Born near Boston in the US in 1974, Christopher Deliso knew he wanted to be a writer from the age of five. Even from a distance, early childhood reading of books like D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths fed his fascination with the ancient Mediterranean world, its histories, myths and ideas. From the late 1980s, this interest was furthered by his readings of the Mediterranean as depicted by the Romantic and Modern poets of Britain and Ireland. When he finally studied Byzantine history and philosophy as an MPhil student at Oxford University (1997-99), Christopher had also learned some Ancient Greek. He thus had a literary and academic background, which was soon complemented by practical experience (two Modern Greek Language summer schools in Thessaloniki, in 1998 and 1999). He also spent almost a month at the Orthodox monasteries of Mt. Athos – the first of many pilgrimages – in early 2000, and spent most of that year exploring the island of Crete, where he lived during the summer in a farmer’s hut without electricity while writing a novel and swimming during the day, and working in a souvenir shop. He has also lived and traveled in Turkey, Georgia, and the Balkans, living since 2002 in the (later, North) Macedonian capital of Skopje.
Christopher Deliso has published many travel articles in global media on Mediterranean countries, and has co-authored over 20 Lonely Planet travel guides to Greece, the Greek Islands, Crete, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, Western Balkans, Eastern Europe and Southeastern Europe. Christopher is also an author of literary research, essays, short stories, novels-in-progress such as detective-fiction tales sets in Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. His poetry on the Mediterranean is influenced by his historian’s background and 25 years of experience in the Mediterranean. His work is collected on his official website as well as on his Substack Traveller’s Literary Supplicant newsletter. His favorite pastime, along with writing, is swimming in the Mediterranean and enjoying the slow pace of island life.
Year of composition: 2000
Disaster: Italy could not be retaken.
Justinian’s empire can no longer be dreamt,
but the failure at least was magnificent.
The battered galleys of the Romans abandon
the west, where on the sinking sun gazes
an unfazed emperor.
Approaching Dyrrachium, the meaningless stars
meander, gleam, lazily glow
though the distant lights of the harbor make
irrelevant the craft of the navigator; he retires.
Murderous, clutching sacks of concave silver
the mercenaries disperse, scatter in the port’s dark
and back to their various homelands, or wherever
fortune will take them next. The rest
sullen set course for the capital.
At long last, Constantinople; acclamations resound, but anxiety, lest
accusations be aspected against those who planned it,
at strategists, tacticians, enthusiasts but
they need not repent; there will be no gouging today.
For the court must not be neglected;
Manuel’s entourage in entertainment delights.
Orchestrated merriment, the complements of charlatans
their banter endured, and court-songs, ornate
commingle, disperse on the Golden Horn.
The emperor is magnanimous, gives all a hearing
all encomiasts, annalists, metaphysicians
all who yearn for freedom from
the measureless slavery of the mortal scribe.
Outside, the hallways with murmurings swell;
has Manuel at last lost the favor of God? How else
can be explained the latest catastrophe? Inside
the revelry continues. At last!
The astrologers are announced.
Resplendent, the emperor receives them
from high smooth throne blazing
with ruby eyes of ivory
peacocks; the demonstrations begin.
Unlabored fingers uncover the astrolabe,
while carefully calfskin pages are flipped
in manuscripts ancient and tortured with symbols,
Greek numbers, Arab markings and spheres,
hemispheres and diagrams, scholia on Ptolemy.
Manuel is fascinated: the future holds much.
Discreetly, he does not inquire about
the Italian disaster, how that was not seen,
but presses ahead with exuberance to
the next great Roman conquest, disregards the rest;
for even the fixed stars will learn
to venerate a sun-king such as he.
Manuel II at Twilight
Year of composition: 2000
The door slams; it is dusk. The emperor
turns to Sphrantzes. ‘My son has
great aspirations, great ambitions; but
these are no longer our times. The
empire demands a caretaker.’
The courtier nods. The emperor gazes
at the soft light of the city, and beyond
at the stealthy mountains of Asia Minor,
shadowed and sunken in darkness, lost.
It has been dying for so many years he can’t
even feel it slip; but it will not die with them.
He has made his penitence to God, and the
monastery alone awaits. He remembers
what happened to Bayezid, where impudence leads
and the treachery of John, his own nephew, who
would have usurped
the pitiful corpse of dwindled Byzantium
had it not been for their merciful God.
In silence, Manuel prays.
And then for his own son, a different John
and his eager frustration
to get the war done with, but Manuel
cannot be too harsh – for he too
was impetuous once – ah, but
there was still hope then! When
he’d journeyed to England, even after Nikopolis
it still seemed the West could rise up,
literature sustained the emperor’s dreams;
he took shelter in the pen, and the wit of Kydones.
But Kydones is dead these twenty-four years.
The wind from the Bosporus rattles the pane; an
oil-lamp and manuscript await.
For tonight, again
an emperor still
Manuel will take solace in literature.
Sphrantzes in the Tower
Year of composition: 2000
Bitter, he traces a shape in the dirt,
a shape which he cannot see; from somewhere
in the darkness drips water. Insects and scurrying rodents erase
other shapes, the displeasures of other days.
He retraces the domes of the Chora.
A slab of rough bread, rock-hard, is flung
in through the bars of the tower. He fights
with the rats for it; his stomach can’t imagine it;
Sphrantzes longs for Byzantium, where
he’d be dining on pheasants and wine in the palace,
on sweet berries in Blachernae, and Black Sea fish!
Ah, miserable, mutable fortune! Cursing, he
scatters the dust, dissolving the domes of the Chora.
Pacing the tower, his round-plastered cell
Sphrantzes thinks back to that black day of
ambush, kicks dust-heaps, growls and how,
how had the rough-toned Italians not known
that he was ambassador, prime minister please!
They’d tossed him around like a barley sack
and now, thirty days dirty and gaunt,
beard-grizzled like some grazing monk!
He gasps; signs; contrition. On bended knees
Sphrantzes begs of the God he’s offended
whose works are precise, inscrutable, just
he must learn humility – he prostrates himself –
his toes so swollen from kicking the wall
the wall which has crumbled at one edge,
and Sphrantzes praises God for His mercy,
and feels in the dark for a stone,
a sharp one to scrape with.
Poetry in this post: © Christopher Deliso
Published with the permission of Christopher Deliso