The Barbarians Arrive Today (Carcanet, 2020) is a new translation of Cavafy’s poetry and prose by Evan Jones, a Greek-Canadian poet living in Manchester. Jones orders the poems thematically, rather than chronologically, in sections based on categories devised by Cavafy himself. The structure works well— the groupings are homogeneous rather than monotonous—and one thing it makes clear is that the erotic poems were only a part of Cavafy’s output.
Jones has made a point of creating fresh translations especially of the better-known poems, but the intimate tone is recognisably the same as in Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s Collected Poems, which made me feel that I was hearing Cavafy’s own voice, though it may be difficult to find a true equivalent in English for his mixture of demotic and ‘purist’ Greek. I confess I was a little irritated by Jones’s use of Greek rather than Latinised names (e.g. ‘Akhilleus’ rather than ‘Achilles’)—these are translations, after all—but I got used to it.
Among the prose pieces are “Notes on Poetic Work”, short observations about poetry, written over the course of Cavafy’s life. In one of these, he responds to a poor, young poet, who sees that he has a comfortable home, by saying: ‘… I paid dearly for my few luxuries. To obtain them, I defied my natural inclinations and became a civil servant (what a joke), and I spent and lost so many precious hours of the day (add to that the hours of tiredness and laziness that follow on). All gone, gone, a betrayal.’ I know how he felt.
There is an interesting afterword by Jones and Carcanet’s YouTube channel has a video of him in conversation with A. E. Stallings at the online book-launch.
(From the Spring 2021 issue of the Ver Poets members’ newsletter, Ver Poets Poetry World. To join Ver Poets and receive a free copy of the newsletter together with many other benefits visit their website here.)