11/23/2014 10:25 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Should You Know About C. P. Cavafy?


Why Should You Know About C. P. Cavafy?

I have a tattoo stretched across my collarbone that reads "So Much I Gazed Upon Beauty - My Vision Is Alive With It." Now, this may seem a bit extreme in support of a dead poet but maybe you are not familiar with Constantine P. Cavafy. The translations of his words, which I have only understood in translation so therefore can also be described as modern day gossip, are timeless. It is rare that I run into someone that reads my script and identifies the author but more often they have a look of surprise or discomfort when I say "and I am looking at you." This poet deserves more than a permanent advertisement on skin and reading through his archive with a consideration to the timeframe will make the most current trailblazer feel adequate.

Constantine's work echoed a life bouncing around Europe as a gay man in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Growing up from Egypt to England but maintaining his Greek heritage, Cavafy was selective if not secretive in his publications. His political phrases have been considered the greatest musings of the early 20th century but his poems of love have also resonated. I was given his words by my Italian professor in college. Gianfranco knew something that I did not; these phrases would guide me in my adult life ... especially in the romance department.

"I never had you, nor will I ever have you
I suppose. A few words, an approach
as in the bar yesterday, and nothing more.
It is undeniably, a pity. But we who serve Art
sometimes with intensity of mind, and of course only
for a short while, we create pleasure
which almost seems real."

"I never found them again - the things so quickly lost...
the poetic eyes, the pale the dusk of the street...

I never found them again - the things acquired quite by chance,
that I gave up so lightly;
and that later in agony I wanted.
The poetic eyes, the pale face,
those lips, I never found them again."

Now, if you are going through a break up...those might not be the best choices for taping on your bathroom mirror. Keep flipping through or clicking through the choices for some inspired pieces that reflect new love or even an acceptance of self love; the kind that makes you love your life just the way it is.

"And if you can't shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk."

"My life's joy and incense: recollection of those hours
when I found and captured sensual pleasure as I wanted
My life's joy and incense: that I refused
all indulgence in routine love affairs."

But if you want to spark up a fire in an old relationship or cement a new one; there are so many pieces filled with lust that in a group of modest words, he creates the story and captures the emotion of strong desire. Holiday season is coming up so you may want to stop by a bookstore (do not order online lazy, defeats the purpose) and get a copy of his works or if this is really a new thing then just grab a screen shot and text it.

"Come back often and take hold of me,
sensation that I love come back and take hold of me--
when the body's memory awakens
and an old longing again moves into the blood,
when lips and skin remember
and hands feel as though they touch again.

Come back often, take hold of me in the night
when lips and skin remember..."

This one kills me:

"So much I gazed upon beauty,
my vision is alive with it.

Contours of the body. Red lips. Voluptuous limbs.
Hair as if taken from greek statues;
always beautiful, even when uncombed,
and it falls, slightly, over foreheads.
Faces of love, as my poetry
wanted the nights of my youth,
in my nights, secretly, met..."

If the holidays are too soon then you have a grace period to Valentine's Day to explore C P Cavay's romantic side. Pass up those obvious choices of Whitman and Dickinson for someone who really captured a rich life. You will find some easy reading that has profound meaning. Maybe a tattoo is in your future so FYI I have already called another one that's slapped on my back:

"I went -
I did not hold myself back.
I gave in completely and went."


Translations by Edmund Keeley, Philip Sherrard, and John Cavafy. A little flavor from me.