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.


Flypaper by Robert Musil

Tangle-Foot flypaper is approximately 36 centimeters long by 21 centimeters wide; it is coated with a yellow, poisoned paste and comes from Canada. If a fly alights on the paper –not eagerly, but more out of convention, because so many others are already there– it is glued at first only by the outermost members of its arms. An entirely light and disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to tread on something with our naked soles– nothing more than a soft, warm, unavoidable resistance, and yet something into which a gruesome human essence flows, recognized as a hand somehow just lying there and with five ever more perceptible fingers grabs hold of us.

They hold themselves forcibly erect, like cripples who do not want to be noticed, or like decrepit old soldiers (and a little bowlegged, as when you are standing on a sharp edge). They stand at attention, gathering strength and contemplating their situation. A few seconds later they have decided and begin, as best they can, to buzz and try to lift themselves. They perform this furious operation until exhaustion forces them to a halt. A pause for breath follows, then a new attempt. But the intervals become longer. They stand there and I feel how helpless they are. Bewildering vapors rise up from below. Their tongue gropes about like a tiny little hammer. Their head is brown and hairy, as if it were made from a coconut; manlike as an African idol. They twist forwards and backwards on their firmly fastened little legs, bending at the knees and straining upward, like men trying  their utmost to move too heavy a load: more tragic than the working man, truer as an athletic expression of the greatest exertion of Laocoön. Then comes the extraordinary moment when the need for one second’s rest overcomes the almighty instinct for self-preservation. It is the moment when the climber voluntarily loosens his grip for the pain in his fingers , when the man lost in the snow lays himself down like a child, or when the pursued stops on account of his burning lungs. They no longer hold themselves up with all their might, but sink a little lower and are in that moment completely human. Immediately they are held somewhere else, higher up on the leg, from behind, or at the tip of the wing.

When they have overcome the spiritual exhaustion and resume, for a little while, the fight for survival, they are fixed in an awkward position an all their movements become unnatural. They lay down with outstretched hind legs, propped up on their elbows and try to lift themselves. Or they sit on the ground, reared up, with outstretched arms, like women who try in vain to twist their hands free from a man’s grip. Or they lay on their bellies, head and arms in front, like fallen runners, and only the face held high. But the enemy is simply passive, and wins in these desperate, bewildering moments. A nothing, an it, draws them in. So slowly that one is almost able to follow them, often with an abrupt acceleration at the end, when the last inner breakdown comes over them. They let themselves fall forward, face down, head over heels; or sideways, with their legs distended; often rolled to one side, with legs paddling in the rear. Like fallen airplanes, one wing reaching into the air. Or horses pushing up the daisies. Or with endless gesticulations of despair. Or like sleepers. The next day one may yet wake up, fumble with one leg or flutter a wing. Sometimes this motion spreads itself throughout the entire scene, then the lot of them sink a little deeper into death. And only on the side of the body, in an area near the shoulder socket, do they have some small pulsating organ that still goes on living. It opens and closes –one cannot see it without a magnifying glass—it looks like a miniscule human eye that ceaselessly opens and shuts.

Translation by Matthew Spencer. Based on the German original with consultation of the English version by Peter Wortsman included in Posthumous Papers of a Living Writer published by Eridanos Press (1987).