There are few questions that will get me in trouble. One is “What is the book that changed your life?” There are many possible answers. It could be the first book that I ever read when I was a child or the first erotic book that taught me about sex, love and sexual maturity. But to be sincere, there is a collection of poems that I always keep in my mind as a sort of rosary for difficult moments or big changes of my life. The book that changed my life is the one that serves me as a lighthouse but also as windmill to constantly fight with. I’m talking about the collection of poems, also known as The Canon of Costantino Cavafy. I discovered this book some years ago, seated in a university classroom, listening to a boring lesson about methaphysics. Suddendly my attention was captured by the verses that came from the lips of the Professor:
And if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.
Try not to degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social events and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.
Although I was taken with those verses, I forgot them for some time until I encountered them once again. This time in a colorful book on the shelf of a bookshop. They sat there with a captivating time: May there be many a summer morning. That book was the Canon of Cavafy.
I had never imagined a book of poems would give me the strength to go on with my studies. In those days I thought about the effective worth of my academic choices. I studied philosophy, which is not exactly the right matter to study for a brillant and well-payed working career. I felt depressed and sad till these verses started to ring out in my mind and demonstrated that humanistc studies can be a good resource for the whole of life:
And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that in the end Ephialtis will make his appearance,
that the Medes will break through after all.
I started thinking that finding my way and realizing my plans would have been possible if I had was as committed to my endeavors as the Spartans were against the Medes. So I committed myself to my studies, but that is not the only part of my life that the Greek poet’s worlds helped me to change for the better.
I grew up in a country town where great projects and events and possibilities were almost impossible to find. I felt a sort of immediate contact with Cavafy thoughts when he wrote:
With no consideration, no pity, no shame,
they have built walls around me, thick and high.
And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
I can’t think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind
because I had so much to do outside.
During that period I tried to find my way in another city, hoping to find something better than things offered by my small home-town. I was sure that Milan would be exactly the kind of metropolis that I needed. I was wrong because cement is cement either in Mantua or in Milan; trees are trees either in the countryside and in the great city. I understood then that if I wanted to find my own path, I needed to create it by myself … and Cavafy, in that period, was present with his wise words:
You won’t find a new country,
won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses”.
I was concerned thinking of myself closed in a “neighborhood cage,” as deprived of the opportunity to see the world, to know other kinds of people, to realize my projects. After that day of interior crisis, I’ve transformed my shoulders, always ready to rucksack of carry shells and little stones from the “other-where”.
I decided to change my language, to start writing in English instead of Italian, to change my way of thinking, to watch in another way the world that surrounded me. I discovered wonderful things in that country town that I hated for a long time, recognized as decadent that illusionary metropolis I’ve lived in for some years, and learned reached our to people from all over the world – people such as you.
Many books changed my life, suggesting to me a different way when facing a crossroads, but the Canon showed me the possibility of the voyage. It illuminated the shoes that were resting next to my bed and kicked my bum with the mystical and wonderful words of Ithaka:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
– Mendes Biondo
© 2016, essay, Mendes Biondo, All rights reserved