LYRIC COMPANIONS Constantine Cavafy “Supplication”

From A Book of Luminous Things, Ed. Milosz

CONTEXT. Glossary, Porosity of Being Here we might connect the porosity with creation: the passage is creative in a porosity that passes between nothing and (finite) being and between being and nothing again—and this passing is renewed, again and again. William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 424.

Cavafy’s poems have an epigrammatic swiftness: but in that dissolving moment there shines an acknowledgment of Eros. Here it is the passion of mother and son against the double background of the god of contingency, Poseidon, and its Other, the instinctive knowledge of love’s eternal being.

Coming upon a lyric by Cavafy can yank you out of your own banality, suddenly calling up aspects of your foundations in the universal impermanence that paradoxically set you adrift. Desmond has called this foundational dimension porosity, capturing in a common word the openness of individuals to each other and the beyond in the given between.

In this brief lyric the narrative touches on this fluid foundation in the figure of the icon, as Milosz notes in his headnote a symbol rooted in Orthodox Christianity. Milosz, a “bad” Roman Catholic, felt moved to make this distinction. Betweens are porous in the universal fertile void.

So much chatter! The poem itself, as I suggested, has the swiftness of an epigram. Yet it unfolds the lyric narrative with distinct economy of design. Announcing the situation with the literalism of a death notice, the text instantly focuses on the living, the mother, who knows no such thing, only that her son is a sailor and hasn’t come home. She prays for his safe return, for a return to normal, as if normal was the unity of the beloveds. Normal includes prayer and seeking help from divinity: her particular between involves her existential self and the otherness of Biblical divinity.

But her Between also includes other elements acknowledged by “polytheism,” so she always “cocks her ear to windward.” And as she prays the icons in the church “listen.”

How can the modern reader enter this part of the poem, which is after all the turn of the narrative? It is a special move in the story, a doubling of consciousness that moves the reader just outside the conventional whole of the mother-son connection.

By seeing the narrative in light of the porosity between mortals and immortals, each extreme being open to its others, we see the poem in its own otherness as an expression of this ceaseless give and take. The poem is so relentlessly clear about the “irrationality” of the mother’s hope! And yet without certainty the mother’s love lives on.

Do the icons “work” in this narrative? They seem to make it possible! They “listen”: they bear witness to both the mother and the “reality” she has no way of knowing. For humans just do live in the porosity. Religion at its best keeps people from hardening into minds closed to the beyond. Cavafy is a great poet of Eros, but his vision transcends erotic dialectic of self and other in the open listening to the polyvocal music of the metaxu, the Ancient Greek word for the Between.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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