Cavafy’s City

by Tim Gilmore, 6/28/2012

Cavafy’s city was not Jacksonville, also known as the Bold New City of the South, also known as the Hartford of the South, also known as Cowford. Constantine Cavafy’s city was Alexandria, Egypt, when Alexandria was an ancient, libidinous, bohemian Greek city on the Levant. One Cavafy poem of Alexandria gives its lines to the epigraph of this novel: “As is right for you who were given this kind of city, / go firmly to the window / and listen with deep emotion.”

But another Cavafy poem lends itself to the other side of why one of the original University of North Florida psychogeographers threw herself into this project so mercilessly. The poem is called “The City.”

You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.

Another city will be found, better than this.

Every effort of mine is condemned by fate;

and my heart is—like a corpse—buried.

How long in this wasteland will my mind remain.

Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I look

I see the black ruins of my life here,

where I spent so many years now ruined and wasted.”


New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.

The city will follow you. You will roam the same

streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;

in these same houses you will grow gray.

Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other.

There is no ship for you. There is no road.

As you have ruined your life here

in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.

And if Carla is the first person in her family to go to college, and if she has been reading poetry since before she was a teenager and thinking she was a freak for it, and if her working-class background had always suggested universities were wastes of time, and if she had a baby when she was a junior at Englewood High School, Santa Monica Unit 02, and was trying to raise her son and didn’t really know what she was doing by living, she nevertheless felt some part of her was meant for brilliance in New York or London or Paris, but she did not know that college would mean going elsewhere, and she felt bound to Cowford, she read something about how Henry David Thoreau had said, “I have traveled extensively in Concord,” and how he meant that even in walking his small Massachusetts town, he could explore whole worlds. Still Carla didn’t need the Cavafy poem to make her afraid that she couldn’t hope for any other place.

Anytime she might try to leave, she would find herself re-entering Cowford. She would age in the same neighborhoods—in Hidden Hills and Hillcrest and Killarney Shores. In the same 1973 ranch-style houses of her childhood, she would grow old. There would be no ship for her, and the road would grow over and disappear into the woods and Confederate flags in the rural Far Westside. Remaining in Cowford would be a waste of a life. To waste her one life in this wasteplace would destroy her life in the entire world.

Yes, she could concede Cavafy that. She could also concede Thoreau his point.

The university will offer her Study Abroad opportunities to go to Thailand, Ghana, London, and Peru. She will go to these places and come back from these places. In between, she will drive to the strangest corners of the city of her birth, recording histories decomposing in the swamps and ghost towers in the center of the city skyline. She will take the lead in the Jacksonville psychogeography project. Maybe melodramatically, maybe in appropriate homage, she named her son Constantine, and without knowing where the two of them will land, she comes back from Ghana and London, and walks through rural Northwest Jacksonville and devastated LaVilla, and T.S. Eliot replaces Constantine Cavafy in her birth-city orienteering:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.


And anyway, Carla would say, if you must have a child, do not name your child after an emperor—Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, or Constantine the Great—but name your child after a poet—Constantine Cavafy, government clerk for the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works, who wrote about setting “sail for Ithaca” and wishing “for the road to be long.”