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Winter 2002

Lost Cities

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Rachel Cohen
I. Clerks

There is a certain kind of poet who is a clerk during the day. It seems to be necessary to have mundaneness, which must involve paperwork, the long, slow soporific afternoons at an office, the sedateness of security, a regular paycheck, a bit too small, but reassuring, nevertheless, a boss, goodhearted, but not sensitive, also reassuring in his way. What does this do for the poet?

The Portuguese poet-clerk Fernando Pessoa wrote business correspondence in English and French in various offices for years; the Greek poet-clerk Constantine Cavafy translated letters for the Third Circle of Irrigation, an office of the British colonial administration in Egypt, in the same office every day for thirty-three years. Both were helped by this in an obvious financial sense. As Cavafy pointed out, the writer who does not rely on his writing for his living “obtains a great freedom in his creative work.”

Pessoa and Cavafy both published only a handful of poems in their lifetimes, leaving behind countless drafts of other work. Cavafy revised continually, but he did self-publish in manuscripts he carefully bound together, so there is some sense of what he felt to be the final versions. Pessoa, on the other hand, kept all his manuscript pages in a trunk, where multiple undated versions of the same work appear next to each other, so that there’s no knowing which he felt to be complete, or if he wanted them to be complete.

Pessoa wrote in dozens of different voices, each the representative of a person wholly formed, though a resident of his imagination. He was a maritime engineer with a passion for Whitman and a monarchist exile who wrote only Horatian odes; he was a hunchback woman who wrote love letters to a steelworker; and an accountant who admired Omar Khayyam; he was a baron fallen on hard times; and he was an astrologer. One of these persons (whom he called heteronyms) was Bernando Soares, a dusty gray man and assistant bookkeeper with evening light in his soul. Soares was like Pessoa in many ways (Pessoa called him a semi-heteronym), not least in the way that each maintained a double allegiance to the office and the writer’s study. Soares’s prose writings are as close as we will get to Pessoa’s autobiography. These meditations, called in English The Book of Disquiet, have been selected and translated into English by at least four different people. A slightly different Soares emerges from each one.

Many of the fragments begin with the mundane: the account books, Soares’s boss Vasques, his occasionally foolish colleague Moreira, the delivery boy, the clock and calendar on the wall. Then there is the feeling of the office when the sky outside darkens in a storm. Anxiety comes with the storm, a sense of menace, and Soares is glad for the company of the office, the joke of the delivery boy, the protection and comfort of this undemanding company. This is the shape of his world in the day and it frees him for the night. In the evening, he walks the streets of Lisbon and returns home to write perfect crystalline meditations on depression, insomnia, nostalgia, memory, the city’s geography, anonymity, and mortality. It seems that this work is only possible in his straitened conditions. The city wanderings must have their dusty contrast, must play in relief.

The contrast, the relief, these were also necessary for Cavafy. In the evenings, walking the streets of Alexandria or sitting at his desk working by lamplight, he makes his escape into love, art, history, and memory. He writes and he dreams; he dreams and he writes. He begins to lose a little bit his sense of what is real and what is imagined. In his poem “Morning Sea,” he writes to himself,

Let me stand here. And let me pretend I see all this
(I really did see it for a minute when I first stopped)
and not my usual day-dreams here too,
my memories, those images of sensual pleasure.

(Cavafy, “Morning Sea,” 1915, tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

He tried to keep them separate, perhaps not to sully the dreams, or not to succumb to their temptation all the time, or perhaps because the dreams were richer if the fussy details of quotidian life were not intermingled.

Cavafy must have daydreamed at the office, too. He did not like going to work, and was always at least an hour late. He had the clerks who worked under him organized to explain his absence to his superiors. He was meticulous, correcting correspondence for several offices, and writing and translating letters into and out of English, but the work cannot have been especially demanding. After Cavafy’s death, one of the other clerks who worked in the office, an Egyptian man named Ibrahim el Kayar, was interviewed by Manolis Halvatzakis, and the interview is quoted at length in Robert Liddell’s biography of Cavafy. The interview was conducted in French and English, and some Arabic; just who wrote the English version is a little unclear. Ibrahim el Kayar describes how, for Cavafy, poetry sometimes interrupted translation:

On very rare occasions he locked himself into his room. Sometimes my colleague and I looked through the keyhole. We saw him lift up his hands like an actor, and put on a strange expression as if in ecstasy, then he would bend down to write something. It was the moment of inspiration. Naturally we found it funny and we giggled. How were we to imagine that one day Mr. Cavafy would be famous!

The poet-clerk is certainly ridiculous, the relationship between his tedious office work and his moments of inspiration clear only to himself at the time. Cavafy found his poetry in the action of barricading office and home against the encroachments of the Third Circle of Irrigation.

Pessoa and Soares entered into an even more extreme arrangement: their poet-clerk is an impossibly unified being, completely interior, with no delineations at all.

I write attentively, bent over the book in which with my entries I jot down the useless history of an obscure company; and at the same time, with the same attention, my thoughts follow the progress of a nonexistent ship as it sails for nonexistent, oriental lands. The two things are equally clear, equally visible before me: the lined page on which I carefully write the verses of the commercial epic of Vasques and Co., and the deck where I carefully see, just to the side of the caulked seams of the boards, the long, lined-up chairs, and the extended legs of those resting on the voyage.

(Bernando Soares/Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, tr. Alfred MacAdam)

This is the full doubleness of which poet-clerking is capable. Empires, ships, and kings come and go before the poet-clerk’s eyes, as do the columns of figures themselves. He lives in a world where everything is imagined, the office as much an illusion as his dreams.

Cavafy and Pessoa were both quite isolated as children: their fathers died when they were young and they moved with their mothers to countries where the main language was English. Pessoa later explained that it was shortly after his father died, when he was about five, that he invented a friend for himself—the first of the imaginary boys and men who peopled his interior world—called the Chevalier de Pas. Pessoa’s mother remarried, and at the age of seven Pessoa moved from Portugal to Durban, South Africa, where his stepfather was in the diplomatic corps. Pessoa attended an English school. In Durban, the Chevalier de Pas was replaced by a new friend and alter ego who went by the particularly English name of Charles Anon. By the time he was twelve or thirteen, Pessoa had any number of internal friends. They all wrote a newspaper together, each with his own byline. After high school, Pessoa’s older stepbrothers settled in England; Pessoa chose Lisbon.

Cavafy’s father died when he was seven, and two years later the family moved to England, where they lived until he turned fourteen. His father, a wealthy merchant, did not leave his affairs in good order, and the family had little money. Cavafy’s older brothers went to work in various shipping offices. Cavafy also seems to have gone to school in English, and later when he was living in Alexandria and Constantinople with his mother, much of his correspondence and reading was in English.

Cavafy and Pessoa wrote their first poems in English and continued to write letters, poems, essays, and notes to themselves in English, as well as translations into and out of English, for the rest of their lives. They read French and Latin, too, and Cavafy claimed some Arabic, although his knowledge seems to have been slight. They wrote in the consciousness of other languages. Both were much affected by Shakespeare; both read Browning with careful attention. Pessoa read and translated the French surrealists; he was the first to publish them in Portugal. Pessoa’s heteronyms also translated each other’s work, and several of the heteronyms—particularly Charles James Search and the Crosse brothers, Thomas and I. I.—were translators first and foremost.

For Cavafy, translation was a source of income and it was also associated with sensuality. In Cavafy’s poems, young men of different backgrounds gather together to read poetry and experience sensual pleasure, and they leave behind their native languages for the Greek more appropriate to the occasion.

Pessoa and Cavafy lived translation as Walter Benjamin (kindred spirit of all poet-clerks) understood it: as ardent entry into another realm of language. Not simply catching the literal meaning of another’s words, but actually expanding one’s own language under the influence of another’s language. Thinking in two languages, like a circus rider standing on two horses, allowing oneself to be carried away by two languages together.

Among Browning’s greatest poems are his dramatic monologues of characters revealed in all their complexity, sadness, and depravity. Cavafy and Pessoa scholars often cite the influence of Browning. Cavafy’s dramatic monologues work through a similar process of a sympathetic imagination that does not balk at revealing weakness, or in some cases doom. And Pessoa took the idea further by living out the dramatic monologues themselves, inventing not characters but authors, and giving them rein to reveal themselves as they would.

The closest Cavafy comes to Browning is in the poem “Philhellene,” which, as Edmund Keeley points out, is very much like Browning’s “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.” Each concerns a man who, facing death, explains how he is to be memorialized. The bishop is to have a tomb of marble, jasper, and lapis, in the niche he has reserved for himself in Saint Praxed’s church. It is to be a tomb to make his rival, long dead and buried in the south corner of the church, unspeakably jealous. The bishop’s pettiness does not obscure his tragedy, for aren’t we all afraid of how we’ll be cared for after death? Cavafy’s Hellenic ruler is similarly pathetic as he directs his minister or scribe in the design of the coin that will be his legacy. The coin is to have a beautiful young discus-thrower on the back, and is to be inscribed with the word Philhellene, to show the ruler’s sophistication, his cultural taste. “Philhellene” is one of dozens of Cavafy poems which are either written specifically as epitaphs or which consider how best to memorialize someone recently dead or about to die.

Cavafy and Pessoa are like the scribes who appear in these poems, taking down the orders of Vasques and other minor emperors. The clerks’ writings reassure petty rulers of the extent of their powers. But the poets are also themselves the leaders who know their own weaknesses, and who dream of a glory that may come after death. Deep is the poet’s sympathy with a bishop or a Hellenic ruler, desperate at the end of his life for some sign that his prominence will continue. Even more desperate can be the fear of the poet, almost unpublished in his own lifetime, depending on the support of a few friends to ensure that all is not lost, that the work, like the tomb or the coins, will perpetuate the memory of its first imaginer.

This is precisely the task of the translator, the clerk among poets. Walter Benjamin writes that it is the appearance of great translation that marks the perpetual life of the original work. It is when a work enters into translation that it comes to have an effect on language itself, on the languages of the world. Cavafy and Pessoa, dusty clerks in cities no longer prominent, with few friends, secret reputations, and the dream life of kings, could not wait for readers and translators. They were their own clerks, taking down the words of their inspired dreams, living a memorial to themselves.

Cavafy and Pessoa worked in Greek and Portuguese and English, in the Rua dos Douradores and the time of the conquering kings, in the role of the clerk by day and the role of the king by night, or in both roles at both times. In their dreams and account books, they are both the original and the translator, both king and clerk—clerks to themselves, their own translators, their own tenuous assurance of immortality.

II. Cities

Walking in cities is an accumulation of small fragments of loss. A woman you want to keep looking at turns a corner; two people pass and you hear only, “It cannot be because of the child”; you look through a window at a drawing which looks like a print you have seen somewhere before, and it’s obscured when someone pulls a curtain across the window; a woman turns ferociously on the man standing next to her, but by the time you reach home you can no longer remember her face.

You begin to feel weighed down by all these losses, which seem separate from you, from the you that walks and sees and remembers and forgets and returns home. You wonder if the city in which you live is not the right city for you. Some other city might be less oppressive, freer. You dream of moving. And yet, you suspect that

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

(Cavafy, “The City,” written 1894, revised 1910, tr. Keeley and Sherrard)

Perhaps you do leave for a little while, as Cavafy left Alexandria for London when he was nine, or as Pessoa left Lisbon for Durban, returning at the age of seventeen.

Like the poets, you return. You, too, resist certain aspects of the city—perhaps its industry, or its violence. Its harshness grates upon you. You cling to the softer spaces: the parks at sunset, the river or the bay, a moment of sensuality, the vulnerability of certain passersby.

Today walking down New Almada Street, I happened to gaze at the back of a man walking ahead of me. It was the ordinary back of an ordinary man, a modest blazer on the shoulders of an incidental pedestrian. He carried a briefcase under his left arm, while his right hand held a rolled-up umbrella, which he tapped on the ground to the rhythm of his walking.

I suddenly felt a sort of tenderness on account of that man. I felt the tenderness stirred by the common mass of humanity, by the banality of the family breadwinner going to work every day, by his humble and happy home, by the happy and sad pleasures of which his life necessarily consists, by the innocence of living without analysing, by the animal naturalness of that coat-covered back.

(Bernando Soares/Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquietude, tr. Richard Zenith)

You find that these glimpses are not only pleasing, they have become necessary to you. You try to remember what it was that you thought you needed. Trees, you think, or was it other people, some more natural way of life. You leave the city:

I went off to the country with great plans.
But found only grass and trees there,
And when there were people, they were just like any others.

(Alvaro de Campos/Fernando Pessoa, “Tobacco Shop,” 1928, tr. Edwin Honig and Susan Brown)

You return to the city. If your soul is of this kind, there is no longer any difference between the country and the city: you see everything with the same dreamy eyes, you will always be a stranger, you will always be anonymous. How could you tolerate the country now? To what other city would you go?

By now I’ve gotten used to Alexandria, and it’s very likely that even if I were rich I’d stay here. But in spite of this, how the place disturbs me. What trouble, what a burden small cities are—what lack of freedom.

I’d stay here (then again I’m not entirely certain that I’d stay) because it is like a native country for me, because it is related to my life’s memories.

But how much a man like me—so different—needs a large city.

London, let’s say. Since…P.M. left, how very much it is on my mind.

(Cavafy, note, 1907, tr. Keeley)

Somehow the lack of freedom is related to life’s memories. Now you have reached a point in your life when you realize that you were not meant for youth, that you were in fact always a little older than everyone else and merely waiting for your age to catch up to you, so that you might live partly through memory, as you were meant to. And now your memories, even the memory of your resistance to the city and its constraints, are all part of the city itself.

You will always return to the city. You know that the feeling of return, and its tension between acceptance and resistance, is your most fundamental feeling. You survive by returning. And now, in this city, you no longer need to leave in order to return.

Then, sad, I went out on to the balcony,
went out to change my thoughts at least by seeing
something of this city I love,
a little movement in the streets and the shops.

(Cavafy, “In the Evening,” 1917, tr. Keeley and Sherrard)

You have reached an accommodation with your city, you have found a way to be seamlessly close and distant. If you are Cavafy, Alexandria comforts you in your regret; if you are Pessoa, Lisbon and its Tagus river reassure you with their indifference.

Oh, sky of blue—the same sky of my childhood—,
Eternal truth, empty and perfect!
O, gentle Tagus, ancestral and mute,
Tiny truth where the sky reflects itself!
O, suffering revisited, Lisbon of long ago and of today!
You give me nothing, you take nothing from me, you’re nothing that I feel in

(Alvaro de Campos/Fernando Pessoa, “Lisbon Revisited,” 1923, tr. Rachel Cohen)

If your city is a Lisbon or an Alexandria, it weighs on you, as Pessoa wrote, “like a sentence of exile,” and this is the only tolerable condition. You must live specifically in this city, the only city on earth in which you can be certain of denying yourself, in which you will feel a perpetual stranger in precisely the way that you desire.

Slowly, slowly, you and your city grow into each other. Pessoa addresses his Lisbon:

Once again I see you,
But myself, alas, I fail to see!
Shattered, the magical mirror where I saw myself identical,
And in each fateful fragment I descry only a piece of myself—
A piece of you and of myself…

(Alvaro de Campos/Fernando Pessoa, “Lisbon Revisited,” 1926, tr. Honig and Brown)

You have become the tiny pieces of half-forgotten streets and men with overcoats. If you are Cavafy, you have become the fragments of your memories and your historical imaginings; if you are Pessoa, you have become a hundred different personalities writing with the same pen. If you are a bricklayer, then this feeling will be in the bricks, and the way they have been laid, and it will be sensed, though rarely understood, by the people who walk on them. If you are a photographer, you will only take pictures of your city, and even your photographs of fruit on tables will still be pictures of the city. And if you are a poet, then there is some chance that you will become the poet of your city, that people will come to see the city that you became.

They will stop and wonder at the plaque on the Rue Lepsius in Alexandria where your house no longer stands. They will smile wistfully at the statue of you perched forever on a metal chair in front of your café, the Café Brasileira on the Largo do Rato. And they will feel vaguely disappointed that they cannot quite locate the feeling of your poems in the city itself, for the city in places is ugly, and has been garishly modernized, and the people on the buses seem utterly unaware that they live in the city of the poet—they are contemporary and mundane, not so different really from the people in the city where the admirers of the poet live themselves.

The people who go to visit the city of the poet find it hard to make sense of the sight of garbage in alleyways, of blue and yellow tiles behind doors, of mosques, of beggars. These are not in the poems of the poet they love so well. This is not the city they had imagined, though they believe the city of the poet lies buried beneath its stones or is hidden behind its walls. Once or twice perhaps they catch a glimpse of sky, or light reflecting on the river; they see an encounter between two men that the poet might have described, and they nod to themselves, ah, there, just for a minute, I thought I saw it.

And they return to their own city, which is, after all, theirs, and they are comforted.

In the evening, when they come home from walking the streets of their city, they take the poet’s books down from the shelf and read a few lines, quietly, in the more comfortable of the two chairs, by the light of the lamp. Ah, yes, they think to themselves, what a beautiful city, if only it existed, if only we could go there.

Rachel Cohen’s essays have appeared or will appear in DoubleTake, McSweeney’s, and Parnassus as well as in The Threepenny Review. She lives in Brooklyn.

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