Special occasions

Cavafy’s “Days of 1901” is missing some last words. On the page, this elegy sings the recession into time of something that can return only at longer and longer intervals. On its returns it still looks like love, but what there is to see of that love is now coarsening and blurring under time’s accreting memories. The memories are of youth and purity: qualities that are now less accessible to the touch of sensitivity than they were, hidden farther and farther beneath the darkening eaves of upper limits. Youth goes louche, and the days of 1901 go historical.

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Formally, too, the poem’s wit is about the past tense. “I am a reminder that there is nothing new about what you feel,” says Cavafy’s Greek sonnet, and it says that on the authority of being in Greek, and a sonnet. But the little hint of budding life within the past culminates in a line so unhistorical that it hasn’t yet taken recorded form. Classical norms would grant “Days of 1901” one more line to bring to a merciful reconciliation the contradiction between immediate beauty and the poignancy of having lived prior, but here at this poem’s end there is only erasure. There ought to be six lines extending all the way to the end, and the prosodic category-name for that imperative, sestet, implies that at the end there ought to be six because a sonnet has earned the right to say and mean that there always have been six. But this sestet begins (in Daniel Mendelsohn’s translation), “The beauty of his nine-and-twenty years.” In Cavafy’s Alexandria, there can be no always. The days of 1901 are partially in ruins, like all the other days.

Look toward the margins and you’ll notice that off the American coast the days of 1901 arrived with an escort of battleships. Among the squadron, the days’ beauty wasn’t the poignant beauty of an individual, like the beauty of Cavafy’s slowing, thickening 29-year-old; they were as bright and delicate and grateful to the touch as new clean well-printed banknotes. Theirs was a Daisy Buchanan beauty: the beauty whose defining quality is the being prized. Competing for the beauty, rich men raced yachts through those days, and the love of the collective that defines love for us was there to protect them in steel boats with flags that snapped in the wind, and the apparatus of history was at hand to inscribe the rushing waves with records of love’s eager speed in a perennial Roman typeface.

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The caption reads, “U.S.R.C. Onondaga, America’s Cup Races, 1901.” U.S.R.C. stands for United States Revenue Cutter.

The octave of Cavafy’s sonnet read,

This was the thing about him that stood out

The key word was “Almost,” probably to be read as an ironic indirect aside. But in 1901 America a different flesh found its voice in the straightforward positivity of Whitman’s “As Adam Early in the Morning,”

Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body as I pass.

In its Walt warble it added: “Because I am passing through this watery element as fast as can be, and time is money.”

Sources:

C. P. Cavafy: Complete Poems, trans. Daniel Mendelsohn. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. The facsimile of the manuscript is online at several sites.

“U.S.R.C. Onondaga“: Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016804970/. Post-processed.

Port: meta-roint

Yesterday I posted a comment praising one of my textless photographs for raising what the pork-offal commenter called incredible roints and sopid arguments. “Sopid,” I assume, is call-center English for “solid,” and “roints” is “points” with an anti-Bayesian Greek rho substituted for the Latin p.

Today that comment attracts a meta-comment, viz.:

F*ckin’ awesome issues here. I’m very glad to look your post.
Thanks so much and i’m taking a look ahead to contact you.
Will you kindly drop me a mail?

Like many other spam comments, this one is hosted by an internet provider in Buffalo, New York, a port on the Great Lakes. Buffalo is what’s called post-industrial, and without the economic activity generated by enterprises like its spamhost, it and its city dialect might now be as extinct as Cavafy’s Alexandria. But with every new click on a comment spam, the old port traffics again, and lives and evolves. Hear its former idiom “looking forward” change under the influence of trade between call-center India and hedge-fund America into “taking a look ahead.”

In 1845, about half a century after New England began industrializing, Henry David Thoreau sat down by a landlocked little lake in New England and wrote, “I have thought that Walden Pond would be a good place for business, not solely on account of the railroad and the ice trade; it offers advantages which it may not be good policy to divulge; it is a good port and a good foundation. No Neva marshes to be filled, though you must every where build on piles of your own driving.” In 2016, the port of post-industrial Buffalo sinks piles into the deposits of its former physical language and opens itself to a new commerce with the ethereal. There, unmeaning words flow nonstop from click to click, lapping at piers to which nothing is moored.