Walking in cities is an accumulation of small fragments of loss. A woman you want to keep looking at turns a corner; two people pass and you hear only, “It cannot be because of the child”; you look through a window at a drawing which looks like a print you have seen somewhere before, and it’s obscured when someone pulls a curtain across the window; a woman turns ferociously on the man standing next to her, but by the time you reach home you can no longer remember her face.
You begin to feel weighed down by all these losses, which seem separate from you, from the you that walks and sees and remembers and forgets and returns home. You wonder if the city in which you live is not the right city for you. Some other city might be less oppressive, freer. You dream of moving. –Rachel Cohen: LOST CITIES
By C.P. Cavafy
You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.
Perhaps you do leave for a little while, as Cavafy left Alexandria for London when he was nine, or as Pessoa left Lisbon for Durban, returning at the age of seventeen.
Like the poets, you return. You, too, resist certain aspects of the city—perhaps its industry, or its violence. Its harshness grates upon you. You cling to the softer spaces: the parks at sunset, the river or the bay, a moment of sensuality, the vulnerability of certain passersby. –Rachel Cohen: LOST CITIES
Today walking down New Almada Street, I happened to gaze at the back of a man walking ahead of me. It was the ordinary back of an ordinary man, a modest blazer on the shoulders of an incidental pedestrian. He carried a briefcase under his left arm, while his right hand held a rolled-up umbrella, which he tapped on the ground to the rhythm of his walking.
I suddenly felt a sort of tenderness on account of that man. I felt the tenderness stirred by the common mass of humanity, by the banality of the family breadwinner going to work every day, by his humble and happy home, by the happy and sad pleasures of which his life necessarily consists, by the innocence of living without analysing, by the animal naturalness of that coat-covered back.
(Bernando Soares/Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquietude, tr. Richard Zenith)
You find that these glimpses are not only pleasing, they have become necessary to you. You try to remember what it was that you thought you needed. Trees, you think, or was it other people, some more natural way of life. You leave the city: –Rachel Cohen: LOST CITIES
I went off to the country with great plans.
But found only grass and trees there,
And when there were people, they were just like any others.
(Alvaro de Campos/Fernando Pessoa, “Tobacco Shop,” 1928, tr. Edwin Honig and Susan Brown)
You return to the city. If your soul is of this kind, there is no longer any difference between the country and the city: you see everything with the same dreamy eyes, you will always be a stranger, you will always be anonymous. How could you tolerate the country now? To what other city would you go? –Rachel Cohen: LOST CITIES
By now I’ve gotten used to Alexandria, and it’s very likely that even if I were rich I’d stay here. But in spite of this, how the place disturbs me. What trouble, what a burden small cities are—what lack of freedom.
I’d stay here (then again I’m not entirely certain that I’d stay) because it is like a native country for me, because it is related to my life’s memories.
But how much a man like me—so different—needs a large city.
London, let’s say. Since…P.M. left, how very much it is on my mind.
(Cavafy, note, 1907, tr. Keeley)
Somehow the lack of freedom is related to life’s memories. Now you have reached a point in your life when you realize that you were not meant for youth, that you were in fact always a little older than everyone else and merely waiting for your age to catch up to you, so that you might live partly through memory, as you were meant to. And now your memories, even the memory of your resistance to the city and its constraints, are all part of the city itself.
You will always return to the city. You know that the feeling of return, and its tension between acceptance and resistance, is your most fundamental feeling. You survive by returning. And now, in this city, you no longer need to leave in order to return. –Rachel Cohen: LOST CITIES
You have reached an accommodation with your city, you have found a way to be seamlessly close and distant. If you are Cavafy, Alexandria comforts you in your regret; if you are Pessoa, Lisbon and its Tagus river reassure you with their indifference. –Rachel Cohen: LOST CITIES
Oh, sky of blue—the same sky of my childhood—,
Eternal truth, empty and perfect!
O, gentle Tagus, ancestral and mute,
Tiny truth where the sky reflects itself!
O, suffering revisited, Lisbon of long ago and of today!
You give me nothing, you take nothing from me, you’re nothing that I feel in
(Alvaro de Campos/Fernando Pessoa, “Lisbon Revisited,” 1923, tr. Rachel Cohen)
If your city is a Lisbon or an Alexandria, it weighs on you, as Pessoa wrote, “like a sentence of exile,” and this is the only tolerable condition. You must live specifically in this city, the only city on earth in which you can be certain of denying yourself, in which you will feel a perpetual stranger in precisely the way that you desire.
Slowly, slowly, you and your city grow into each other. Pessoa addresses his Lisbon:
Once again I see you,
But myself, alas, I fail to see!
Shattered, the magical mirror where I saw myself identical,
And in each fateful fragment I descry only a piece of myself—
A piece of you and of myself…
(Alvaro de Campos/Fernando Pessoa, “Lisbon Revisited,” 1926, tr. Honig and Brown)
You have become the tiny pieces of half-forgotten streets and men with overcoats. If you are Cavafy, you have become the fragments of your memories and your historical imaginings; if you are Pessoa, you have become a hundred different personalities writing with the same pen. If you are a bricklayer, then this feeling will be in the bricks, and the way they have been laid, and it will be sensed, though rarely understood, by the people who walk on them. If you are a photographer, you will only take pictures of your city, and even your photographs of fruit on tables will still be pictures of the city. And if you are a poet, then there is some chance that you will become the poet of your city, that people will come to see the city that you became.
The people who go to visit the city of the poet find it hard to make sense of the sight of garbage in alleyways, of blue and yellow tiles behind doors, of mosques, of beggars. These are not in the poems of the poet they love so well. This is not the city they had imagined, though they believe the city of the poet lies buried beneath its stones or is hidden behind its walls. Once or twice perhaps they catch a glimpse of sky, or light reflecting on the river; they see an encounter between two men that the poet might have described, and they nod to themselves, ah, there, just for a minute, I thought I saw it.
And they return to their own city, which is, after all, theirs, and they are comforted.
In the evening, when they come home from walking the streets of their city, they take the poet’s books down from the shelf and read a few lines, quietly, in the more comfortable of the two chairs, by the light of the lamp. Ah, yes, they think to themselves, what a beautiful city, if only it existed, if only we could go there. –Rachel Cohen: LOST CITIES