Journey to Ithaca

After last week’s deluge the river ran wild with rain. It had transformed overnight from a sinuous set of bends where kingfishers flared like blue flames to a wild and churning tempest. The mud-brown water was washing off the mountains and cascading through steep granite galleries to roil across the plain towards the lake. The thrum and roar were recognisable, storms having altered the shape and nature of the rivermouth before.

It’s easy to arrive somewhere and imagine it from only that moment on, as if it were set in its ways, fixed and immobile. For the same reason we sometimes find ourselves looking at old photographs of friends and family, even ourselves, and not recognising the earlier incarnations, unable to twine the past and the present together, the unknowable processes of growth.

Over the years I’ve watched the river rise and fall, weave and wend its way along a channel of ghostly willows before spilling into the lake. I’ve crossed it in the lucid light of June when it harboured sinkholes that swallowed my steps. I’ve crept along its edges in summer when pelicans gather at its shallow mouth, the sun-reflected water glistening about their feathers. I’ve seen the sandy banks sheered away and trees carried downstream; I’ve watched sandbars reach out and then withdraw as if unsure of the intimacy. But more than anything else, I’ve observed the river’s bewildering ability to change, the unforeseeable shaping of its ways.

A few days before the rains a friend wrote to me about C.P. Cavafy’s poem, ‘Ithaca,’  and I was reminded of it again as we walked beside the rising river. Cavafy was born in cosmopolitan Alexandria in 1863, a Greek well-versed in the Hellenistic history of the Egyptian city and the works of antiquity. Inspired by the journey of Homer’s Odysseus back to his native island of Ithaca in The Odyssey, Cavafy wrote his poem with the journey of the soul in mind, sensing that Ithaca – a spiritual as well as geographical entity – was the end of our days, a place to arrive at in good time. A great white egret flashed from a sandbank and struggled into a headwind over the lake. We watched the swirl of brown water needle the blue, translucent edge.

I’d become attached to the river in our first season, finding birds and reptiles and wildflowers of all kinds in the lagoon that encircled the estuary. Squacco herons and glossy ibis lowered into the marsh and grey herons patrolled the shallows. Marsh plants thrived in the warm waters and the ponds chorused with frogs; the still surface suddenly rippling with snakes. It was a luminous and enriching place to pass the hours.

By the following summer, though, the lagoon was gone, displaced by the river’s mercurial course. A sandy escarpment was all that remained and I was dismayed that the wetland could have vanished so quickly. But when the currents soon shifted again, enabling unexpected species to take root in new lagoons along the shore, I began to understand how the river was remade each day. As the surge of wild water pours through the channel, emptying the mountains of rain, the shape of its banks is changing, being sluiced away and streaming endlessly into the lake. The river is always arriving, beginning again and again, never reaching its Ithaca.

 

Ithaca

As you set out for Ithaca
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and 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.
Laistrygonians and 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.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what a joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind-
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaca always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.

– C.P. Cavafy, 1911
Translated by Edmund Keely and Phillip Sherrard, C.P. Cavafy Collected Poems, 1992

 

17 thoughts on “Journey to Ithaca

    1. Well done, Rex, on behalf of the Philippines!!! I know you’re football mad so you can take as long as you’d like before reading the post! It’s obviously a moment to savour, and as this evening is one of those rare occasions when Arsenal are being shown live on Greek television in an important Champions league match, I’ll be closing down the computer as well! Take care and enjoy your victory! Speak soon, Julian
      P.S. I agree with Pete – who are you playing?

  1. Deeply lovely, Julian. Wonderful to read your meditations on the life-course of your river when I’ve just walked in the door from visiting my river – the Kelvin – which has frozen over here in Arctic Glasgow. I’ll send you a couple of pics.

    Wonderful images, as we’ve come to expect.

    I hope your own journey to Ithaca is a long one too, Julian.

    Congratulations Rex, I’ve no idea what the Suzuki Cup is, but I hope you give the opposition a darn good run for their money!

    1. Thanks, Pete. Delighted that you like it and the images. How far is the Kelvin from home? We’re expecting our own Arctic conditions beginning on Friday so we’ll see what happens to the river depending on how long it lasts. Quite looking forward to it!

      And likewise, my friend – may your own journey to Ithaca be a long and rich one.

      Cheers,
      Julian

  2. I also enjoy observing the changes that occur along the rivers that I visit. And I just love the colours in your river photos, Julian. What a beautiful place.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Cait! Delighted that you like the river photos; there is something deeply enriching about watching the changes take place over time, being part of a river’s process. And it is indeed beautiful – it never fails to impress me someway or other. Best wishes, Julian

  3. Julian, your images have captured the mysterious, meandering ways of rivers.

    When I think of Odysseus’ extended trip away from Ithaca, I wonder about Penelope and all the years she so patiently waited for her husband to return. Contrary to what Cavafy implies, I think Ithaca still had much left to give Odysseus upon his return.

    1. Wonderful to hear from you, Amy-Lynn! Thanks for stopping by and many thanks for the kind words about the images.

      Penelope has consistently been seen as an ideal of fidelity, patiently waiting 20 years for Odysseus’ return. And Odysseus’ voyage to Ithaca itself reveals much about the pull of home and the ties that bind. I agree with you completely when you say that Ithaca had much yet to offer him, and in a way it’s what makes Homer’s text so rich and enduring: the innumerable interpretations that have been cast down to us from this 8th century B.C story. Cavafy choose to see the return voyage as a symbolical journey, but what I find deeply interesting is how he turns the last sentence of the poem around so that it becomes Ithacas. His sudden use of the plural was perhaps a nod to the multiple ways of reading Homer and of how each of us might ultimately entertain a notion of a personal Ithaca. Perhaps our Ithacas our many, and your thoughts on a positive future that Penelope and Odysseus’ island home might still provide are shared by me. Many thanks for reading, and further thanks for the fascinating addition to the post!

  4. Julian, wonderful words and images. The last two photographs remind me a lot of Hiroshi Sugimoto´s works, specially a series called “Seascapes”. Very inspiring.

    Looking forward to reading your next post!

    1. Thanks so much, Pablo. Always a pleasure to hear from you. Although I haven’t seen much of Sugimoto’s work, the images that I have seen really speak to me. I adore what he does with the sparse shading and simple lines of horizons. It’s an astonishingly rich emptiness that he achieves within the frame. Inspiring indeed. Thanks again for stopping by.

      Cheers,
      Julian

  5. Sid..

    Another delightful piece; indeed you can’t step into the same river twice..and what a marvellous poem, after three reads of the Alexandria Quartet, I still havent chased Cavafy -shame on me! Lovely moody images that really evoke the tempest you describe..
    Here we are also nourished by the river in so many ways, my morning swim is against a hard current and it takes all my effort to reach the cave which is like a huge jacuzi, a turmoil of rolling boiling water (except its quite cold!), stabbed by shafts of sunlight. After letting this throw me around a bit, i join the current and let it joyfully carry me back to where I started..

    1. Thanks for the wonderful comment, Sid! I love the thought of working against the current in order to let go, allowing it to take you back the way you came. There is something of Eliot’s idea of returning to “know the place for the first time” in what you write: that the river always renews, as do you.

      I first got to know Cavafy through the Alexandria Quartet as well, and then a year or two ago read more about him through a terrifc book called ‘Alexandria: City of Memory’ by Michael Haag. The book recalls the cosmopolitan past of the great city, its flourishing of faiths and languages and races that is now all but gone. And so I began reading Cavafy in this rich and diverse light, and there are some wonderful gems to be found.

      Thanks again, Sid; the story of your morning swim has me thinking of different rivers and how they relate to our days. Such a lovely way to wind down the evening…

  6. On a much smaller scale, a little creek I visit regularly has taught me the power of water to shape the environment. Vegetation and surface strata disappear under the onslaught of spring run-off, only to be replaced later with new growth and accumulations. Game trails shift with the changes to skirt newly flooded depressions and open new pathways through the crowding willows. Cutting too deeply under a clay embankment, the creek is forced to find new egress when the bank gives way, forming a new base for establishing growth.

    As for Ithaca – I am too engrossed in the journey, the destination has probably received too little consideration.

    Julian, your evocative writing and images have again inspired me to think about the world in a fresh way. I am in your debt.

    1. Even the small creeks reveal so much; as Annie Dillard says in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “Perception is the embrace.” It’s like watching a mutable map reform again and again while we read it. And while there’s so much to continually engage our interest and imagination, maybe we should just let the destination take care of itself!

      I’m honoured that the work speaks to you in the way it does. I really am.

      Best wishes for the holidays, Cindy, to you and your family. May there be wonder in each moment.

      Your friend,
      Julian

  7. sir,
    ithaca such a great place.I really enjoyed you way to illustrate the describtion very nice as usual .onething i want to say that even when you went to anywhere you have seen somany wonderful scenery . but in my life i went to somany place but i never such a scenery any where .any way only thing is i can’t enjoyed the beauty like you iam not interested in it.but you give a wonderful article to enjoy the beauty of nature.
    NO WORDS TO SAY
    By ,
    nahila

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