Finishing Cavafy’s 'Unfinished' (five unfinished poems from C.P. Cavafy)

Trans-compositions from Greek & commentary by George Economou

David Hockney, from 14 Poems from C.P. Cavafy 1966-67
David Hockney, from 14 Poems from C.P. Cavafy 1966-67

[These five poems are based on diverse drafts and fragments preserved in the Cavafy archive and published along with proposed reconstructions in the collection of thirty texts entitled ATELI POIEMATA (Unfinished Poems) edited by Professor Renata Lavagnini of the University of Palermo (Athens: Ikaros Press, 1994).  “The Newspaper Story,” the first poem in Lavagnini’s Greek edition, appeared earlier on Poems and Poetics.]


       Un métissage de l’écriture



The house is closed and nobody’s coming,

it’s about ten and you’ll reappear

the way you were, the way you are, unchanged.

Avoid the mirror––remember, as you were and still are.


Must have been my drinking in the evening,

must have been my nodding off, I’d been tired all day.


The black wooden column’s fading away,

with its archaic capital, and the dining room door,

the red arm-chair and the small divan.

A street in Marseille’s coming in their place,

and my set-free, unshrinking soul,

relieved from the weight of years,

reappears and moves there,

with the form of a sensitive, sensuous youth––

a dissolute youth: let us say this as well.


Must have been my drinking in the evening,

must have been my nodding off, I’d been so tired all day.


I can’t imagine him still alive and old.

No matter what life’s done to him,

in the poem he remains as he was

when I knew him in that back street

in Marseille one blissful night,

in the frame of a happy, dissolute youth,

where he knows no shame, no, not he for sure.


                                                (February, 1919)




An intoxicating night, in the dark, on the pier,

then later in the tiny room of a hotel

of ill-repute––where we surrendered completely to

our unsound passion, hour upon hour to our kind of love––

until the new day lit up on the window-panes.


The face of night this evening just like another,

returns me to a night from the distant past.


Moonless, pitch-dark

(as was fitting). Our assignation

on the pier, so very far away

from the park, the cafés and the bars.


                                                (April, 1920)




One night when the lovely moonlight

streamed into my room … imagination,

taking hold of something from life: a very small thing––

a distant scene, a distant pleasure––

brought its own vision of a body,

its own vision to a bed made for love …


                                                (February, 1922)




Looking at the photograph of one of his partners,

his handsome––no, beautiful face

(lost for good now––dating back to

‘Ninety-two, the thirty-year old picture),

the sadness of how brief it is overcame him.

But there is some consolation at least

in that he didn’t––they didn’t allow a single bit of stupid shame

to obstruct, to taint or distort their love.

To the idiots’ jeers, “perverts,” “degenerates,”

their sense of eros paid no mind ever.


                                                (August, 1924)




He was much too sophisticated and much too smart,

a young man from the top of high society,

to take it, as if he’d been the butt of a joke,

like some kind of tragedy, being left that way.

Besides, when his friend told him, “Our love

is forever”––both he who spoke it

and he who heard it understood this for the convention it is.

After a movie and then ten minutes

of hard drinking in the bar one night

their desire lit up their eyes and blood

and they left together and that “forever” was uttered.


That “forever,” anyway, held out for three years.

It seldom ever lasts that long.


He was much too sophisticated and much too smart

to consider this thing tragic

and much too beautiful––with his face and physique––

for it to affect in the least his natural vanity.


                                                (May, 1930)


[NOTE. To present as poetry in English poems never fully realized in their original Greek language I have relied upon an approach of trans-composition that combines the work of translator as well as that of poet. The balance between these two kinds of work within the approach to each poem necessarily differs according to the textual complexity of each of Cavafy’s unfinished poems. The more drafts, variants and marginal comments and corrections in the state of an original, the greater the role of the poet’s work will be in my refashioning of its elements into a fully realized poem in English. This is especially evident in the first and last poems in this group, “It Must Have Been the Drinks” and “Being Left.” In all of my versions, however, I have felt free to follow a poet’s instinct rather than the conventional demands of a translator’s craft in response to my understanding of how to advance and enhance the making of a poem.

            Cavafy wrote of his body of work being generally divided into three major categories, the historical, the philosophical, and the sensual or erotic, a classification that holds for the Unfinished Poems as well. These five poems, possibly along with “The Newspaper Story,” the first poem in Lavagnini’s Greek edition, constitute a group of erotic poems that share imagery and themes with their counterparts in the poet’s body of finished poems.

It is essential to my ongoing work with these thirty texts that I will not claim my poems represent how Cavafy would have finished his preliminary workings of them, though I will insist that they stand more true than traitorous to the poetic potency of their fragments.]