CONSTANTINE CAVAFY: Icons of Memory

Previously I mentioned the sense of transience one finds in the poems of Constantine Cavafy.  Most of his life has certainly disappeared from notice.  One has the feeling only of passing years, boring in their obvious externals — he worked as a clerk of the Ministry of Public Works Irrigation Office — and of a secret life fed largely, as he grew older, by fantasy and memory.  But fantasy is illusion and memory fades.

Cavafy’s verse is often beautiful in its simplicity, yet that simplicity is not the cut-marble purity found in the ancient Greek Anthology.  It is instead, more hellenistic than hellene, because an undertone of decline and decay pervades it –and Cavafy does seem to have been — in spirit — a hellenist reborn.

He writes much about brief affairs that remain in  his mind only as bittersweet icons of memory before which he continually lights candles; but again, memory fades, and that mere fact becomes a part of one of his most affecting poems, in which we see time eroding even recollection until almost nothing is left.  Here is his poem MakriάEyes:

I’d like to speak about that memory…
but it no longer comes — there’s almost nothing left,
for it is far, off in my time of youth.
Skin as if made of jasmine…
that August — it was August — in the evening.
I just recall the eyes; they were — I think– a blue;
Ah, yes — a sapphire blue.

Here it is transliterated, so you may see the sound patterns we lose in translation:

Thάthela aftί tίn mnίmi na tin po…
Ma  έtsi esvίsthi pia…san tίpote then apomέni
yiatί makriά, sta prόta efivikά mou khroniά kίtai.
Thέrma san kamomέno  αpό iαsemί…
Εkίni τοu Avgούsτοu — Av’gοusτοs ίtan; — ί vradiά
Μόlis thimούmαi pia ta mάtia· ίsαn, thαrrό, maviά…
A nαi, mαviά; έnα sαpfίrinο mαvί.

The effectiveness of the poem lies precisely in showing us the fading of a beautiful memory until almost nothing is left, until little remains of the image but the impression of the jasmine whiteness of skin and the blue of the eyes — but even the latter requires effort to recall, which Cavafy shows us by his hesitant pauses.

Reading such verses — and Cavafy has more like this — is like watching the varnish on freshly-painted portraits darken and obscure the features over time; but with Cavafy, even the canvas that supports the images is disintegrating.  Yet he treasures even these decaying fragments.

There is another poem that seems to go naturally with this one.  I will just translate this time.  It is called “Grey“:

Looking at an opal — half grey —
I recalled two beautiful grey eyes
I saw some twenty years before.

For one month we did love
and then he left; I think to Smyrna,
to find work; I never saw him more.

They’ll have grown ugly — if he lives — those grey eyes;
 and spoiled would be that beautiful face.
My memory, keep them as they were.
And memory, bring back what you are able of that love of mine,
whatever you are able, bring back to me tonight. 

There is something very sad in all this, and that sorrow of aging — of loss of beauty, and its inevitable decay — pervades the poetry of Cavafy.

David

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