Thursday, November 27, 2008

In the Same Space

Here's a poem of Constantin Cavafy's that has been crucial to me for years, in Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherard's translation:


The setting of houses, cafes, the neighborhood
that I've seen and walked through years on end,

I created you while I was happy, while I was sad,
with so many incidents, so many details.

And, for me, the whole of you is transformed into feeling.

This poem speaks so much to my own sense of memory, and of the way we take cities into ourselves and make of them an interiorized imaginative landscape, that I stole the title for a poem of my own in SCHOOL OF THE ARTS, a poem that recalls Washington Square in the days before the destruction of the World Trade Center, when the two towers would loom in the south in the evening, softened and blued by twilight. It was the only time I ever thought they were beautiful, or had any aspect of friendliness about them. I even reprinted the translation above in the notes at the back of my book.

I've been reading Daniel Mendelsohn's exciting new versions of Cavafy, which are forthcoming early next year from Knopf. I trust Daniel won't mind if I post here his version of this same text.


House, coffeehouses, neighborhood: setting
that I see and where I walk; year after year.

I crafted you amid joy and and amid sorrows:
out of so much that happened, out of so many things.

And you've been wholly remade as feeling; for me.

This startled me at first, since I'd so internalized the rhythms of the previous version, but it didn't take long to begin to see its considerable strengths. That first line is artfully rendered by four nouns in a row, and something about simply naming those four things with only the connective tissue of punctuation seems to suggest from the beginning what this poem is up to, bringing that setting into the self, so that it becomes the loved internal map, a city crafted and remade within.

I love the authoritative cadence of the last line in the first version; it seems to sweep up the details in the lines that precede into it a singular, ringing affirmation. But the Mendelsohn version does something quite forceful itself, by italicizing "remade as feeling," as if to point to this act as the poem's center, a kind of definition of the common work of both memory and art.

And isn't that semicolon there, after the italicized phrase, brilliantly placed? It throws "for me" into a kind of small room of its own, at line's end. It pushes us back to the title, to contemplate the way that "in the same space" where an external city once stood, now there is the self. And for whom did I remake it? For me.

Mendelsohn's version of the poem is beautiful, and pleasingly unexpected. It has the right feel of contemporary speech to it -- just what translation ought to do, refresh the great poems of the past, bringing them into the discourse of the hour. The splendid Keeley-Sherrard versions were published first in 70s, so this feels like just the right timing: thirty years later, a bold, confident, gorgeous new Cavafy.

And it occurs to me that Daniel's version is now "in the same space' as Cafavy's original, and the Keeley-Sherrard text, too -- the three poems overlap, making a zone of meaning.

1 comment:

OBermeo said...

Thank you for posting these poems.

I just found a used copy of Robert Bly's The Eight Stages of Translation, where he states that a good poem should be translated again once every twenty years.

It's also good to hear that a new translation of Cavafy will be coming out soon.