- Subterranean Histories:Constantine Cavafy and the Poetics of Memory
In the late spring of 2013, in those rare heydays when the city of Atlanta seems uniquely alive with colors and scents, I had the opportunity to speak with the Honorable Vassilios Gouloussis, who was then Greek Consul in Atlanta, in his Buckhead office. Gouloussis and I have enjoyed a long and meaningful collaborative friendship, and our wide-ranging conversation that day offered a welcome respite from the pressures of an academic semester just coming to an end. As our conversation about possible fall programming was nearing its conclusion, he leapt excitedly to his feet and began sifting through the papers on his desk. A cable had come from Athens earlier in the week, and it offered an enthusiastic reminder. UNESCO had declared 2013 as the Year of Constantine Cavafy (1863–1933), in recognition of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of that marvelous poet’s birth.
“We might consider doing something about this,” Vassilios suggested wryly. Indeed we might.
It all happened very quickly, and I was deeply moved by the enthusiastic responses I received from everyone with whom I discussed the possibility of celebrating the legacy of this coy, uncommon, and most lyrical of modern Greek poets. Three noteworthy scholars—Anne McClanan in art history (Portland State University), Mike Lippman in classics (University of Nebraska), and Gonda Van Steen in modern Greek literature (University of Florida)—all leapt at the chance to share their thoughts about this poet, who has obviously been an object of great admiration and a source of deep inspiration for all of us. Cavafy has a way of looking at everything that catches his poetic attention with an intriguing blend of historical whimsy, soft irony, luscious sensuality, and humane touch. These scholars expressed an immediate interest in examining how he used Homeric myth, Byzantine visual culture, and more nearly contemporary dramatic forms to advance a view of the past that brought it to life in an, at times, eerily necromantic manner.
Closer to home, friends and colleagues were similarly responsive. My good friend, Nickitas Demos, offered to organize a musical celebration of [End Page vii] Cavafy’s poetry, an event which gave him the opportunity to re-visit and to re-fashion an original musical composition inspired by Cavafy’s longest published poem (“Myris: Alexandria AD 340”) based on Gregory Jusdanis’s superb English translation. Pearl McHaney, then Director of Georgia State University’s far-reaching Center for Collaborative and International Arts (CENCIA) offered us considerable financial and administrative support, despite the fact that she did not know Cavafy. Yet. Other members of the Executive Committee of GSU’s Center for Hellenic Studies (Margo Alexander, Christos Galileias, Kathryn Kozaitis, Faidra Papavasiliou, Gerard Pendrick, and Lela Urquhart) all pitched in with their enthusiastic support and involved their students as well. It all came together with remarkable speed and elegance.
The two-day event, “Celebrating Cavafy,” took place on October 28–29, 2013. The first evening was devoted to the poet and his poetic craft. Our featured speakers and several local aficionados agreed to share their personal connection to and feelings for this most unique of all Greek poets. In addition, each of us agreed to read a poem. One of the most striking things about the evening was that virtually all of us mentioned Cavafy’s canonical 1911 poem, “Ithaka,” as one of his most influential and enduring pieces; in many cases, this was how we had first been introduced to Cavafy. But no one elected to read the poem. It was too close to all of us, perhaps, a more private token of some sort. Audience members who did not know the poem asked for it. And so, quite spontaneously, the leader of GSU’s Hellenic Student Association, Aikaterini Grigoriadou, who also happens to be an especially gifted musical performer, agreed to read the poem … first in Greek, and then in English translation. As the last lines dimmed into a profound silence (“As rich as you are now, with so much experience / you will surely know what these Ithakas mean”), many of us were choked up by an emotional pull...