★ A poem between friends: “Ithaka” by C.P. Cavafy

My friend, the writer Maura Kelly, sent me a link to a poem. It was “Ithaka” by C.P. Cavafy, a work I had been given once before in the form of  C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philp Sherrard and edited by George Savidis (Princeton University Press, 1975).

Maura had written in the email, “I had a bit of this on a scrap of paper that was floating around the house. I love this poem a lot and I think you will too.”

The poem begins:

When you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, 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.

In the 1911 poem, the Greek poet speaks to Odysseus—or, rather, to the reader as she sets out on a goal, as he lives a life. This call for presence in undertaking the venture fittingly reminded me of the person who first gave me the poem. Irini Vallera-Rickerson, an art history professor at Orange Coast College in Southern California. She embodies that wisdom daily and referred to it specifically once as we ventured into unfamiliar East L.A. neighborhoods in search of outsider art. We had turned on another wrong street, and someone had warned her about rough neighborhoods before the trip. “Nothing will happen to me if I don’t believe it will,” she said.

Laistrygonians, 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.

I met Irini in 1996 and soon after went to work as her gallery assistant. I gave up a full-time job and was preparing to apply for graduate school in urban planning.  It seemed—even to me—a little nutty at the time, but it also felt right, no matter the delay on a 401-K. But then, I wonder if I even knew what a retirement plan was back then. That fear of an unknown future may not have yet set itself up in my soul.

The poem goes on to express the value of the journey itself.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
So you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

A decade later, I shifted gears a second time and moved to Roanoke to work on an MFA in creative writing at Hollins University.

These shifts in our lives we picture as slowing progress toward a destination, even when the destination has not been quite established. (Retirement? A “successful” career? Accolades?) But those delays and turns in the path also allow for rare changes in perspective and even wholesale shifts in thinking.

I can remember the very moment I met Maura on the Hollins campus, for these dramatic changes also open us up to people in new ways. The time at Hollins was an opportunity to court new ideas, inviting in new friends who challenge our way of seeing.

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…and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Fifteen years have passed, and by now my path looks pretty staid on the surface. But BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke has given me a cover for meeting new people, asking them questions, sharing their journeys, and celebrating them a little. I have a plan for the effort. I know where it’s headed as we collectively explore engagement and equity at the intersection of books and place. But I’m not in too great a rush to get there. I’m comfortable with the “Phonecian trading stations” to be stopped at, the “sensual perfume of every kind” I’m encountering along the way. The work itself evolves with each experience and interaction.

I think of Maura and her path as a writer, her fortitude and tenacity. But also her engagement and steady exploration of the world around her. Wildflowers and birds. Words and art. Towns of the Northeast. Film and culture.

In a nice bit of timing, the day Maura sent the email, the book was already sitting on my kitchen table. I had been trying to select a Cavafy poem to memorize. Decision made. Now when I recite the poem, the layered work incorporates the author’s words (via translation), my interpretation, and pieces of my friendships with both Maura and Irini. What a gift!

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Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.

“Maybe one day,” Maura wrote, “when I am least expecting it, you will send it back to me!”

Even better. We’ll go for a walk and talk about the poem, delineate the way these words play out in our lives. New layers will add to their meaning. And, after giving the poem back to my friend, I’ll get to keep it as well.

I’m not getting married anytime soon or celebrating a big birthday, but I’m looking for a registry, a way in which I can invite others to give me something, something as meaningful as a poem.

Read the entire poem…or better yet, learn it by heart with us.
Learn more about the C.P. Cavafy.
★ “Begin in delight. End in Wisdom.” Explore more poems at the Poetry Foundation
★  See what gifts fellow Roanokers might have for you as they recite Poetry by Heart.

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