Richard Tillinghast

Richard Tillinghast

Richard Tillinghast has published twelve books of poetry and five of creative nonfiction. His most recent publication is Journeys into the Mind of the World: A Book of Places, 2017. He has been the recipient of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the British Council, the Irish Arts Council, and other organizations. His 2012 travel book, An Armchair Traveller’s History of Istanbul, published in London, was nominated for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize. He has taught at Harvard, Berkeley, Sewanee, and the University of Michigan. Richard retired from teaching in 2005 and lived in Ireland for six years, moving back to this country in 2011. He now lives most of the year in Hawaii and spends his summers in Tennessee.


Constantinople, Cavafy, and the Mediterranean


One feels Istanbul’s connections with the Mediterranean world most strongly when one arrives by sea. The sight of the domes of Stamboul rising on one side and the Galata Tower on the other as one steams up from the Sea of Marmara is unforgettable. In harbours all over the Mediterranean, whether in Palermo or Malta, Tangiers, Venice and the Dalmatian Coast, or in Greek ports, the atmosphere lingers of a timeless maritime world as it existed throughout the millennia before air travel. Along the waterfront in Piraeus, the port of Athens, ferries and tugs manœuvre in and out among white cruise ships which loom sleek and enormous above the fleet of lesser craft. Along the quay, souvlaki stands and lemonade vendors do a brisk business. Women in black dresses, shawls and broken shoes, are roasting ears of corn over smoky braziers. Ancient Mercedes trucks overloaded with five-gallon olive oil containers and burlap bags stuffed with who knows what, rumble over the cobblestones, mixing their diesel exhaust with the fragrance of roasting lamb and corn on the cob. The noise of clanking metal, loud conversational Greek, internal-combustion engines, boat whistles and horns, mounts high on the decibel count.
         You locate a bookstore on a quiet street off the quay, a tiny place no larger or better lit than a cobbler’s or locksmith’s shop. It’s in business to supply the reading needs of travellers like yourself, in search of something in English to read on the beach, on trains, on a hotel terrace, in a café with little zinc tables and rough chairs set out under a big plane tree, where an old man pulls a white handkerchief out of his back pocket and ceremoniously dusts off the seat of his chair before sitting down, then claps his hands imperiously until the waiter appears with cold water and ouzo. Poorly stacked, in no kind of order, are orange- and blue-covered Penguins and Pelicans—Graham Greenes, Iris Murdochs and Lawrence Durrells, somebody’s dog-eared college text of Plato’s Republic with a dorm address at Wellesley College written on the inside fly-leaf, a copy of Mary Renault’s Bull from the Sea with a lurid cover. Here’s a copy of Prospero’s Cell, Lawrence Durrell’s book about Corfu, The Station, Robert Byron’s book about Mount Athos, and a volume of poems by C.P. Cavafy with Greek on one side and English on the other—Cavafy the Alexandrian, the Constantinopolitan, the patron saint of poets who love the demotic civilisation of the eastern Mediterranean.
         With this book in your pocket, you find a taverna. Your freighter sails at midnight, and you know you’ll get hungry during the night. Walk through to the kitchen as is the custom both in Greece and in Turkey, and point to one or two dishes that are simmering in big copper pots on the stove. As you eat and read, Achilles, Menelaos, Mark Antony, early Christians and late Pagans, the fourteenth century Byzantine emperor John Kantakuzinos—the dramatis personæ of Mediterranean history from the Trojan War to the Cavafy’s own afternoons in the tavernas of fin de siècle Alexandria—fill the little taverna as you eat lamb and aubergine, sopping up the juices with thick chunks of bread, chasing it down with retsina. All the human drama of the Mediterranean world is contemporary in Cavafy’s eyes. Or more precisely, it is contemporaneous. The fall of Troy and the fall of Constantinople are encompassed by the same long continuous moment.
         Midnight comes. You board the rusty old ship, provisioned for the night with a half-litre of ouzo and some bottles of cold water. Find a deck chair amidships on the starboard side and wrap your legs in a rough blanket. Light escaping the saloon makes it just possible to read Cavafy’s poems. Here is one called ‘Ithaka’:

                  As you set out for Ithaka
                  Hope the voyage is a long one . . .

The Mediterranean is a cat’s cradle of connecting threads, where space and time have become fused through trade, conquest, and the seepage of ideas. The robust bronze horses at St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice were plundered from the Hippodrome in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. The most perfect Greek temples are to be seen at Pæstum in southern Italy, and at Agrigentum in Sicily. Remember the gasps and smiles and cries of Che bella! from church-goers on Santa Lucia’s Day in the cathedral at Siracusa, built in the shell of the ancient temple of Diana, who crowded the darkened sanctuary holding up candles? They were seeing what seemed an apparition: a swarthy man with Arabic features carrying on his shoulders a blond angelic child, radiant bearer of Norman genes from the Medieval rulers of Sicily.
         And the prison camp on the far side of the island of Leros where enemies of the regime in the days of ‘the Colonels’ were hidden away—it spoke of a brutality that would not have shocked the Byzantines, one of whose favourite punishments was to cut off an offender’s nose and split his tongue. Cavafy’s Hellenism reflects not the morning of civilisation we associate with Classical Greek culture but rather its late afternoon, when human nature wore thin and became debased. These are latitudes that Cavafy’s book navigates, with, on one page, an orange stain the shape of a butterfly from the taverna’s stew. As you doze in your deck chair, feeling the ship roll, its engines strain as the old craft pushes north and east toward Byzantium.

At dawn the ship docks at a harbour in Crete whose name is unfamiliar to you—it’s hard to make out the Greek letters stenciled on the wall at the quay. Chandia perhaps. Cavafy seems to have got here first. In ‘Ithaka’ he writes:

                  May there be many a summer morning when,
                  With what pleasure, what joy,
                  You come into harbours seen for the first time.

On the quay is a half-effaced marble bas-relief of the winged Venetian lion of St Mark, his stone paw propping up the gospel. There’s one just like it in Üsküdar, and a couple of others that I have seen in Sultanahmet. No one seems to know how they got there. Overhead the blue-and-white Greek flag snaps in the sea breeze like the square sail of a Phœnician sloop. From the market on the quay a potpourri of scents blows offshore: pepper and cloves, sun-beaten Greek oregano and thyme and lavender. Perhaps this is the very harbour into which a ship sailed, packed with refugees including the last Cretan sailors to give up the fight, on the ninth of June, 1453, ten days after the decisive battle along the walls of Constantinople. A sailor on board calls out to those waiting on the quay: ‘The king of cities has fallen to the Anti-Christ!’ It would be a full month after the catastrophe that word reached Venice itself.


         for Nancy

The fish, the swordfish, Xiphias gladius in
Latin, swam deeply in the aquamarine—
Three hundred pounds of nerve, sleek and masterful
In his element.
Our table up the cliff shelved over the scene.

Swordfish was the plat du jour that day.
The cook there rubbed it with sea salt,
Garlic, crushed pepper, lemon from the lemon tree,
Kegged olive oil and thyme—
Then grilled it over local hardwood.
It was the best I’ve ever had.

The ocean depths were the zenith blue
Of our rented Fiat cinquecento.
A schooner skimmed over the lithe warrior in the water.
The harpoonist stretched out shirtless on the bowsprit,
His body one muscle, his arm a coiled rope.

That was before I understood about love.
I knew it would draw me into town over moonlit roads
To spend all my change on one song.
That it would keep me awake all night
And improve how the whippoorwill sang.

I wouldn’t have cared if I had driven the Fiat
Off the cliff, so long as we went over together.
You were twenty-two then,
Signorina, in the South of Italy,
And I wished I had packed a gun.

The long shadow swiftly blurred.
The spotter in the crow’s nest softly called
In soft Calabrian consonants the lovely word
For fish, which just then thrashed into a school of chub
And filleted a couple of dozen with his sword.

The harpoonist struck.
The three-yard pine shaft blew out for itself a tunnel
Of bubbles and disturbance.
And the blade that fishermen call a “lily”
Jabbed in just behind the gills.

The swordfish spasmed his long body-muscle,
Charged the little dory they had set out,
Stove out a plank or two just above waterline,
And then with the toothed sword jammed in up to his eyes,
The swordfish died.

That fish was lucky. He died there and then.
Pesce spada in Italian.
They lashed the carcass to the schooner,
Tied the wounded dory on behind,
And sailed into harbour.

All text/poems on this post: © Richard Tillinghast
Published with the permission of Richard Tillinghast