Besides being a poet, Gail Holst-Warhaft has been a journalist, broadcaster, prose-writer, academic, musician, and translator. Born in Australia, Holst-Warhaft lived for five years in Greece where she played harpsichord with Greece’s leading composers including Mikis Theodorakis and Dionysis Savvopoulos and wrote two books about Greek music and worked as a foreign correspondent. After moving to the United States in 1980 she completed a PH. D. in Comparative Literature at Cornell University, She directed the Mediterranean Initiative in the Institute for European Studies at Cornell and taught in the departments of Comparative Literature and Biological and Environmental Engineering.
Among Gail Holst-Warhaft’s many publications are Road to Rembetika, Theodorakis: Myth and Politics in Modern Greek Music, The Collected Poems of Nikos Kavadias, Dangerous Voices: Women’s Laments and Greek Literature, The Cue for Passion: Grief and its Political Uses, Penelope’s Confession, (poems), The Fall of Athens, (poems, essays and stories about Greece, Fomite Press, 2016), and Lucky Country, (poems, Fomite, 2018) and The Houses With the Scorpions: Selected Poems and Song Lyrics of Mikis Theodorakis. She has published translations of Aeschylus and a number of modern Greece’s leading novelists and poets. Her poems and translations of Greek poetry have appeared in journals in the US, UK, and Australia. Her translations of the poet Nikos Kavadias won an award from Columbia University.
for Nikos Kavadias
I sailed five years with you
aboard Greek cargo ships that left
Piraeus for Marseille, Aden for Port Salut,
Bilbao to Swansea through the Bay of Biscay
in whose choppy waters you wrote a poem
rhyming it so charmingly with whiskey.
You chose to spend your life at sea,
a radio officer on merchant boats,
but your nights were filled with poetry.
You wrote of sailors, cats, and brothels,
of Baudelaire and Titian, Pierre Loti and Poe,
the boatswain, drunk, with a girl and two bottles.
Your first book of verse was called Marabou
for an African stork you saw onshore,
a bird that seemed “lonely and foolish” as you.
Your body was covered in tattoos, a rite
of passage for sailors–my father’s so faint
I could only see it in strong light.
Your greatest fear was to die on land–
you’d bequeathed your body to the sea you loved–
and yet you lie under a marble slab.
You cheated the shark that swam by the prow
on nights when you sent an SOS
and waves broke over the starboard bow.
We never met but I knew you well;
standing beside you on the bridge at night
as we braced against the heavy swell
and you told me about a tropic port
where you bought a monkey and drank absinthe
and I forgot each painful thought.
For years I spent my days translating
you, companion of my working days–
I tried to make your verses sing.
And now I see what waits for me,
the dark shape that swims alongside,
keeping my rusty ship company.
In the empty square waiters pass
with trays held high and I talk to the dead.
Won’t you sit
a while in your brown tweed jacket,
your yellow shirt? Smoke as much
as you like — it doesn’t bother me.
Tell me of your new play, recite a poem,
rejoice in the morning sun, you
look splendid. For once we can talk
I won’t forget
a thing. You light another cigarette
with trembling hands.
The poet limps
towards us, orders ouzo.
What are you writing? Always the same —
love, the body, words that roll
onto the page when a lover leaves.
Oriste, yeia mas!
Health to us all, or those who
still have health to worry about.
We’re beyond that. Moved on,
crossed over. We obey the summons
of memory. When that falters, we fade.
Penelope is at work again.
this time her warp and weft
are blue, two shades so close
They merge into a single
essence of blueness like the sea,
sky, and mountains of summer
that defy the eye’s desire
for delimited zones.
Into this shimmer she works
a single ship, the lone
figure in the prow a woman,
hair streaming behind,
breasts bared, a touch
of carmine on the open lips
that seem to be singing
A siren’s song: the blues.
Poetry in this post: © Gail Holst-Warhaft
Published with the permission of Gail Holst-Warhaft