To many Constantine Cavafi is the most famous Greek poet of the 20th century. My black stone salutes him. In Latin salus is 'health' or 'welfare' but ironically he enjoyed a healthy stature and 'fared well' only after he had died in 1932 in Alexandria, Egypt. In life he was largely ignored and remained almost totally unnoticed. He wrote a short history of himself in his latter years:
"I am from Constantinople by descent, but I was born in Alexandria-at a house on Seriph Street; I left very young, and spent much of my childhood in England. Subsequently I visited this country (England) as an adult, but for a short period of time. I have also lived in France. During my adolescence I lived over two years in Constantinople. It has been many years since I last visited Greece. My last employment was as a clerk at a government office under the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt. I know English, French, and a little Italian."
When he was nearly seventy he was told he had cancer of the throat. After some months when doctors gave up on him, he died in Alexandria, in the Greek hospital, near his home with a few friends at his bedside. He had written 154 poems.
At the end he asked for a piece of paper and because he could hardly speak they expected him to write something. Instead he drew a rough circle, then placed a dot in the middle of it and died.
Some things endear Cavafi to me: Like Pessoa, the great Portuguese poet of the 20th century he was unassuming and kept to himself. He lived in Africa for most of his life. He had a great love for the myths and history of ancient Greece. Like Archimedes, a compatriot Greek soul of more than 2000 years ago, he spoke languages other than Greek (Archimedes was fluent in Greek and Latin and I bring homage to him in another granite artwork entitled Noli turbare circulos meos'). Cavafi remained virtually unrecognised throughout his life, one might say he wrote in anonymity. His poetry speaks of an informed social consciousness and an uncompromising social conscience.
Through my effort I want to comment on how futility, unimportance and precariousness in life can leave us with something worth holding onto.
My 'paper' dedicated to him is a pitch black sheet of granite from Zimbabwe. I polished it with some undulations as of a makeshift piece of paper held unsteadily on bed sheets. On it I outlined a circle using Greek and English text of an excerpt of Ithaca, one of his best-liked poems. Granite is such a final material - we use it extensively to commemorate loved ones. I use capital letters because it makes the text, especially the Greek, look that much more lasting and formidable - it reads:
I NEVER FOUND THEM AGAIN -- THE THINGS SO QUICKLY LOST....
I NEVER FOUND THEM AGAIN -- THE THINGS ACQUIRED QUITE BY CHANCE,
I stole the following synopsis from the internet:
"East and West, Greek and 'barbarian' are fused into sophisticated commentaries on paganism, Christianity, and decadent modern world. Cavafy sketches a rich gallery of historical, semi-obscure, or fictitious characters, whom he used as personae acting, or being discussed, in the episodes of his poems. Sometimes his style is dramatic, as in the 'Waiting for the Barbarians,' composed in 1898, and printed in 1904. The South-African writer J.M. Coetzee borrowed its title for his novel from 1980."
Like in Oscar Wilde, aestheticism and skepticism marks Cavafy's work. One of his central motifs is regret for old age as is apparent from The City:
You shall not find new places; other seas
you shall not find. The place shall follow you.
And you shall walk the same familiar streets,
and you shall age in the same neighbourhood,
and whiten in these same houses. Ever this place
shall you arrive at. There is neither ship,
nor road, for you, to bring you other where.
As here, in this small nook, you wrecked your life,
even so you spoilt it over all the earth.