“the present is lost to us”

The Cavafy Variations, Ian Parks, £5.00, Rack Press
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

Rack2013
Translation’s a bugger; Auden says as much in his introduction to The Complete Poems of Cavafy. Yet he notes, “I have read translations of Cavafy made by many different hands, but every one of them was immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it.” Cavafy found his voice late on and only completed 154 carefully crafted poems, available here in various translations.

Ten poems aren’t much of a sampler—some well-known poems are omitted—but Parks provides examples of Cavafy’s three core themes: the philosophical, historical and hedonic (or sensuous) although there’s nothing of the erotic for which he is (in)famous; it wouldn’t have hurt to include a poem like ‘One Night’. Parks’ own poetry is known for being “spare, lyrical, memorable and intense”; similar could also be said of Cavafy despite being anti-Romantic and (arguably) antipoetic: his setting—the city, his interest—the past.

Variations are common in music, not so much in poetry: we would probably talk of “loose translations” which these aren’t really although they veer towards the Poundian ideal—aim to capture the ‘spirit’ of the original—and having compared his efforts with earlier versions I would say they’re fresh (some might say refreshing) interpretations.

The philosophical chimed with me from the line of lit and extinguished candles in ‘Candles’, through the damage that follows us in ‘The City’, to the life that becomes nothing more than a “tedious acquaintance” in ‘If Possible’. All these focus on a sense of belatedness as do the historical because, so quickly, the present is lost to us. Cavafy wrote, “With me the immediate impression does not provide the impulse for work. The impression must become part of the past, must be falsified of itself, by time, without my having to falsify it.”

It’s not the time to have regrets,
to brood upon the glories of your past
or curse the good luck you once had
now that it’s faltering, running low.

[‘The God Abandons Antony’]

Thankfully Parks chose from Cavafy’s less esoteric historical pieces; the man did tend to be drawn towards the backwaters of history.

‘Candles’ is the perfect poem to open this group. It exemplifies the betwixtness inherent in Cavafy’s poetry, trapped between a squandered past and an uncertain future. All that’s left to us is to wander through the ruins of our lives. It may be crass to say so but it feels sometimes as if Cavafy gets off on regret. The one thing man learns from history, however, is that man learns nothing from history:

            At each street corner, looking back
I see myself among the ruined squares,
the cafés and the harbour bars,
repeating the identical mistakes.

[‘The City’]

There’s a lot to Cavafy and it helps to know something about him before reading him. For a plain-spoken writer—I can see why a Yorkshireman would be drawn to him—there’s much subtlety under the surface of these short poems and, thankfully, Parks is equally sensitive to that.

Jim Murdoch
http://www.jimmurdoch.co.uk/

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