Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Cavafy the Byzantinist: The Poetics of Materiality

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Cavafy the Byzantinist: The Poetics of Materiality

Article excerpt

     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 bothalien and familiar to us at the same time. (1) These poems that are tiedto the places and people of the Byzantine world are made vivid andtangible through a remarkable set of poetic figurations. His Byzantiumis a place brought to life through an exquisite materiality, and keypoems such as "In the Church," "Waiting for theBarbarians," and "After the Swim" testify to theimportance of this realm in his verse. (2) These poems, which spanthrough his years as a mature artist, therefore serve as touchstones forthinking about how he anchors his poetic universe of Byzantium in thefabric of sensory perception. Materiality in Cavafy's work hasreceived its most extensive exploration in Karen Emmerich'srecent doctoral dissertation, which pursues the path of the materialityof the physical manuscript tradition, taking as its inspiration the"visual turn" in literary scholarship (256). (3)Emmerich's work demonstrates Cavafy's awareness of theimportance of the physical traces of his work as a writer, corroboratingwhat we will see emerge in the texts: an extraordinary sensitivity tothe experience of the Byzantine places and objects he evokes.Cavafy's Byzantine poems conjure up a palpable reality as theessence of their exploration of that overlooked period (Mahaira-Odoni16). The overt appeal to the senses in Byzantine liturgy and visualculture grounds his depiction. Through a close reading of these poems,we can interpret these themes that shape his depiction of a Hellenicpast 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 piousobservance" (Raphael 4). The opening exclamation shifts to anenumeration of the church fittings, rendered in DanielMendelsohn's translation as,

     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 thebuilding or the people of the church--absorb the watchful attention ofthe poem's speaker. This opening list lingers over the shimmeringthings; the enticing gleam of the metal defines the vessels (see Fig.1). This quick inventory manages to capture a sense of initialobservation, the unfolding perceptions on first stepping into thechurch. The suggestion that the shimmering quality of these thingsstands for the church might seem perversely superficial, but, on thecontrary, Cavafy builds his Byzantine world from this transcendentmateriality. His conjuration of the light-infused space of the EasternChurch rests also on centuries worth of Orthodox theology thatinterprets the material essence of these objects as intrinsic to theirliturgical function. (4)

While only relatively recently havescholars 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 howByzantine structures once were and continue to be experienced. Theecclesiastical space of "In the Church" is defined by itsresplendent surfaces, by the sensory experience of actually being fullypresent in a place. Other poems such as "Apollonius of Tyana inRhodes" and "Of Colored Glass" utilize similarstrategies for imparting upon their objects a special status as bearersof meaning (Bowersock, "Cavafy" 188-89). "OfColored Glass," for example, offers an "elegiactribute" to the tribulations of the final centuries of Byzantiumthrough this corporeity Geffreys, Eastern Questions 107). …

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