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A Tribute to Cavafy, by Constantine P. Cavafy, Limited Editions Club (2003)

Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) is generally considered to be the greatest Greek poet of modern times and one of the most influential poets of the previous century. As stated in the Limited Editions Club (LEC) prospectus for their 2003 edition of A Tribute to Cavafy:

Greek poetry did not die 2,500 years ago with Sappho, Pindar, and Theocritus. For Greek poetry was reborn in the mid-twentieth century with a group of modern poets such as George Seferis and Constantine P. Cavafy…

Of course, there is not a straight line from those classic Greek poets to Cavafy. The LEC reminds us that:

…our poet’s language is not the classic Greek of Plato and Euripides but the modern “demotic” version. Moreover, Cavafy had adopted an atypical personal style, in contrast to the often impassioned style of his classic predecessors. As the critic O.M. Bowrer commented, “Cavafy’s manner was his own invention, the reflection of his temperament and his circumstances.”

Cavafy was born in 1863 in AlexandriaEgypt, and spent most of his life there, though he did live in England for much of his adolescence, “developing a command of the English language and a preference for the writings of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.”  Cavafy wrote over 150 poems, though many are incomplete and he typically refused to formally publish them during his lifetime. Because of this, he was largely unknown, even in Greece, until a couple years after his death with the publication of his first anthology by his literary executor, Alexander Singopoulos. Despite this, Cavafy was, more than anyone, responsible for the Greek poetic revival. His poetry has been described as:

…concise but intimate evocations of real or literary figures and milieux that have played roles in Greek culture. Uncertainty about the future, sensual pleasures, the moral character and psychology of individuals, homosexuality, and a fatalistic existential nostalgia are some of the defining themes….Cavafy drew his themes from personal experience, along with a deep and wide knowledge of history, especially of the Hellenistic era.

The LEC draws many parallels with Cavafy’s contemporary William Butler Yeats, as they both had:

…deep ties to small but proud countries engaged at that time in strong nationalist movements — a fact that might partly account for their string sense of the past. Both had an aristocratic attitude toward life and toward their art, being perhaps the last patrician poets of our era. Both started publishing poetry in the late 1880’s, and in their later maturity, sought to attain the impersonal voice, the voice of an era, that the younger English poet and playwright T.S. Eliot sought in his art.

For those of us no longer in the prime of our youth, Cavafy gives of some hope in that a majority of his most important works were written after he turned forty!

Cavafy was perfectionist, often spending inordinate amounts of time on single lines. His work is known to be extremely hard to translate. The LEC uses translations from Edmund Keeley (b.1928) & Philip Sherrard (1922-1955), both extremely well-respects scholars and translators. The six poems in this edition were written between 1889 and 1917 (three of which were written when Cavafy was at the “height of his powers“). The LEC tells us that “Cavafy later renounced their self consciously poetic quality for a spare, prosaic style, which he developed to perfection in the mature poems.”  The poems included, with some LEC comments italicized, are:

1 – ‘Days of 1903′, written in 1909 and published in 1917, “expresses the melancholy typical of ‘fin de siecle’ poetry… the poet expresses his belated longing for a person who had passed away several years ago, a friend who he hadn’t fully appreciated at the earlier time.”

2 – ‘In the Month of Athyr‘, from 1917, he commemorates the death of a young man in early Christendom, lost to history, and attempts to resuscitate him by reconstructing traces of writing still legible on his tombstone. It is worth inserting the entirety of this poem, to give you a glimpse of Cavafy’s ingenious verse and the excellent translation by Keeley and Sherrard:

I can just read the inscription on this ancient stone.
“Lo[r]d Jesus Christ.” I make out a “So[u]l.”
“In the mon[th] of Athyr” “Lefkio[s] went to sleep.”
Where his age is mentioned—“lived to the age of”—
the Kappa Zeta shows that he went to sleep a young man.
In the corroded part I see “Hi[m]… Alexandrian.”
Then there are three badly mutilated lines—
though I can pick out a few words, like “our tea[r]s,” “grief,”
then “tears” again, and “sorrow to [us] his [f]riends.”
I think Lefkios must have been greatly loved.
In the month of Athyr Lefkios went to sleep. 

3 – ‘The God Abandons Antony‘, written in 1911, refers to Plutarch‘s story of Bacchus (Dionysus) deserting Antony as Antony was besieged in Alexandria by Octavian. Here, “the poet exhibits greater maturity. In it, sadness is mingled with disillusionment that Ceasar’s protege Marc Antony feels after his defeat in war and in his loss of Cleopatra and of all his vanished pleasures.” The poem is a reflection on facing great loss.

4 – ‘Voices’, written in 1904, expresses love and sadness, and the memory of such. As a sample of Cavafy’s starting to show, beautifully I might add, a more sparse, even terse, style that he ultimately mastered. Here Cavafy blends a remembrance of lost voices with the the sounds of music and poetry, becoming one.

Voices, loved and idealized,
of those who have died, or of those
lost for us like the dead.
Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
sometimes deep in thought the mind hears them.
And with their sound for a moment return
sounds from our life’s first poetry—
like music at night, distant, fading away.

5 – ‘Ithaca’, written in 1894, though revised in 1910 and published for the first time in 1911, is considered to be one of Cavafy’s masterpieces and one of the most popular of his poems. It “is addressed to Odysseus on his long homeward journey from the Trojan War. The poet promises him adventure, fear, joy, knowledge, and multiple rewards.” Simplifying, this is Cavafy’s call for us to experience the journey of life rather than the destination. Unlike Odysseus in Homer’s epic poem, in which Odysseus always longs for home, Cavafy tells us that we should not rush through life — “But do not hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years…” — instead “hope the voyage is a long one“. Allow the experiences of life to excite you and full you, “Wise as you will have become, so full of experience…

6 – ‘Prayer’, written in 1898, is another poem about a young man’s early death, this time contrasted with his family, unknowing of his fate, praying for his safety.

The LEC in 2003 was nearing its end, but remained at the very top of its amazing quality curve of the Shiff-era. No expenses were spared in their productions, and this is no exception. For illustrations, the LEC turned to much-honored American photographer Duane Michals (b. 1932), who the LEC describes as “one of the world’s twenty most influential artists” and has been called “one of the great photographic innovators of the last century.” Michals’s work belongs to numerous permanent collections in the U.S. and abroad. See here for an overview of his excellent work. In this edition, “inspired by Cavafy and his poetry,” Michal’s provides five photogravures, “each utterly breathtaking and glowing with ethereal beauty.

To reproduce Michal’s work, the LEC had the photogravures made and hand printed by the best of the best at photographic reproduction, Jon Goodman. The LEC informs us that:

For printing multiple copies of black and white photographs, no other method compares in subtlety and richness with photogravure. A continuous-tone process so painstakingly exact and complex as to be arcane, it produces prints unequalled in luminosity and dimensional definition. And when photographers seek to have their works of art recreated as gravures, they turn to Jon Goodman, contemporary photogravure’s unquestioned master….It was Goodman who singlehandedly revived and perfected a technique devised in 1878 by the Czech printer Karl Klic…Photographic pioneers such as Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Paul Strand considered photogravure the apotheosis of the aesthetic gesture of making a picture, yet the method had almost died out before Jon Goodman came along and revived it around 1980.

The present tonal process as refined by Jon Goodman is called heliograph or intaglio photo etching. The resulting print affords a continuous range of gray tones, from light– almost white in the areas being etched– to rich blacks. Hence the beauty in our current offering.

The book was designed by the late Dan Carr and printed by Julia Ferrari, both of the Golgonooza Letter Foundry & Press. Again, the best of the best. The original Greek is printed interlinearly with the translation. The Greek is set and printed, very elegantly, in 12 point Greek Gill Sans Light, with the English translation in 18 point Monotype Dante; all cast and set at the Golgonooza Letter Foundry & Press. The title page is set in blue 60 point Perpetua Light Titling and the remaining in Dante, shaped into a centered vase design by Carr. The work is printed on an incredible Arches Vellum paper, thick and gorgeously soft. The books were hand sewn and bound in dark purple Japanese linen at Jovonis Bookbindery, with the same linen covering the suede-lined solander box. It is a very large book, at 16″ by 20″! The edition is limited to 300 copies, each signed by Duane Michals. Fine copies often go for anywhere from $2000 to $3150. Jeanne Shiff does have some original, new copies at $3,150 on her LEC website (and I suggest contacting her directly for special pricing).

{Ed. Note: As an aside, there is an excellent article on Cavafy in the New Yorker here. Also, Cavafy aficionado’s must read through The Cavafy Archive website, created by the Center for Neo-Hellenic Studies. “It contains all of Cavafy’s major works in the translation of Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (edited by G.P. Savidis), plus select alternative translations. It also contains a wealth of unpublished material from the poet’s Archive, plus a Cavafy Companion section and up-to-date information on Cavafy’s seminal presence in today’s world, as seen through the web.“}

About the Edition

Pictures of the Edition

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A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Solander (iPhone 6+ for scale)
A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Book in Solander
A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Front Cover Macro
A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Contents
A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Text #1
A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Illustration #2
A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2
A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3 (Afterword)
A Tribute to Cavafy, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
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