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The Photograph -- Constantine Cavafy

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.
-- Constantine Cavafy
     (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

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

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