The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.
For those who lead a provincial life, life and happiness are always to be found elsewhere, in another city, in another country. But for us provincials, this other place is perpetually out of reach. Cavafy’s wisdom is in the dignity and introspective sensibility with which he approaches this sad truth. And finally, with the same linguistic restraint and philosophical simplicity, he concludes by revealing that we have wasted our lives in that city. We come to realize that we have all been wasting our lives, and that the problem lies not in being provincial, but in the very nature of life itself. Great poets can tell their own stories without once saying “I,” and in doing so, lend their voice to all of humanity.
Orhan Pamuk, “Other Countries, Other Shores”, (New York Times, 19/12/2013)
Why share poetry as well known as Cavafy’s on Autonomies? Because it is the poets who allow us to see, and above all, to see beyond a “provincialism” which blinds us to the violence and tragedy of pandemic politics.
With no consideration, no pity, no shame,
they have built walls around me, thick and high.
And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
I can’t think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind –
because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they have closed me off from the outside world.
Our efforts are those of men prone to disaster;
our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We just begin to get somewhere,
begin to gather a little strength,
grow almost bold and hopeful,
when something always comes up to stop us:
Achilles leaps out of the trench in front of us
and terrifies us with his violent shouting.
Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We think we’ll change our luck
by being resolute and daring,
so we move outside ready to fight.
But when the big crisis comes,
our boldness and resolution vanish;
our spirit falters, paralyzed,
and we scurry around the walls
trying to save ourselves by running away.
Yet we’re sure to fail. Up there,
high on the walls, the dirge has already begun.
They’re mourning the memory, the aura of our days.
Priam and Hecuba mourn for us bitterly.
The God Abandons Antony
At midnight, when suddenly you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly:
as one long prepared, and full of courage,
say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and full of courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion,
but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen – your final pleasure – to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
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 -like something dead- lies buried.
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 neighbourhoods, turn grey 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.
Waiting For The Barbarians
-What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.
-Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What’s the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
-Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
He’s even got a scroll to give him,
loaded with titles, with imposing names.
-Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
-Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
-Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.
Engulfed by fear and suspicion,
mind agitated, eyes alarmed,
we try desperately to invent ways out,
plan how to avoid
the obvious danger that threatens us so terribly.
Yet we’re mistaken, that’s not the danger ahead:
the news was wrong
(or we didn’t hear it, or didn’t get it right).
Another disaster, one we never imagined,
suddenly, violently, descends upon us,
and finding us unprepared -there’s no time now-
sweeps us away.
An Old Man
At the noisy end of the café, head bent
over the table, an old man sits alone,
a newspaper in front of him.
And in the miserable banality of old age
he thinks how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strentgh, and wit, and looks.
He knows he’s very old now: sees it, feels it.
Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.
The time’s gone by so quickly, gone by so quickly.
And he thinks how Discretion fooled him,
how he always believed, so stupidly
that cheat who said: “Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.”
He remembers impulses bridled, the joy
he sacrificed. Every chance he lost
now mocks his brainless prudence.
But so much thinking, so much remembering
makes the old man dizzy. He falls asleep,
his head resting on the café table.
Honour to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do,
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they’re rich, and when they’re poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.
And even more honour is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that Ephialtis will turn up in the end,
that the Medes will break through after all.
When setting out upon your way to Ithaca,
wish always that your course be long,
full of adventure, full of lore.
Of the Laestrygones and of the Cyclopes,
of an irate Poseidon never be afraid;
such things along your way you will not find,
if lofty is your thinking, if fine sentiment
in spirit and in body touches you.
Neither Laestrygones nor Cyclopes,
nor wild Poseidon will you ever meet,
unless you bear them in your soul,
unless your soul has raised them up in front of you.
Wish always that your course be long;
that many there be of summer morns
when with such pleasure, such great joy,
you enter ports now for the first time seen;
that you may stop at some Phoenician marts,
to purchase there the best of wares,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber, ebony,
hedonic perfumes of all sorts–
as many such hedonic perfumes as you can;
that you may go to various Egyptian towns
to learn, and learn from those schooled there.
Your mind should ever be on Ithaca.
Your reaching there is your prime goal.
But do not rush your journey anywise.
Better that it should last for many years,
and that, now old, you moor at Ithaca at last,
a man enriched by all you gained upon the way,
and not expecting Ithaca to give you further wealth.
For Ithaca has given you the lovely trip.
Without her you would not have set your course.
There is no more that she can give.
If Ithaca seems then too lean, you have not been deceived.
As wise as you are now become, of such experience,
you will have understood what Ithaca stands for.