Guest poem sent in by Ian Shields
(Poem #1582) The Photograph
In this obscene photograph secretly sold the policeman mustn't see) around the corner, in this whorish photograph, how did such a dream-like face make its way; How did you get in here? Who knows what a degrading, vulgar life you lead; how horrible the surroundings must have been when you posed to have the picture taken; what a cheap soul you must have. But in spite of all this, and even more, you remain for me the dream-like face, the figure shaped for and dedicated to Hellenic love that's how you remain for me and how my poetry speaks of you.
(Konstantinos P. Kabaphes, 1863-1933) translated from Greek by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis This is a distressing poem. Cavafy lived and died in the Hellenic community of Alexandria, Egypt. His English translators note that in the original he uses a subtle combination of classical and Demotic (vernacular) Greek that has no equivalent in the English language. Despite this barrier, I find that all of his various translators convey a deep, stark voice that is remarkably powerful. His work is represented on your website (poems 217, 296, and 522) and for further information and work by Cavafy, see http://users.hol.gr/~barbanis/cavafy/ Cavafy wrote a number of erotic poems, all directed at men; thus, I assume that individual portrayed in the photograph described in this poem is a boy or young man. I am a psychologist who deals exclusively with incarcerated 16 and 17-year olds. Each of them is brought to me because he has done terrible things. Some, in fact many of them, have also had terrible things done to them; this sometimes explains (but never excuses) their behaviour. In the course of my career I suppose hundreds of them have disclosed to me, in the depths of therapy, that they have been sexually abused. Some have explained that the evil men who did these things to them have "commemorated" the event with photographs and videos that are being distributed on the internet. The knowledge that similarly evil men continue to "enjoy" their abuse adds to the horror. Cavafy depicts a "similarly evil" man in his poem. His narrator describes the "dream-like face" of the young man depicted in the photograph and speculates on his "cheap soul". Yet it is the narrator's own cheap soul that nauseates the reader. Picasso once said that art is more than pretty pictures to put up on the wall. Thus, art can be ugly. What is it that makes Cavafy's ugly words art? For me, paradoxically, it is because his words are so distressing. To quote another poet, (William Wordsworth in Elegiac Stanzas) "A deep distress hath humanised my soul". -Ian Shields