- Cavafy the Byzantinist:The Poetics of Materiality
For me, the Byzantine period is like a closet with many drawers. If I want something, I know where to find it, into which drawer to look.—Constantine Cavafy (qtd. in Sareyannis and Haas 113)
Constantine Cavafy’s poetry renders an “illustrious” Byzantine past as a new world, one both alien and familiar to us at the same time.1 These poems that are tied to the places and people of the Byzantine world are made vivid and tangible through a remarkable set of poetic figurations. His Byzantium is a place brought to life through an exquisite materiality, and key poems such as “In the Church,” “Waiting for the Barbarians,” and “After the Swim” testify to the importance of this realm in his verse.2 These poems, which span through his years as a mature artist, therefore serve as touchstones for thinking about how he anchors his poetic universe of Byzantium in the fabric of sensory perception. Materiality in Cavafy’s work has received its most extensive exploration in Karen Emmerich’s recent doctoral dissertation, which pursues the path of the materiality of the physical manuscript tradition, taking as its inspiration the “visual turn” in literary scholarship (256).3 Emmerich’s work demonstrates Cavafy’s awareness of the importance of the physical traces of his work as a writer, corroborating what we will see emerge in the texts: an extraordinary sensitivity to the experience of the Byzantine places and objects he evokes. Cavafy’s Byzantine poems conjure up a palpable reality as the essence of their exploration of that overlooked period (Mahaira-Odoni 16). The overt appeal to the senses in Byzantine liturgy and visual culture grounds his depiction. Through a close reading of these poems, we can interpret these themes that shape his depiction of a Hellenic past in general and the Byzantine Empire in particular.
“In the Church” inscribes that layering of the past, namely the medieval Byzantine world, onto the experience of the present. It is such poems that have led to the recent characterization that “his faith was a matter less of belief than of pious observance” (Raphael 4). The opening exclamation [End Page 31] shifts to an enumeration of the church fittings, rendered in Daniel Mendelsohn’s translation as,
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I love the church—its labara,the silver of its vessels, its candelabra,the lights, its icons, its lectern.(1–3)
The discrete objects—not the building or the people of the church—absorb the watchful attention of the poem’s speaker. This opening list lingers over the shimmering things; the enticing gleam of the metal defines [End Page 32] the vessels (see Fig. 1). This quick inventory manages to capture a sense of initial observation, the unfolding perceptions on first stepping into the church. The suggestion that the shimmering quality of these things stands for the church might seem perversely superficial, but, on the contrary, Cavafy builds his Byzantine world from this transcendent materiality. His conjuration of the light-infused space of the Eastern Church rests also on centuries worth of Orthodox theology that interprets the material essence of these objects as intrinsic to their liturgical function.4
While only relatively recently have scholars of Byzantine art history begun a more serious investigation of “new materiality” within the study of visual culture, Cavafy many decades ago displayed a prescient understanding of how Byzantine structures once were and continue to be experienced. The ecclesiastical space of “In the Church” is defined by its resplendent surfaces, by the sensory experience of actually being fully present in a place. Other poems such as “Apollonius of Tyana in Rhodes” and “Of Colored Glass” utilize similar strategies for imparting upon their objects a special status as bearers of meaning (Bowersock, “Cavafy” 188–89). “Of Colored Glass,” for example, offers an “elegiac tribute” to the tribulations of the final centuries of Byzantium through this corporeity (Jeffreys, Eastern Questions...