Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Waiting for the Barbarians" by C.P. Cavafy, tr. Aliki

C.P. Cavafy, 1900


—What are we waiting for, gathered in the agora?

            The Barbarians are arriving today.

—Why is nothing happening in the Senate?
    Why do the Senators sit making no laws?

            Because the Barbarians are arriving today.
            What laws can the Senators make now?
            When the Barbarians come, they will make laws.

—Why did our emperor wake up so early,
    and, in the city’s grandest gate, sit
    in state on his throne, wearing his crown?

            Because the Barbarians are arriving today,
            and the emperor is waiting to receive
            their leader. In fact, he prepared
            a parchment to give them, where
            he wrote down many titles and names.

—Why did our two consuls and the praetors
    come out today in their crimson, their embroidered togas;
    why did they don bracelets with so many amethysts
    and rings resplendent with glittering emeralds;
    why do they hold precious staffs today,
    beautifully wrought in silver and gold?

            Because the Barbarians are arriving today,
            and such things dazzle them.

—Why don’t the worthy orators come as usual
    to deliver their speeches and say their peace?

            Because the Barbarians are arriving today
            and they are bored by eloquence and harangues.

—Why should this anxiety and confusion
    suddenly start. (How serious faces have become.)
    Why have the streets and squares emptied to quickly,
    and why has everyone returned home so pensive?

            Because night’s fallen and the Barbarians 
                              have not arrived.
            And some people came from the borders
            and they say the Barbarians no longer exist.

    And now what will we do with no Barbarians?
    Those people were some kind of solution.

Tr. Aliki Barnstone, 

The Collected Poems of C. P. Cavafy:
A New Translation,
Translated by Aliki Barnstone,
Foreword by Gerald Stern
W.W. Norton, 2006

Constantine Cavafy with cane and hat in hand
 Photograph dated 1896, Alexandria, Egypt

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