Looking at this opal makes me think
of those grey eyes that I once loved:
eyes I looked into deeply for a month
before he took a job and moved away.
Where did he go to? I forget.
It must be all of twenty years and yet
It seems like yesterday. Eyes of opal. Opal eyes.
Those eyes have lost their lustre
and that lovely face has aged –
but, memory, if you can bring them back
bring back a memory of that love.
Make it come alive again tonight.
Alexandria persists. To walk
the length of this long road
that ends outside the Hippodrome
is to see the ancient city at its best.
Despite the ravaged temples
and the residue of war,
despite neglected gardens
and the shrunken populace
the city still survives.
Time passes pleasantly for us
in private study and in walks.
At night we go down to the shore –
a group of Greeks disguised
by different names – and talk about
the latest news from Rome,
discuss affairs of church and state.
Of course we keep these opinions hid.
Last night we read some poetry:
an epic which we all pronounced as fine.
All of this is bearable because
we know our exile won’t last long.
On that we’re all agreed.
The word we hear is positive.
A few more months of this
and then our allies will prevail.
We’ll overrun the rulers here
and then it will be us who will decide
just who to forgive and not forgive.
Notes on this poem
Constantine Cavafy died in Alexandria – the city in which he had spent most of his life – on his birthday in 1933. Shortly before his death at the age of seventy he took Holy Communion at the Orthodox Church. His last act was to trace a circle on a piece of paper and then place a full stop in the centre. It was a suitably enigmatic end to a life in which he wrote poems almost in secret, sharing them with a select circle of friends. His reputation as one of the finest Greek poets of the twentieth century came only after his death with the publication in 1935 of his first collection. Cavafy wrote two very different kinds of poems: intense personal lyrics (of which ‘Grey Opal’ is a good example) and more expansive, narrative poems about the classical past (such as ‘Exiles’). The main challenge for the translator is to render these poems in such a way that the idiosyncrasies of Cavafy’s verse remain distinctive in both. W. H. Auden drew attention to Cavafy’s ‘unique tone of voice’, claiming that it ‘survives translation’. These versions will be included in If Possible: Fifty Cavafy Poems, due from Arc Publications.