A remarkable discovery, an extraordinary literary event: the never-before translated unfinished poems of the great Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, published for the first time in English alongside a revelatory new rendering of the Collected Poems—translated and annotated by the renowned critic, classicist, and award-winning author of The Lost.
When he died in 1933 at the age of seventy, C. P. Cavafy left the drafts of thirty poems among his papers—some of them masterly, nearly completed verses, others less finished texts, all accompanied by notes and variants that offer tantalizing glimpses of the poet’s sometimes years-long method of rewriting and revision. These remarkable poems, each meticulously filed in its own dossier by the poet, remained in the Cavafy Archive in Athens for decades before being published in a definitive scholarly edition in Greek in 1994. Now, with the cooperation and support of the Archive, Daniel Mendelsohn brings this hitherto unknown creative outpouring to English readers for the first time.
Beautiful works in their own right—from a six-line verse on the “birth of a poem” to a longer work that brilliantly paints the autumn of Byzantium in unexpectedly erotic colors—these unfinished poems provide a thrilling window into Cavafy’s writing process during the last decade of his life, the years of his greatest production. They brilliantly explore, often in new ways, the poet’s well-established themes: identity and time, the agonies of desire and the ironies of history, cultural decline and reappropriation of the past. And, like the Collected Poems, The Unfinished Poems offers a substantial introduction and notes that provide helpful historical, textual, and literary background for each poem.
This splendid translation, together with the Collected Poems, is a cause for celebration—the definitive presentation of Cavafy in English.
“Daniel Mendelsohn’s superb new renderings are not only formally acute but aglow with a light that could only be Cavafy’s: a golden luster both of time and of desire, the poet’s own memory become part of history, lit by that same ironic, tender and rueful regard. And with The Unfinished Poems artfully brought into English for the first time, we have more of this magisterial poet–one of the towering figures of his time, and of ours–than ever before.” –Mark Doty, National Book Award—winning author of Fire to Fire
“The translator has afforded us the most informed as well as the most formally proficient versions of a Total Cavafy, even the The Unfinished Poems now intorted into the canon, so that what the master regarded as his collected work can be assayed against those fabled efforts which reveal their own hitherto proscribed luster. Finally we confront a great oeuvre whose ‘body English,’ secret or celebrated, we now know–thanks to Mendelsohn’s passionate diligence–to be Required Reading.” –Richard Howard
“With deep feeling, exacting care, and extraordinary intelligence, Daniel Mendelsohn has given us a stunning new version of the Collected Poems of Constantine Cavafy, along with one of the most exciting discoveries in recent memory–The Unfinished Poems of this great, eternal poet. All of us who care about literature are indebted to Mendelsohn: we will be mining these thrilling books for years to come.” –Edward Hirsch
“Cavafy’s distinctive tone–wistfully elegiac but resolutely dry-eyed–has captivated English-language poets from W.H. Auden to James Merrill to Louise Glück. Auden maintained that Cavafy’s tone seemed always to ‘survive translation,’ and Daniel Mendelsohn’s new translations render that tone more pointedly than ever before. Together with The Unfinished Poems, this Collected Poems not only brings us closer to one of the great poets of the 20th century; it also reinvigorates our relationship to the English language. . . . As Mendelsohn argues in his introduction to the poems, any division between the erotic and historical poems is facile. Whether Cavafy is describing an ancient political intrigue or an erotic encounter that occurred last week, his topic is the passage of time. . . . Mendelsohn has focused his attention on the exquisite care Cavafy took with diction, syntax, meter and rhyme. It is only through attention to these minute aspects of poetic language that tone is produced. And Mendelsohn is assiduously attentive. . . . Cavafy mingled high and low diction, [and] Mendelsohn’s translations shift similarly between the lofty and the mundane . . . This shift lets us hear something crucial about Cavafy’s tone (a directness that is never not elegant), but it also lets Mendelsohn’s translation exist fully as an English poem. Mendelsohn is a classicist, essayist and memoirist [and his] translations of Cavafy’s poems come trailing commentaries in which an immense amount of learning is gracefully and usefully borne. But Mendelsohn thinks like a poet, which is to say he inhabits the meaning of language through its movement. . . . His translation of the famous concluding lines of ‘The God Abandons Antony’ embodies the fortitude the poem recommends. As a result the poem does not pronounce but arrives at is wisdom, making it happen to us. It is an event on the page. It’s easy to translate what a poem says; to concoct a verbal mechanism that captures a poem’s movement, its manner of saying, requires a combination of skills that very few possess. Like Richard Howard’s Baudelaire or Robert Pinsky’s Dante, Mendelsohn’s Cavafy is itself a work of art.”
–James Longenbach, The New York Times Book Review (April 19, 2009)