C.P. Cavafy, “The Naval Battle”


We were annihilated there at Salamis.
Let us say oá, oá, oá, oá, oá, oá.
Ecbatana and Susa belong to us,
and Persepolis—the loveliest of places.
What were we doing there at Salamis
hauling our fleets and doing battle at sea?
Now we shall return to our Ecbatana
to our Persepolis, and to Susa.
We shall go, but shan’t enjoy them as once we did.
Otototoi, otototoi: this battle at sea,
why must it be, why must it be sought out?
Otototoi, otototoi: why must
we pick ourselves up, abandon everything,
and go there to do battle so wretchedly at sea.
Why is it thus: as soon as someone owns
illustrious Ecbatana, and Susa,
and Persepolis, he straightaway assembles a fleet
and goes forth to battle the Greeks at sea.
Ah yes, of course: let’s not say another word:
otototoi, otototoi, otototoi.
Ah yes, indeed: what’s left for us to say:
oá, oá, oá, oá, oá, oá.

I’m not 100% certain, but I think this Collected Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn, is the third major translation of C.P. Cavafy‘s poems in the past decade; I first discovered his work through the versions Theo Theoharis published in 2001, and then Aliki Barnstone took a turn at them in 2006. (It’s been ages since I read the Theoharis, and I never did read the Barnstone, so I can’t tell you how they compare.) As part of its poem-a-day feature, Knopf has also put Mendelsohn’s translation of “On the Jetty” online, and the New York Review of Books has published Mendelsohn’s introduction to the collection.

Mendelsohn has also translated Cavafy’s unfinished fragments, like “It Must Have Been the Spirits” (from The New Yorker).

You may recognize Cavafy’s “Ithaka,” depending on how many weddings you’ve been to over the years; the more you attend, the better the odds you’ve heard it at least once. Here it is as read by Sean Connery, with an original soundtrack by Vangelis:

14 April 2009 | poetry |