Review: Twelve Poems About Cavafy by Yannis Ritsos

For the past few months, I have been voraciously reading and rereading Twelve Poems About Cavafy by Yannis Ritsos. This collection, originally translated from Greek to English by Paul Merchant in 1968, has been out of print for years. It is now available again through Tavern Books, a small publisher based in Portland, Oregon, which specializes in reprints and translations of modern poetry. Each work they issue is manually printed and kept in stock in perpetuity– a brave gesture in this era of cultural pessimism.

In Twelve Poems, Ritsos pays homage to the father of modern Greek poetry, C.P. Cavafy, in a series of  short lyric poems on his life and work . These are partial in both senses of the word, both affectionate and tightly limited in their scope. But taken as a whole, this collection forms a rich and contradictory portrait of a creative spirty.

Chief among the virtues of the collection is a Whitmanesque embrace of contradiction. Genius and pretension happily coexist. Ritsos never makes any flattening distinction regarding them. Cavafy appears as a sincere charlatan, at once devoted to his art but affecting an odd, often comic public persona. “Hiding Places” describes the strange gestures (tentative yet theatrical) the poet used to impress his students:

But then, unsettled by our eyes on his back,
he turned and poked his face through the curtain
like a man wearing a long white tunic,
a little humorously, a little at odds with our times

Each poem in this collection is a gem of compound images. Ritsos maintains a sense ease and clarity despite some complex turns in syntax and frequent use of extended metaphor. The language never obscures the subject at hand.

Alongside Cavafy the clown, there is Cavafy the loner and insomniac. Not exactly a tragic figure but rather bittersweet, he maintains a connection to the world through acts of poetic imagination.  In “His Lamp at Dawn”, this commonplace item forms a metaphorical bridge through which the poet explores his native city of Alexandria.

at dawn its light pales and becomes one
with day’s flowering rose, with first clatter
of shop blinds, handcarts, fruit stands,
it becomes a visible reminder of his insomnia,
and also a glass bridge, leading from his glasses
to the lamp’s chimney, and from there to the glass
window-panes, and beyond them, on and on,
a glass bridge carrying him over the city,
through the city, his Alexandria, connecting
(since that’s his wish now) night with day.

Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) had a long and prolific career. He was poet, translator, communist activist, and resistance fighter against the Germans during World War II. His life was marked by periods of illness and confinement by government authorities. This collection presents an altogether different side to Ritsos than what his biography would suggest. It shows a poet gifted with lyrical fluency and a knack for rich characterization, forming a picture of a remarkable mentor and artist.

An actual paragraph by Cyril Connolly

Ancestor, my old incarnation, O Palinurus Vulgaris, the Venetian red crawfish, langouste, or rock-lobster, whether feeding on the spumy Mauretanian Banks, or undulating– southward to Teneriffe, northward to Sicily– in the systole and diastole of the wave: free me from guilt and fear, free me from guilt and fear, dapple-plated scavenger of the resounding sea!

from The Unquiet Grave