- By David M. Kinchen, with information from Knopf
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great Alexandrian Greek poet C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933). We will be celebrating his work throughout the month with a series of audio recordings of the poems read by contemporary writers who cherish his work, along with readers all over the world.
As Daniel Mendelsohn reminds us in the introduction to his translations of the Complete Poems, “Cavafy’s popular reputation currently rests almost entirely on the remarkably prescient way in which [his] ‘sensual’ poems…treat the ever-fascinating and pertinent themes of erotic longing, fulfillment, and loss; the way, too, in which memory preserves what desire so often cannot sustain.”
Here are “Aboard the Ship” (1919), from the well known, published work, and “Birth of a Poem,” a 1922 draft from a group of some thirty works that were still in progress at the time of Cavafy’s death, left labeled and dated by the poet, but not discovered among Cavafy’s papers until many decades later, and translated into English for the first time by Mendelsohn. Please click below to hear Daniel Mendelsohn read the poems, and watch throughout the month for further Cavafy audio events.
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Aboard the Ship
It certainly resembles him, this small
pencil likeness of him.
Quickly done, on the deck of the ship:
an enchanting afternoon.
The Ionian Sea all around us.
It resembles him. Still, I remember him as handsomer.
To the point of illness: that’s how sensitive he was,
and it illumined his expression.
Handsomer, he seems to me,
now that my soul recalls him, out of Time.
Out of Time. All these things, they’re very old—
the sketch, and the ship, and the afternoon.
Birth of a Poem
One night when the beautiful light of the moon
poured into my room . . . imagination, taking
something from life: some very scanty thing—
a distant scene, a distant pleasure—
brought a vision all its own of flesh,
a vision all its own to a sensual bed . . .
Excerpt from THE COMPLETE POEMS. Introduction, notes, commentary, and translation copyright © 2009, 2012 by Daniel Mendelsohn. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.