Poetry of ‘Penelope’s Confession’

What is poetry? That’s rather a loaded question. Webster’s dictionary defines poetry as «the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative or elevated thoughts.» So if poetry is written or spoken, what is its relation to song? Weren’t the first poems – so-called epic poetry – sung? But wouldn’t that then make poetry music? It is clear that there is a very fine line between music and poetry. We tend to think of the one as sung and the other as written or read. But many artists have set poetry to music, and there are others who argue that the lyrics to many songs are poetry. And what about rhythm? Does poetry have to rhyme? Most modern critics would say it doesn’t, just as song doesn’t need to rhyme or have a rhythm except for the sounds of the notes or words themselves. But much of what we consider conventional or strict poetry does have a rhythm, a meter or a measure, from Japanese haiku to Shakespearean sonnets. And if that is so, what happens to poetry when it is translated into another language? What happens when its meter is transformed into the measure of another tongue? Then we’d have to look to the rest of the definition of poetry: «the art of composition… for exciting pleasure by beautiful imaginative or elevated thoughts.» It is imaginative or elevated thought that sets poetry apart from prose. All this is the musing set in motion by a slim volume of poetry recently published in a bilingual edition. «Penelope’s Confession,» a book of poetry of just over 100 pages by Gail Holst-Warhaft, an Australian by birth with a long connection to Greece, has just been published by Cosmos Publishing in the USA. The 33 poems in its pages have been rendered in both English and Greek, some translated by the author herself but others by such established Greek poets as Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke and Kyriakos Charalambides. The poems don’t necessarily rhyme, nor do they need to. Holst-Warhaft, also an accomplished musician (see box), has written a collection of poems that sing off the pages. As alluded to by the book’s title, she has used as a common theme for many of the pieces the ancient Greek mythological character of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and identified with her in poem after poem after poem. When Odysseus joined the men going off to fight the Trojan War, his wife was left behind to hold the fort. She is said to have spent her time raising their son and weaving a tapestry that she would then undo each night while various suitors vied for her hand (and the kingdom) thinking her husband lost or dead. It is said to have taken Odysseus another 10 years to return to the island of Ithaca at the end of the 10-year war – adventures described in Homer’s epic «The Odyssey» – while his wife waited faithfully, becoming an image synonymous with fidelity. In the majority of the works in this collection, such as «Unraveling,» «Your Name» and «The Cost of Wandering,» Holst-Warhaft has taken on the persona of that ancient figure and speaks to us of Penelope’s experience, reworking the legend of the patient queen into the voice of the modern woman – all women. By draping herself, so to speak, in the chiton of Penelope – or Andromache, Eurydice or even Clytemnestra (all represented here) – the author uses that costume to expound upon the many subjects that are common to so many women – relationships, trust, motherhood, patience and even war. It is this imaginary voice expressing archetypal desires or disappointments that make these poems so haunting, accessible and original. Her insights into the possible feelings of this universal symbol of fortitude and constancy bridge the centuries and give the poems a rich immediacy. Here is part of «The Recognition Scene:» «That night he knew her and she knew him/ but was he her man or did she decide/ he was hers by right of abstinence. And did he know she didn’t know/ him by a puckered scar but sense/ she was his by her own compliance?… Already she’s paid the price of knowing/ another body: her body’s greed/ for further knowledge. Her right to him/ can never be guaranteed;/ her only surety is her body’s need.» Holst-Warhaft has taken this classical legacy that has survived for untold generations, delved into it and made it wondrously personal. Although the majority of the poems explore the emotions of the famous queen in response to her legendary situation and give them a modern voice, in others Holst-Warhaft has transposed her heroine into the contemporary world, as in this stanza from «Late Spring:» «…Penelope waits/ but what she waits for/ she can’t say./ Boats come and go/ bringing supplies/ for a siege: beer,/ bicycles, girls, bottled water/ that will last till October/ wearing away/ the island’s defenses…» In others, the author uses the ancient heroine’s voice to articulate her own views, as in this anti-war piece: «Penelope’s love of poetry/ has left her. She knows what men do/ seduced by its coquetry./ Did anyone give his life/ for Agamemnon’s redhead brother/ or his vain and vagrant wife?/ Pretexts are always sought/ for the wars men choose – / sufficient cause in afterthought./ There will always be a city/ rich in gold and ripe/ for plunder, its girls pretty,/ and men eager for the sounds/ of their names on a poet’s tongue/ holding posterity spellbound.» It would be nice to think that any actual Penelope was as much a feminist, and as modern. It is to Holst-Warhaft’s credit that her interpretations of this regal figure of forbearance speak so dynamically and ring so true. The short addendum of 10 poems at the back of the book on other subjects are just as strong. In this collection, with the English on one side and the Greek translation opposite, Holst-Warhaft has composed poems that excite pleasure by taking the dimensions of a somewhat sad fable and elevating them into an imaginary realm. «Fidelity:» «When all this becomes myth/ what woman worth her lover’s/ salt will wish herself/ Penelope? For another’s/ infidelity she has lived/ her life on the threshold,/ slave to the harlot, Hope./ She’s led a dog’s life.» A condensed biography of the author Gail Holst-Warhaft is a professor of classics and comparative literature at Cornell University where she teaches classes on Mediterranean Studies. She has a PhD in comparative literature and has translated numerous Greek authors and poets, including Aeschylus, Nikos Kavvadias, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, Alki Zei, Mikis Theodorakis and Iakovos Kambanellis, as well as being the author of a number of books on Greek literature, music and politics. Her first book, written in 1975, was «Road to Rembetika: Music of Greek Sub-Culture,» during the research for which she played the keyboard in the orchestras of Mikis Theodorakis, Dionysis Savvopoulos and Mariza Koch. Her poems have been published in anthologies and periodicals in the USA, the UK, Australia and Greece.