Half an Hour
by C.P. Cavafy
In C. P. Cavafy’s “Half an Hour,” the short, late sentence translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard as “That was very necessary” may seem more like a continuation of the poem’s terms than a turn from them. It lacks the lofty twist of the third sentence’s “But we who serve Art,” and its shift from narration to commentary is nothing new (“It’s sad, I admit,” Cavafy writes with similarly affecting reticence in the fourth line). What’s different about “That was very necessary” is that it both sums up the poem’s earlier scene—not only responding to it, as part of the narration, but compressing the narration into a single phrase—and sets up the explanation that follows. The sentence at once plants and pivots. Because this pivot is planted, the poem can’t “go anywhere,” but goes more deeply into its disclosure. Cavafy’s sentence is a turn that confirms where we’ve arrived; in the poem’s next sentence, he explains what it means to be there, clarifying what was “needed” in that fervent, resigned “very necessary.”
Cavafy often develops poems through such subtle and resonant turns, which reiterate as they elaborate, summing up before running on, culminating in pictures that are abruptly finished (one feels a touch of loss when their construction ends)—at times quite literally, as in “Picture of a 23-Year-Old Painted by his Friend of the Same Age, An Amateur.” That poem confirms its title, and the final lines confirm the significance of the illustration (“That mouth of his, those lips / so ready to satisfy a special kind of erotic pleasure”). As in Cavafy’s gorgeous “Temethos, Antiochian, A.D. 400,” in which the poem’s collective speaker reveals to whom an erotic poem is really addressed (“we the initiated / know about whom those lines were written”), turns that confirm often intensify the consequences of a knowing stance. Like lines that torque toward epiphany, such turns may articulate wisdom, significance, or gossipy conclusion, but they don’t replace situation with meaning—“seeing a giraffe, I think of my own straining,” strains the bad poet—as much as they highlight a situation that is intimately meaningful. Rather than set a poem spinning, they turn it toward particular light.
Turns that confirm insist on the reality (or, in you prefer, surfaces) of their poems, emphasizing what makes the poem “very necessary”—the occasion, recollection, idea, or desire the poem steadily veers from, not just the veerings within it. The surprise of such poems is not a sudden sandbag dropping onto a stage the poet has fabricated expressly for that whump (the actor filibusters, filling time before the splat), but the casually emphatic conviction of an actor who conjures the stage with his talk. More than a poem’s “truth,” they can emphasize the investment and ardor of the poet, planting and pivoting to clarify, to set things right. “It is right,” confirms Yeats in an early turn in “After Long Silence,” and we see the situation the poem came from and his desire to stay in that scene, to not lose it in the rhetorical wind-up of stage-setting. “What thou lov’st well remains,” says Pound in “Canto LXXXI,” attempting to speak an entire world into coherence (“towns we loved in matter,” echoes Richard Hugo in his desperate and tender “Letter to Kathy from Wisdom”). “We were!” shouts Robert Lowell in “The Lesson,” moving from narration to insistent, astonished preservation, rushing into the repetitions that nest at the poem’s end. “Whatever happens, this is,” concludes Adrienne Rich in a section of “Twenty-One Love Poems.” Listen, these turns say. This is significant, this is necessary, this is.
Inger Christensen’s masterpiece Alphabet, translated by Susanna Nied, has such turns in nearly every line, confirming both the poem’s method—a catalog that dizzyingly preserves, mourns, and creates—and the things of the world it details. “Cicadas exist; chicory, chromium / citrus trees; cicadas exist; / cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cere- / bellum,” Christensen writes. Like Cavafy’s “Half an Hour,” Alphabet doesn’t engender surprise by veering from its initial stance, but by confirming and deepening it. More than distinct surprise, these poems offer the continual revelation of astonishment.
Zach Savich is the author of three books of poetry, including The Firestorm, and a book of prose, Events Film Cannot Withstand. He teaches at Shippensburg University and serves as an editor with The Kenyon Review.