Why Cavafy Matters

I first came across Cavafy in his own city of Alexandria. I had stumbled in after a long desert trip. I was in a bad way. I’d almost lost my mind, and hoped to find it there. Instead I found an ant-nibbled copy of Cavafy’s poems in a bookshop which also sold stuffed crocodiles. I took the book to a cafe, ordered hibiscus and a hubble-bubble pipe, and started to read.

It nearly finished me off. I wanted to be re-illusioned. But here was a man with no illusions at all. He was more himself than anyone I’d met, with a voice so distinct that you’d hear it if he  whispered among bellowing thousands in a crowd. I wasn’t sure I had a self at all, and if I had a voice I’d stolen it from the latest book or conversation. He’d ransacked graveyards for epigraphs and epitaphs, but they’d become his and him as nothing that I called my own was mine. He knew that one day he’d be known as a great poet, and didn’t care if he died first. I expected obscurity, and death seemed significant. And his hubris!  He made old gods sing about the orgasmic thrashings of his lover’s limbs, and I worried about thunderbolts as I read him. He had the poise and self-possession of a kouros, but without even the hint of an archaic smile. There was nothing playful about him: he was deadly serious. I thought it deadly to be serious, but he was terribly alive as I was not.

He was the worst possible company. I threw the book into the sea.

Cavafy scared me. He still does. I can’t like him. But over the years I have learned to hold his gaze for a few moments, and, when I can stand it no longer, to note where his gaze rests. It rests always on the central point of a thing or a person or a situation. This, surely, is because he is the supreme inhabitant of the edges. It is only from the edges that we can see the centre. Since he occupied so many edges – geographical, sexual, cultural, chronological and so on – his account of humans and their ways is as near canonical as any human account can be. I owe him so much, but he would not covet my praise, my pity or my company.


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