The Ships – A Prose Poem by CP Cavafy

From Imagination to the Blank Page.  A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous.  At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it.

The first injury derives from the highly fragile nature of the merchandise that the ships transport. In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles, and despite all the care in the world, many break on the way, and many break when unloaded on the shore. Moreover, any such injury is irreversible, because it is out of the question for the ship to turn back and take delivery of things equal in quality. There is no chance of finding the same shop that sold them. In the marketplaces of Imagination, the shops are large and luxurious but not long-lasting. Their transactions are short-lived, they dispose of their merchandise quickly and immediately liquidate. It is very rare for a returning ship to find the same exporters with the same goods.

Another injury derives from the capacity of the ships. They leave the harbors of the opulent continents fully loaded, and then, when they reach the open sea, they are forced to throw out a part of the load in order to save the whole. Thus, almost no ship manages to carry intact as many treasures as it took on. The discarded goods are of course those of the least value, but it happens sometimes that the sailors, in their great haste, make mistakes and throw precious things overboard.

And upon reaching the white paper port, additional sacrifices are necessary. The customs officials arrive and inspect a product and consider whether they should allow it to be unloaded; some other product is not permitted ashore; and some goods they admit only in small quantities. A country has its laws. Not all merchandise has free entry, and contraband is strictly forbidden. The importation of wine is restricted, because the continents from which the ships come produce wines and spirits from grapes that grow and mature in more generous temperatures. The customs officials do not want these alcoholic products in the least. They are highly intoxicating. They are not appropriate for all palates. Besides, there is a local company that has the monopoly in wine. It produces a beverage that has the color of wine and the taste of water, and this you can drink the day long without being affected at all. It is an old company. It is held in great esteem, and its stock is always overpriced.

Still, let us be pleased when the ships enter the harbor, even with all these sacrifices. Because, after all, with vigilance and great care, the number of broken or discarded goods can be reduced during the course of the voyage. Also, the laws of the country and the customs regulations, though oppressive in large measure, are not entirely prohibitive, and a good part of the cargo gets unloaded. Furthermore, the customs officials are not infallible: some of the merchandise gets through in mislabeled boxes that say one thing on the outside and contain something else; and, after all, some choice wines are imported for select symposia.

Something else is sad, very sad. That is when certain huge ships go by with coral decorations and ebony masts, with great white and red flags unfurled, full of treasures, ships that do not even approach the harbor either because all of their cargo is forbidden or because the harbor is not deep enough to receive them. So they continue on their way. A favorable wind fills their silk sails, the sun burnishes the glory of their golden prows, and they sail out of sight calmly, majestically, distancing themselves forever from us and our cramped harbor.

Fortunately, these ships are very scarce. During our lifetime we see two or three of them at most. And we forget them quickly. Equal to the radiance of the vision is the swiftness of its passing. And after a few years have gone by, if—as we sit passively gazing at the light or listening to the silence—if someday certain inspiring verses return by chance to our mind’s hearing, we do not recognize them at first and we torment our memory trying to recollect where we heard them before. With great effort the old remembrance is awakened, and we recall that those verses are from the song chanted by the sailors, handsome as the heroes of the Iliad, when the great, the exquisite ships would go by on their way—who knows where.

Tough questions in Greek Class

You need a little background for some of the stories I’d like to tell. Last year, I audited a conversational modern Greek class at the hoity toity university where my husband works. It was a tiny class, so I wasn’t off the hook for anything; I did the homework, took the tests and participated freely. Which was great, of course. It was marvelous. But…

I am 8-10 years older than the other 5 students.
I have 2 completed degrees.
I was recently married.
I was pregnant and, while not puking (good), wasn’t sleeping much (bad)

So there may have been a gap between the other students and me. Maybe just a chasm with fire and snakes. We didn’t always understand each other in English, things got dicey in Greek.

One day, I dragged my insomniac bum to class, and found that several of the other students had decided to skip. This left me alone with the teacher, the teacher’s decaying patience, and the quietest of the male students. The student who claimed to enjoy reading, tennis and Kafka. Right. The order goes forth: Talk to each other. ‘Οχι. Στα ελλενικα.

The other student exhaled, flipping through his notes. He inhaled. He exhaled. He looked at me pointedly and asked, “Eiste pantremenos?”

I panicked. He wanted to know something about me. Something I know I knew. Something we talked about…recently…something I …was? wasn’t? was? AM I PANTREMENOS? I beat my brain with a stick and peered at the dust that shook out. My brain didn’t oblige. I flipped violently but fruitlessly through the week’s notes. Nothing.

The teacher sighed deeply. She repeated the student’s question. She looked at me pointedly. She sighed. I forgave her the double sigh. I deserved it.

I gave up entirely. I wasn’t going to get it. If it meant “tired”, I was that. I didn’t think I was anything else. Just tired. I didn’t know what it meant, so I said so. I don’t know. “Den Κsero” (Prettier in Greek: Δεν ξερω)

The teacher exploded, slapping the table and laughing hysterically. The other student laughed audibly and looked like I had just told the funniest joke he’d heard in a year. I goggled.

When she recovered herself, the teacher told me what had been asked. “Are you married?”