Cavafy (1863-1933) was of course one of the most important Greek modern poets. I read this short poem in an English translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
not only the beds you lay on,
but also those desires that glowed openly
in eyes that looked at you,
trembled for you in the voices-
only some chance obstacle frustrated them.
Now that it’s all finally in the past,
it seems almost as if you gave yourself
to those desires too-how they glowed,
remember, in eyes that looked at you,
remember, body, how they trembled for you in those voices.
Of course interpretations of such a poem dig into the love life of the author, and Cavafy had a lot of casual encounters. But I want to read this in a naive way, for example by forgetting that Cavafy was homosexual. We first try to understand the proposition that the body has to remember the desire glowing in other people’s eyes. The memory of our body is not mediated and effortless. When something is written into the memory of our body it becomes an inalienable part of us. My fingers for example remember how to play the violin. My nostrils remember the smell of the hotel room where I celebrated a wedding anniversary. Cavafy says that we must remember each other’s desire in the same way. Sounds like that requires a lot of body work!
What is the chance obstacle? The public hostility toward the desire, that made it impossible to last?
And once it’s all in the past, it seems like the body (we assume the author is adressing his own body) gave itself to the desires that glowed in the other’s eyes. Here Cavafy, who was a perfectionist, uses the words γυάλιζαν and έτρεμαν. The glow and tremble we feel in our own body is compared to the glow of the other’s desire. In the final lines he adds rhythm and repeats. A poem that is, I guess, very hard to translate, to get the two kinds of glowing and trembling across. And I think this translation is as good as it gets.
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