Evan Jones on C.P. Cavafy

 

A young man, Emis, twenty-eight years old,

came to this Syrian port on a ship

from Tinos to study perfumery.

But during the sea voyage he fell ill,

and set ashore, died. His grave, a pauper’s,

is here. A few hours earlier, he mewled

something about ‘home’, ‘elderly parents’.

But who among us knew of them? Which of

us could guess at his birthplace in the wide

Hellenic world? It’s just better this way.

Because while he lies dead here in this port,

his parents will always hope he’s alive.

 

‘In this Port’

 

Economic migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, travelling east by ship and foot for survival, opportunity, and a better life: once, Syria was culturally and economically rich and Europe equally poor. Through the Middle Ages, Europe was a backwater in comparison to Syria; east was civilisation, where people ate with cutlery, studied mathematics and the stars, and could read Arabic, Persian, Greek, and Latin. Even now, more Syrians are bilingual – if not trilingual – than Britons. A sign of progression and culture should surely be the number of languages a person speaks. But no. On this island, someone hearing a foreign language on the train is newspaperworthy.

 

Emis is a child of the ‘wide / Hellenic world’. His name is short for Aimilios, a saint’s name, shortened – as his life was. No surname. And the barest of personal details. Anyone who has travelled can imagine the kind of cursory and introductory conversations that Emis must have engaged in repeatedly. Where are you from? I boarded at Tinos. How old are you? Twenty-eight. What are you doing here? Hoping to learn a trade. Some translators indicate that he’ll study the making of incense, but I follow Yourcenar’s perhaps imperfect but charming ‘l’art des parfums’. Anyway, is twenty-eight not a bit old to begin learning a trade? Maybe. But who’s to say whether Emis was telling the truth?

 

‘Economic migrant’ is not a term of legal standing, but a public one. Emis is an economic migrant, whose aim – we’re told – was education through which he hoped to improve his prospects. We might draw comparison here to Cavafy’s brother Paul, who was a sort of social migrant. He lived scandalously in Alexandria and left for Paris in 1908. In 1920 he died, poor and alone, having lived not so differently to the way he had in Alexandria. ‘In this port’, completed according to Cavafy’s notes in July 1918, predates his death, but not his departure. People like Paul and Emis make choices which bring them to their destinations, but Cavafy recognises that this is not much of an advantage.

 

Because people will always move to other towns and countries to try and improve their lives as long as the notion of improvement – which is to say inequality – exists. This isn’t a problem specific to Europe or Britain. In April 2016 an unknown woman, victim of a knife attack in 1969 in LA, was identified as Swedish-born Canadian Reet Jurvetson. “As incredible as it seems, my parents never thought to report Reet missing to the police," her sister Anne told the press. “They thought that she was just living her life somewhere and that eventually news from her would turn up.”

 

There were wonderful stories in the news this past summer of reconnections – Kunkush the cat, found in Berlin, and reunited with the Iraqi family who lost track of him. But there are many more stories like Reet’s. Like Emis’s. Person unknown, dead, on the shore, in the port, sick, drowned, weakened by the sea, no papers, no details, only a body. Almost fifty years after her death, Reet Jurvetson is the news she should’ve been. Only because he appears in a poem is there a difference between Reet and Emis: Emis is news that stays news.