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Poetry of the City with C. P. Cavafy

In a six-part series of blog posts, Rigoberto González explores poetry of the city: “As the bittersweet symbol of order and chaos, progress and decay, community and overcrowding, the city is both beacon and demon—a landscape of possibility where dreams are born and where dreams transform, or die. The poems in this series offer a range of poetic representations of the city and civilization, and how over the centuries this man-made space continues to mirror human joy and anxiety. These poems help us understand the powers and weaknesses of the city (and within ourselves), and how the dance between people and the places they inhabit produces the greatest archive of memory, history, and story.”

This week Rigoberto González looks at a poem by C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933).

The City

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.

C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933)

C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Princeton University Press, 1975.

Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt, to Greek parents. He remained in his birthplace for most of his life and wrote poems in Greek that were not collected in book form until a few years after his death at the age of 70. Despite this, he is considered one of the most influential of the Greek poets who engaged history and philosophy through a decidedly modern lens. His poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” is considered a classic of Western literature, for its startling gaze on the decline of the city-state at the hands of do-nothing lawmakers.

In Alexandria he led a kind of double life. By day he held a modest post as a civil servant, and by night he explored, as a gay man, the city’s clandestine pleasures. But Cavafy by no means withheld those experiences from his poetry—he wrote openly about his encounters. The body, like the city, is fraught with desire and anxiety, the inner turmoil demanding a reckoning he expressed in this popular poem about regret, and the emotional baggage that needs to be dealt with and that cannot be escaped.

“The City” zeroes in on the notion of human error and the places that remind us of the folly of our judgment. The speaker is addressing a friend, reiterating the friend’s declarations in the first stanza, and then offering the hard truths in the second stanza. Or is the speaker addressing the self, coming to terms with the unassailable reality that “you’ve wasted your life here” and therefore “destroyed it everywhere in the world”? In any case, the city triggers memory, keeps receipts, and preserves the details of personal tragedy and transgression, until the demons are exorcised. No, there will be no erasure of the past, expect the permanency of scars, but those are indicators of healing.

This blog post is based on a talk that González gave at Poets House in the (6 x 5 = 30) series, where six poets each provided close readings of five seminal poems as part of Poets House’s 30th Anniversary season.

Rigoberto González is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Unpeopled Eden, which won the Lambda Literary Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. His ten books of prose include two bilingual children’s books, the three young adult novels in the Mariposa Club series, the novel Crossing Vines, the story collection Men Without Bliss, and three books of nonfiction, including Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, which received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. He also edited Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing and Alurista’s new and selected volume Xicano Duende: A Select Anthology. Currently, he is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey, and the inaugural Stan Rubin Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the Rainier Writing Workshop. In 2015, he received The Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Publishing Triangle. As of 2016, he serves as critic-at-large with the L.A. Times.

Posted In: Close Readings