12 Greek Poems after Cavafy. Translated by Paschalis Nikolaou and Richard Berengarten
12 Greek Poems after Cavafy is a beautiful bilingual collection of poems published in the exciting and welcome chapbook series by Shearsman. This anthology spans just over a century (from 1916 to 2015), and brings together Greek language poems written in the manner of, or as homage to Cavafy. These are inspired by the Alexandrian poet’s particular style, which Paschalis Nikolaou, editor and co-translator, defines as “recognizable enough across cultural space”, therefore “entirely suited for adaptation or recycling at the hands of a wide range of international artists” (p.5). Indeed, reading through this brilliant collection, ideas of adaptation, as well as those of rewriting and versioning, conflate and give us, its readers, different layers to ‘peel’ and poetic forms to engage with. The most distinctive trait about this poetry book, and what I have enjoyed the most, is the desirable conflation of many voices and personae. First, there’s the relationship of these poems to Cavafy’s particular poetic output, the temporal and geographical contexts of his production, the specific material and settings used in his own poems, a relationship which creates both literary and stylistic reflections and refractions; second, the styles and voices of these Greek poets (including Malanos, Ritsos, Seferis, as well as contemporary poets such as Kapsalis and Kosmopoulos) merge with that of Cavafy by way of a dialogue with the poet and his own, distinct language; lastly, there is yet another relationship, that of these Greek poems to their English language translations by Nikolaou and Richard Berengarten, further voices conversing together and offering a multivocality of poetic languages and idiolects.
The intertextual and the metatextual surface in the rewriting of a Cavafy’s poem from another perspective, in a poem-dedication, in a poem-compilation collage-like of Cavafy’s lines, in the description of Cavafy’s own writing desk, the ‘imagining’ of a conversation, in the re-imagining of past events and myths, in poems which recall other poems. Of course, the breadth of old and new poetic voices anthologised here also point to the enduring, creative effect that Cavafy’s poetry has had on Greek (and international) literary production.
Structurally, the chapbook offers a succinct and engaging introduction to the contexts of these poems (and of Cavafy’s style and voice), followed by the source language poems and their translations presented side by side, mirroring each other, but also part of the overarching narrative of the collection. Notes on the poems, poets and the translations, positioned discreetly at the end of the collection provides us with further information on these literary and personal dialogues and relationships.
A final thought. Except for ‘The Poet’s Space’, all of the English poems here are collaborative translations between Nikolaou and Berengarten. Collaboration in translation entails a meeting of subjectivities, skills, expertise, languages and cultures. Underpinning collaboration and surfacing within the translated texts is the democratic notion of a ‘shared’ translational process, where the different subjectivities enrich and complement each other. This collaborative work is, I believe, one of the best translation practices around, precisely because of the multiple perspectives and creativities which feed into the reading and subsequent rewriting of the poems. It is a practice to be fostered and encouraged, and I am delighted to see such tremendous poet-translators collaborate here.