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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page BW12

Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), as a Greek in his Egyptian city of Alexandria, was both native and alien. His work creates an Alexandria where neighborhood bars adjoin eternal mythology, and personal desires reflect the communal pageant of history. He considers large matters like the birth of Christianity and the decline of Rome as they are revealed in particular lives.

Cavafy is a great poet of human imperfection and exaltation. His poems devise beguiling combinations of candor and mystery, plain speech and elevation:

The Satrapy

Too bad that, cut out as you are

for grand and noble acts,

this unfair fate of yours

never helps you out, always prevents

your success;

that cheap habits get in your way,

pettiness, or indifference.

And how terrible the day you give in

(the day you let go and give in)

and take the road for Susa

to find King Artaxerxes,

who, propitiously, gives you a place

at his court

and offers you satrapies and things


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