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But The Wise Perceive Things About To Happen

Eugene Ostashevsky (2020)

At the beginning of the epidemic I was remembering a poem by Cavafy, which I read in Russian translation when I was about 19 or perhaps 20, in an émigré newspaper I think, although maybe initially in typescript. It was translated by people I knew, or rather “knew,” since they were acquaintances of my parents, although the poetry of one of them, Joseph Brodsky, who was awarded the Nobel Prize around that time, I read over and over almost every night since maybe the age of 15. The other translator, who was the primary translator both in that he was working from modern Greek and in that Cavafy was, for him, a decades-long project, was Gennady Shmakov, a refined, multilingual, intellectual man, connoisseur of ballet and the opera, who occupied himself with the legacy of the early twentieth-century poet Mikhail Kuzmin, his spiritual ancestor. It is a lovely thing to begat spiritual ancestors for oneself, and an even lovelier, perhaps, thing to become the spiritual ancestor of somebody else. Poetry, after all, is rarely written for contemporaries, because contemporaries rarely know how to read it. It survives but surreptitiously, person-to-person, in a transmission at once intimate and anonymous. Shmakov died of AIDS in 1988, in New York. After the diagnosis came, Brodsky took a dozen or so poems from his Cavafy manuscripts and tightened and tautened them for publication, as a gift for his departing friend. And so it was around that time that I first read Cavafy, although I do not remember where or when, or in what format, and perhaps I initially heard some of the pieces during a poetry reading, or even had a bootleg with them, because I owned one or two bootleg cassettes of Brodsky reading his poems. It was around the same time that I also owned a Walkman, obviously a cheap knock-off rather than a Sony, on which I would listen to Brodsky, or the Beastie Boys, or the Clash, or Galich, or Desmond Dekker, or some ska-punk band from downtown, like the Toasters. But, although I do not remember where I first read it or heard it—funny how the two verbs have almost the same letters in almost the same order—I do remember that, right away, Cavafy’s poetry spoke directly to me and for me. By “for me,” I mean for my benefit, since it could not have spoken “for me” in the sense of the poet giving voice to some group of people, “his” or “her” people most often, because what did we have in common and how could I have suddenly become “his” people? Cavafy wrote two kinds of poems, which sometimes intersected. There were poems about people in late antiquity, when the power of Western Rome was crumbling or had crumbled and the rules and values of the ancient world had suddenly become relative, threatened, then decrepit, with Christianity taking over even in ruling families, where it merged with pagan customs in strange, conciliatory embraces of exhaustion and faith. There were also the gay poems, about furtive trysts with young men in sordid hotels, about inner life passed in disguise and containment, about the scanning of the faces of strangers for confederate eyes—a life in hiding, whose rare moments of anonymous intimacy stood out against the wall of the general sentence. What could I have had in common with an aging, gay, Egyptian government employee who composed in Greek and was dead and over a hundred years my senior? It is true that the settings were no obstacle for me, as they would have been for most college-age Americans. On the contrary, they were an attraction, a sign saying “home,” since the Russian-Jewish culture that I was born into defined itself by “a longing for world culture,” as Mandelstam put it—except that “longing” in Russian is a more frustrated emotion than in English, like the eda of Turkish poetry if I understand my friend Murat Nemet-Nejat right—especially the culture of classical antiquity, some of whose provincial margins along the Black Sea the Russian Empire had grabbed away from the Ottoman Empire, so that Russian and the Soviet poets could go into exile or on vacation to the Crimea, where they might model themselves on dead Roman poets in exile and flip the bird northward, in the general direction of the vulgar, barbarous octopus of oppression that was their Empire, Russian and then Soviet. So when, in Cavafy’s “Philhellene,” some dinky ruler of a Roman dependency in Iran instructs the master of his mint to write “lover of Greek culture” on his coinage, I instinctively knew what that meant even at age 19. Empire is empire, and the cosmopolitanism of its intellectuals serves to offset the provincialism of its swords. Another thing I knew at age 19 is what had happened to Greek minorities in the twentieth century—the Greeks in Egypt, the Greeks in Turkey, the Greeks in the Soviet Union—the poor oppressed locals ate them in a bout of supposed decolonizing. Тhe Soviets, for instance, subjected their Greeks to selective expulsion after the civil war, then to special-operation arrests during the Great Purge, then to preventive deportations during the German advance, then to larger, punitive deportations after the German retreat, then, in 1949, to deportations once more, in a vast human wave that broke somewhere in Central Asia, again as a preventive measure, right after the capitalists defeated the communists in Greece proper, where none of the deportees had ever been, and which was their “homeland” only according to the gridded categories of the modern state. I know I knew about the deportations by the time I read Cavafy, because I know I read a novel where they appeared as a theme, when we ourselves lived as refugees in Ladispoli and I was ten, although maybe I read it already in the US, a couple of years later. About the only part I remember is where the protagonist, a non-Greek deportee, watches at night from the outside as a woman, who indeed is a Greek deportee, is coerced into sex with I don’t remember whom but, presumably, some Soviet powerholder, an official or guard. I also presume, since I remember the scene now, forty years later, that it gave me one of my first erections. But the educational experience it offered was multidimensional, because it was also how I found out, very early on, what had happened to the Greeks and where they went. “A Stopover in the Desert,” one of Brodsky’s best early poems, also has to do with the Soviet Greeks, or rather it has the destruction of their community in the background, because its speaker watches a wrecking ball destroy a Greek Orthodox Church, since “there’s so few Greeks who still remain in Leningrad, / and, overall, outside of Greece, so few remain.” And you can tell from the poem that Brodsky’s lament is not just for the disappeared Rumeic Greeks, or the disappeared Anatolian Greeks, or the disappeared Levantine Greeks, or the disappeared Egyptiot Greeks like Cavafy, but also for that “world culture” that all Russian Jews, or at least most Russian Jews, pined away for and that could be unambiguously embodied and represented by virtually anything Greek, even Byzantine, and even in the person of a loyally Soviet, Rumaic-dialect poet first fed and then shot by the state. It was gone. It was cemented over. And Cavafy’s other theme, that of gay love, was something I had even less identitarian right to relate to, because not only did I not identify as gay, but I also took no more than casual notice of the AIDS epidemic that was, at the moment of my reading Cavafy, devastating the gay communities of New York, and even carrying off Cavafy’s primary translator, Gennady Shmakov. I still feel a jolt of shame when I remember how, with the emotional obtuseness of a young know-it-all, I contradicted a friend who had compared AIDS with the Black Death, on the ground that the plague carried off a much greater percentage of population. But it was a Black Death for my friend, who was gay. I presume, since I still remember having voiced that concern for quantity, that I must have felt a jolt of shame as soon as I voiced it, but still, I had very little concern for what was going on all around me, even in front of me, and was certainly homophobic, without realizing I was, or even what it was, and why it was bad. It did not help that I had had a very bad run-in in my junior high school, but the deadness of empathy was there to begin with, it came into me in my late Russian childhood and in the animal world of my American early teens, in the years just after immigration. It was built-in, or rather shoved in, a part of the maleness that was to undergird governing and being governed. It is a part that, once it goes in, is nearly impossible to get rid of. But somehow none of it affected my interaction with Cavafy’s poems about gay love, which also felt like they spoke to me and for me, as did the poems about late antiquity, and I know that’s an appropriation but I still remember the vague outlines of the Russian of “The Bandaged Shoulder.” Still, I find paeans to the universal power of art distasteful, because I suspect them of imperialism, the presumed universality little more than an excuse not to relativize our own values, imposing them on another instead, but also I did know plenty from other contexts about being different and forced to behave furtively. Yet, even stranger, Cavafy’s poetry was like nothing I was used to even recognizing as poetry, since it was about people rather than about language, or so it seemed to me because, plain-spoken and direct, unassuming at least in translation, the poems had none of Brodsky’s Baroque verbal acrobatics and modulation of registers, and their concern with human compromise belied their own lack of compromise, camouflaging the obduracy that made possible the very existence of these “gay poems” in their openness and published unambivalence. In fact, even now I can’t make an account of what poetry is, which would include everyone I love in it, because they all did such different things.

 

Originalbeitrag für (c) stadtsprachen magazin 2020

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