John Barton
POEMS
 

Days of 2004, Days of Cavafy


“We Greeks have lost our capital . . . Pray, my dear Forster
   oh pray that you never lose your capital.”

                        – attributed to C. P. Cavafy, by E. M. Forster

 

Away from the Houses of Parliament, wandering the streets of this ruined Confederation
neighbourhood under maples loosening darkness along a river where men could linger

past midnight in the chill, late-season air, I am anxious, thoughts wandering through
your far extinct quarter, not the squalid Alexandria you live in, but in the capital

you raise pediment by pediment at the rim of a great delta, city of golden arteries
buoyed by the mythic reflux of the river where millennia of young men heroic first

in their beauty, in their loyalty to the body, awoke in each other’s arms, exquisite fallen
citizens true to the memory you keep fleshed out long after their city had abandoned

Anthony, long after your escape back from exile in Constantinople three years beyond
the less than transient music of British bombardment, an alien philihellene loafing about

town randy if circumspect, a youngest mother’s son slipping out once she could drowse
only to muse past her death about the unreturned-to beds where after a game of cards

you would lie with changeable lovers in the Attarine district, shirts and trousers too briefly
shed, tattered, and for an hour revealing the wine-drunk gods your obscure city might

otherwise have kept out of reach, unimaginable men, their genders you would redress
years later make brashly presentable in a Greek so architectural, so arch in its pronouns.

 

*


Forster said: you begin from within, a life doomed by its devotion to transient things
youth, physical beauty, and passion—passion above all other: disreputable, excessive

in the ‘Greek’ way of life as you see it, your true self admiring men in the street unseen
men whom you hope might still become and remain articulate in the artful, athletic tongue

of your ancestors, those inattentively schooled sophists whose bodies as discus throwers 
adorn the coinage struck by adoring kings in commemoration of victories from Libya

to Antioch, wars thrusting far across Persia into India, the whole of an ancient world
inside you and you inside it, unearthed, the past intense with lust, the present imperfect

with men like yourself or worse, fallen or raised poor, badly dressed, whose inglorious
flesh so worn out by labour can still delight you, even in retrospect, however furtively

I look up to your second-floor balcony at 10, rue Lepsuis, where with a candle you sit
into the dark hours revising, observing the infrequent clientele of the first-floor brothel

go and arrive, your eyes delighting in the girls, virtuosos of technique and the earning
pleasures, a man in your forties guessing their names for no reason, your interest in them

idle: except by implication they never walk as others do through your poems, for down
through the history of diaspora you remake from chosen bits of marble, you have stayed

enamoured with the endless debauch of young men who linger, depart from your city
their desires felt more often in the unseeming errata you praise than in the anything else

ambiguities I observe, though like you I am not beautiful, the best of your days like mine 
spent rising heartlessly up through the arid Third Circle of the Department of Irrigation—

who looks up to you, Cavafy, who follows, walking your deflowered city, this Alexandria
where you have made all time simultaneous, yet seem always to despair of its passage?

 

*


Amazing how any of us can persist at being in more than one place at more than one time
sipping coffee in a bazaar while walking along a northern river gilded with brittle leaves

watching passers-by, reliving the love we make with one man while at rest in the arms
of another, looking up from a newspaper on a city bus to retrace your steps, you a poet

born two centuries back, your path hidden, however memorably you may have one night
written about a man who years after your death might appear out of nowhere and act freely

from the study door I see you at work at your desk, yet I cannot see myself, a later man
unknowable to the city I live in, a city not less imperfect than yours, a city of its moment

with a disposition for violence, its young men after unaccountable days still found in bed
with their heads bashed in, beautiful, naked, though there are times when men here seem

in appearance more able to act, citizens solemn, happy to observe men marry other men
though by such public vows they become invisible, respectably move out to the suburbs

however ambitious their anonymity may be proclaimed in the high court as it overlooks
the river and its currents, overlooks what might sink, what might get carried forwards

new housing starts pushing the civic boundaries past limits not even you or I could have
guessed, the men of every city made good citizens whom, sitting at your desk, you can

only envision as enviable devotees of pleasure—and they are, their self-induced beauty
however viagra-enhanced, used up as it can be in your time, though some of us hope

desire may be caught, its decline arrested long before it is gone, each man a taxpayer
a contemporary Adonis constitutionally to be resurrected once a night in his own bed.

 

*


There are times, as you know, a city need only be a room, fortifications thin as the walls
street noises brought in on the coats to be shed, the weedy taste of the sewers on our skin

conspicuous, unnamed transients of the sheets, men for blocks dropping in for an hour
for the night, not here on approval, beautifully unmarriageable but stand-ins for coupling

and culpable of nothing but the sweet relief of disappointment, like-minded citizens unable
to dissemble inside any room’s time frame for long, skilled at keeping artful conversations

going only so far, articulately awkward, and knowing in their silences, the space of the room
immediately transformed into the space in their arms, each instant instantly archival, the eyes

recording unremarkable appointments: shelves lined with books leafed-through or unopened
curtains drawn, chest of drawers randomly pulled out, narcissus dead in a glass on the night

stand, double bed islanded under a soft-lit fixture, shirts unpressed yet hung, as they are
meant to be, in a wardrobe—the air stale with memories no one is ever intended to know

though afterwards pulling on clothes in the quick opposite order they were pulled off
standing at the door in our socks, closing it behind them, we find ourselves wondering

wandering the streets after them to the outskirts, musing on what barred store windows
they might browse, on where they likely stop for a beer on the way home, men we might

greet or ignore on the street for weeks afterwards, men who travel lives not too indifferent
to our own, travelling from Sparta to Thermopylae, from Sussex Drive to Albion Road.

 

*


Constantine, admit us: we all want to be Alexandrians, all want to be former exiles who stand
elegiac on our balconies and observe the street, regretting the ruined glories we anticipate

in transit below are behind us not ahead, knowing vestigial greatness may now lie elsewhere
knowing the cities where we live—any city— like Alexandra at last are enough, our attempts

at mediocrity sufficient to reconstruct an urbanity, a backdrop for a life, golden boys in our arms
as irredeemable as those aging anywhere, as talented in excess, their inelegant candour found

foremost in the nerves, in the rapacity of their tongues, any unused callowness reworked later
by the heart, residual bits of history excavated over time, a communal transcript none of us

ever knows entirely—anecdotes retold in every city, in every suburb, in fragments not unlike
lifetimes you revise boldly, discretely, poems of a fallen city, of unchaste, eternal Alexandria

men of the future looking backwards as I look to you for a city-map unfolding to relocate
where you are and where I might yet go, a man who walks along a river below the seat

of power in an unhellenic, obvious, plainspoken country where few imagine there are gods
where I can pause along a lonesome street to give a stranger less unsatisfying directions.




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