From Alexandria to Alexandra: Parallel Visions of Loss in Cavafy and Cohen

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Constantine Cavafy & Leonard Cohen

Guest Post: By Kutay Onaylı

Note: This essay may be read below or downloaded n PDF format at From Alexandria to Alexandra-PDF

Leonard Cohen’s song-poem “Alexandra Leaving,” at first glance, is a rather simple refashioning of Constantine Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony”: a similarly-named woman replaces the city as an object of loss, resulting in the creation of a tale of failed romantic love that is commonplace in Cohen’s repertoire. A more careful reading of Cohen’s work, however, would reveal that there is more to the adaptation than a dropping of the letter i: Cohen does not only restate the story Cavafy tells in “Antony” in a different framework but also expands and modifies it. This paper is an attempt at outlining some of the deliberate additions and reductions Cohen made to create an Alexandra that represents, in the same way that Cavafy’s Alexandria is more than a mere re-telling of Plutarch, not a mere lost lover but a vision of loss and dignity that is derived from and remains in strong dialogue with that of Cavafy.

The first important departure Cohen makes in his adaption of Cavafy’s work is the removal of the “invisible procession.” In “The God Abandons Antony,” the procession that announces Alexandria’s loss is introduced as early as the second line of the poem and is referred back to over and over again through the work. Cavafy clearly connects the sounds heard by the person spoken to by the narrator to this procession at least twice in the poem: The lines “when suddenly, at midnight, you hear/ an invisible procession going by/ with exquisite music, voices,” and “listen…to the voices/ to the exquisite music of that strange procession,” constitute one fifth of the entire work and provide the framework the rest of the narrative takes place in. In Cohen’s version, however, there is absolutely no mention of the procession—the initial sensory experience that happens “suddenly” is instead that “the night has grown colder.” The movement, furthermore, is modified to come not from outside the window but from inside a dwelling and the individual himself when Cohen says: “the god of love preparing to depart./ Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder, they slip between the sentries of the heart.” Hearing –and taste, an addition Cohen makes- is introduced with the line “They fall amongst the voices and the wine.” and referred back to with “Go firmly to the window. Drink it in./ Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing.” In both lines, the source of the sensory experience remains unclear. This deliberate unclarity, in combination to the references to wine (and the connection formed between the voices and the wine, evoking a tavern-like setting) and the audibility of Alexandra’s laughter from afar indicate that the thing that is being lost is moving across space and time—essentially echoing Cavafy’s representation of Alexandria as a space and time that is transforming into something different than Anthony’s Alexandria. Cohen, however, in expressing his perception of the phenomenon of loss, makes the “procession” literally invisible in his verses and buries the source of the sensory experience within the object of loss itself.

Once he establishes his more abstract and internalized “procession,” Cohen goes on to build upon Cavafy’s references to time and continuity in loss with sizeable additions of his own. Cavafy says, in speaking of the city’s departure, that the person spoken to must be “as one long prepared,” and the rest of the poem presents a linear structure of time: The lines “…your luck failing now, / work gone wrong, your plans/ all Kutay Onayli proving deceptive.” draw a clear line between a possibly more fruitful, victorious past and the failure of the present moment. Furthermore, Cavafy clearly states that the poem speaks of a point of no return in the sequence of the relationship between the subject and the object of loss with the strongly emphasized “listen –your final delectation— to the voices,”. Cohen, instead of following suit, chooses to complicate the process. Without clarifying whether he describes a continuing physical togetherness or a togetherness in memory or fantasy, he writes mid-way through his work (and well after is has been established that Alexandra did depart) “Even though she sleeps upon your satin;/ Even though she wakes you with a kiss./ Do not say the moment was imagined;/ Do not stoop to strategies like this.” This stanza opens up to question the exact nature of the “departure” (which, as quoted earlier, is one from the inside, from “the heart,”) expressing that there is a chronological unevenness to the concept and that relating to its fulfillment requires an ability to let go and accept the deeper facts as opposed to the physically perceivable –but, as seen in the lines above above, also unreliable- indications that may be present. Cohen suggests that the loss of Alexandra may have become clear and inevitable well before her final departure or parts and visions of her may well linger on after it. Building upon this notion, Cohen once again goes on to parallel Cavafy: He says clearly that “departure,” even though it may be happening despite apparent proof to the contrary and although Cohen stresses that its exact “moment” and nature are unclear, is still “not imagined.” Once this reality is established, Cohen’s prescription for dealing with such loss echoes Cavafy: with dignity and solemnity, as seen in a number of lines that are very similar to those of “The God Abandons Antony” such as “Do not choose a coward’s explanation,” “As someone long prepared for this to happen/ go firmly to the window. Drink it in.”

As Cohen’s narrative in “Alexandra Leaving” unfolds, issues of agency and ownership also come to the forefront, deepening the songwriter’s call for dignity with various modifications to Cavafy’s narrative. Cavafy’s single line “as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,” is expanded to a full stanza: “And you who had the honor of her evening,/ And by that honor had your own restored—/Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving;/ Alexandra leaving with her lord.” Whereas in Cavafy’s poem the person being spoken to is the active subject and is being praised as one on equal grounds with Alexandria, Cohen’s work puts Alexandra in the stronger position instead. In “Alexandra Leaving,” the time spent with the object of loss was the honor granted to the person being spoken to, and Alexandra herself does the job of restoring honor and worth. Indeed, in another line with no clear parallel in “Antony,” Cohen’s object of loss becomes “radiant beyond your widest measure,” as she departs. The line conveys that the period of grace is over and Alexandra, already superior, is once again beyond the life and comprehension of the one who is losing her. The cause and method of loss also signal a departure on Cohen’s: It is initially not Alexandra but “the god of love” that is “prepared to depart.” Alexandra is “hoisted on his shoulder,” and the two, once again in contrast with Cavafy’s glorious procession, “slip between the sentries of the heart.” Cohen also creates a mastermind for the departure: “As someone long prepared for the occasion;/ In full command of every plan you wrecked— ” Through these two new characters, “the god of love” and the “someone,” Cohen does not only move the loss into the romantic realm but also creates a more complicated Kutay Onayli playing field by bringing in different factors that cause and contribute to the loss. The “sentries,” the act of slipping away hidden, and references to plans wrecked and commanded create a mood of conflict and struggle, further emphasizing that the loss was not the product of a moment but a process—one that has been actively resisted to. Although this is a move away from the more stoic and clear-cut approach Cavafy takes, it serves to enhance the message of finality Cohen shares with Cavafy: Loss and “departure” must be accepted when their time comes according to Cohen too— despite the fact that one’s tooth-and-nail battle against these makes the acceptance a harder pill to swallow.
In conclusion, “The God Abandons Antony” and “Alexandra Leaving” are two
works with a shared starting point and a shared final message: Both Cavafy’s Alexandria and Cohen’s Alexandra stand for more than mere physical entities— Cohen, in fact, follows suit with Cavafy’s method of using his primary literary preoccupation and expertise, the city, by using (one of) his, the woman, in his own discussion of a profound sense of loss and the appropriate, honorable way to deal with it. The departures he makes with his additions and reductions allow him to, while using Cavafy’s work as a foundation and a source of agreement, lay out a less linear, more internal vision of loss and dignity of his own.

Alexandra Leaving by Leonard Cohen

Suddenly the night has grown colder.
The god of love preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
They slip between the sentries of the heart.
Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
They gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
And radiant beyond your widest measure
They fall among the voices and the wine.
It’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
A fitful dream, the morning will exhaust –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.
Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.
As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing.
Your firm commitments tangible again.
And you who had the honor of her evening,
And by the honor had your own restored –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving;
Alexandra leaving with her lord.
Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.
As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked –
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
that hides behind the cause and the effect.
And you who were bewildered by a meaning;
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

The God Abandons Antony by C.P. Cavafy

Translation by Keeley& Sherrard

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

 

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Kutay is a student of Middle East Studies and Comparative Literature at Brown University. Previously a resident of Istanbul, he focuses on the intersections of Turkish and Greek histories, literatures and cultures. He has published poetry and nonfiction in English and Turkish.

Credit Due Department: Leonard Cohen photo by Roland Godefroy – Own work, CC BY 3.0, via Wikipedia