daniel Mendelsohn: Cavafy was born in Alexandria in 1863. He died actually on his birthday 70 years later, 1933. He lived his entire life in Alexandria with just very few exceptions. As a teenager he had to flee with his family to Constantinople Istanbul because of political violence in Alexandria, and he took a couple trips to Athens, but he was a thoroughly Alexandrian figure. He was born into a wealthy mercantile family of cotton merchants.


Curtis Fox: Part of the Greek diaspora, right? That’s important.


Daniel Mendelsohn: One has to understand the Greek speaking world was not confined to the country we now know as Greece. There was of course a Greek speaking presence in Alexandria since it was founded by Alexander the Great in the 320 BC. Alexandria more than any other city in the ancient world made Greek the great literary language of a world empire, because Alexander’s army carried Greek far into the East, almost as far as India. He was part of the Greek speaking diaspora as you said. As many listeners will now, there were also Greek communities on the coast of Asia Minor, obviously Constantinople as it was then called, which is now Istanbul, particularly in Northern Egypt and in Alexandria. There was a spirit of a shared cultural identity that transcended national borders. This is a phenomenon that is very important in Cavafy’s work and which he reflects on quite often. What does it mean to be Greek if you’re living in Egypt but you speak Greek? That’s a cultural conundrum that he reflects on quite often. Often characters in his poems, whether they’re set in the ancient world or set in Cavafy’s own times will talk about the ironies and the difficulties of being Greek when you’r not actually in Greece, or there’s no such thing as a Geek nation as we understand nation. The father died when he was a child, the family was impoverished, they had to go hat in hand to rich relatives in English which is why we’re told he spoke Greek with a British accent. He did speak perfect English, and some of his early poems are in English. Also in French. They return to Alexandria in the 1880s and he lived there for the rest of his life. He was a government clerk. He worked in something called the third circle of irrigation, which sounds like something Donte would make up. Had a quiet life. He played tennis, he played the stock market a little, he had a modest income, he apparently carried on these liaisons with young men, we don’t know that much about ti except what’s in the poems, and of course those one has to read very carefully. He started publishing when he was in his late 20s, not very good poems it must be said; derivative, phony, very artsy. he started to find his voice in his late 30s, this very paired down, assertive, very ironic voice.

Curtis Fox: You told me in an email that one of your favorite Cavafy poems is called “Since 9”. I want ot get you to read that one, but it requires a minor introduction as well.


Daniel Mendelsohn: “Since 9” is just a reference to the time of day. There’s a recurrent motif in Cavafy’s work which is someone will be sitting late at night having a drink looking at his book case, and suddenly a ghost or some kind of apparition enters the room. What I love about “Since 9” is it takes this and gives it an extra level of strangeness and complexity because he sees an apparition and it’s the apparition of himself when he was young. It becomes involuted in a really interesting way. There’s no historical set up, I think that’s something to keep in mind because it is part of a series of poems. I think it takes it to a fascinating new level.


Curtis Fox: Let’s hear it.


Daniel Mendelsohn: Since 9


Half past twelve. Time has gone by quickly

since nine o’clock when I lit the lamp

and sat down here. I’ve been sitting without reading,

without speaking. Completely alone in the house,

whom could I talk to?


Since nine o’clock when I lit the lamp

the shade of my young body

has come to haunt me, to remind me

of shut scented rooms,

of past sensual pleasure—what daring pleasure.

And it’s also brought back to me

streets now unrecognizable,

bustling night clubs now closed,

theatres and cafés no longer there.


The shade of my young body

also brought back the things that make us sad:

family grief, separations,

the feelings of my own people, feelings

of the dead so little acknowledged.


Half past twelve. How the time has gone by.

Half past twelve. How the years have gone by.


Curtis Fox: Now that is such a moving poem, and I can see why it’s one of your favorites, but I want to hear from you why it is one of your favorite Cavafy poems.


Daniel Mendelsohn: I think the activity of retrospection is very important to me in my own work. The idea of being wanted by one’s younger self at a midnight moment, and being triggered to think back about what one’s younger body was capable of doing. It’s interesting that he says it’s the apparition of my body in it’s youth, with great emphasis on the body. It’s a typical Cavafian sideways step. You hear about the”shuttered perfumed rooms” and the “wanton pleasure”, but the climactic memory is not of the sensual pleasure which presumably the body no longer enjoys, the remembering body, but the city. He can never get away — returning to our first poem, — he can never get away form thinking about the city, the streets that are now unrecognizable, the city centers that have disappeared, the theaters and cafes that existed but aren’t there anymore. Then in the next stanza, the apparition of my body and it’s youth came and also brought me cause for pain. Then there are the emotions; the deaths in the family, the separations, the unappreciated feelings of people who are so long dead that there’s no reparation he can make. If You trace the sequence of memories that are triggered by this strange apparition of his own youthful body; it’s first the body then the city then the emotions. It goes deeper inward in a funny way. Then the final devastating two lines; “how the time has passed, how the years have passed”. As one moves into middle age, it’s a more meaningful kind of poem.

Curtis Fox: Talking about “the feelings of my loved ones, the feelings of those long dead which I had so little valued”, that breaks my heart. I read that last night preparing for this and I immediately wanted to call my mother.


Daniel Mendelsohn: And you should!

Curtis Fox: I’m calling you tonight mom. So everything about him, and you points his out in your introduction and commentary, he’s a person that’s obsessed with the past. The personal past and the historical past. He combines these two in a kind of miraculous way in his most successful poems like this one. Why do you suppose he is the poet of the past like that?

Daniel Mendelsohn: I think it has to do with the fact that he’s living … If you’re a New Yorker it’s hard to do this, but imagine living in New York 2000 years from now.


 Curtis Fox: Yikes.


Daniel Mendelsohn: And presumably the center of activity will have moved some place else by then. Imagine growing up in a city which at every street corner is haunted by monuments and memories of a great powerful past. I think it must have bene to a sensitive young boy to be surrounded. When you walk around Alexandria, there are — the streets to some extent still follow the same plan that Alexander The Great laid out. You’re surrounded by monuments of three civilizations; the Greek, great Christian civilization, the Orthodox Church, great Jewish presence as well. You’re assaulted by history at every corner. Also I think being a gay person in the city — I was going to say in a culture where it wasn’t something one could talk about the way we do today —


Curtis Fox: He talks about it a lot though.

Daniel Mendelsohn: He talks about it a lot, and Alexandria was a kind of loose city. It wasn’t as taboo as some listeners might imagine since it was the late 19th century. There’s some joke I’m trying to remember about Cavafy, poor Cavafy, a homosexual living at the end of the 19th century in Alexandria, all those opportunities. How could he deal with them? He was one of many brothers and one of them was also gay. This is one of my favorite stories. Apparently the people of Alexandria used to refer to the poet Cavafy and the homosexual Cavafy. And he was the poet but not the homosexual Cavafy. I thought that was funny.


Curtis Fox: I’d like to get you to read one last poem. Is there one that maybe combines Cavafy’s eroticism with his interest in politics and the historical past you could read for us?

Daniel Mendelsohn: I think there’s one poem that nicely combines both the erotic and the haunting by the Ancient greek past. It’s a poem he published in 1919, and it’s called “One of Their Gods” in which the inhabitants of one of these diaspora Greek cities called “Selefkia”, part of the great Seleucid empire, one of the empires that sprung up after the death of death of Alexander the Great. Notice the good looking boy walking through the marekt place, and as the poem proceeds you start to be aware that this is maybe not a boy but one of the Greek gods, or maybe that’s just the fantasy of the observer. It nicely blends the boundary between reality and history. This one is called “One of Their Gods”


When one of them moved through the marketplace of Selefkia

just as it was getting dark—

moved like a young man, tall, extremely handsome,

with the joy of being immortal in his eyes,

with his black and perfumed hair—

the people going by would gaze at him,

and one would ask the other if he knew him,

if he was a Greek from Syria, or a stranger.

But some who looked more carefully

would understand and step aside;

and as he disappeared under the arcades,

among the shadows and the evening lights,

going toward the quarter that lives

only at night, with orgies and debauchery,

with every kind of intoxication and desire,

they would wonder which of Them it could be,

and for what suspicious pleasure

he had come down into the streets of Selefkia

from the August Celestial Mansions.


Curtis Fox: Which god do you think that was Daniel?

Daniel Mendelsohn: I place no bets (LAUGHING).


Curtis Fox: That’s such a wonderful poem. I’d love to keep you hear for another hour but we can’t go on. Daniel, thanks so much.


Daniel Mendelsohn: My pleasure, thanks for having me.


Curtis Fox: Daniel Mendelsohn is the translator of C.P. Cavafy’s complete poems. Let us know what you thought of this podcast and send us your suggestions, email us at [email protected]. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

Rereading the great modern Greek poet C.P. Cavafy.

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