Holst-Warhaft, Gail. Lucky Country. Burlington, Vermont: Fomite, 2018. RRP: US$15. 82pp. ISBN: 978-1944388676.
Several decades ago in Greece, I came across Gail Holst’s Road to Rembetika, which has since become a classic study in English, by Holst as musician, of a musical genre known as the ‘Greek Blues’. Two years ago in Athens, I attended her lecture on this topic at the American College of Greece.
Lucky Country, Holst-Warhaft’s latest poetry collection, does not, however, revisit the Greek terrain of ethnomusicology and its symbiotic connections with the Zeitgeist explored in previous publications, but quietly revisits the haunts of her youth, her family, and some places visited in early travels outside her Australian birthplace, as well as evoking scenes from her present home in Ithaca, NY, USA. The temporal trajectory of the poems spans several generations, while the associated geographic parameters arc across several continents.
Unlike the intense nostalgia for the lost homeland and regret for other misfortunes characteristic of Rembetika as a genre, many poems in Lucky Country are in some sense ‘homecoming’ poems—gently reminiscent and reflective, warmly infused with the insights of hindsight and maturity, while also, at times, plucking a wistful string in their awareness that the people and places of Holst-Warhaft’s early life continue to exist only in memory.
The collection comprises four parts: I. ‘Lucky Country’; II. ‘Grounded’; III. ‘The Body Forgets’; IV. ‘Three Poems for John Stallworthy (1/18/1935 – 11/19/2014)’. Part I,‘Lucky Country’—a term popular with immigrants to Australia of Holst-Warhaft’s father’s generation—comprising the first half of the book, focuses on scenes from childhood, dynamic portraits of the poet’s parents and other people and experiences that have left lasting impressions. The attenuation of distance appears from the outset: the opening poem, also titled ‘Lucky Country’, garners images of Holst-Warhaft’s father’s Cockney origins, and his shock at how much of the familiar has already faded, shrunk, or vanished when he takes his daughter back to show her his birthplace. The second poem, ‘Afghanistan, 1969’, reiterates this attrition with the telegram received there: ‘FATHER DEAD. CALL MOTHER./ In Kabul muezzins called down the night’ (5-7). ‘Legacy’ evokes an image of a Scots ancestress ‘somber on faded glass’ (8-9), while other poems also convey the sense of a moment captured for posterity, as in a photographic image, reminiscent of selections from a family album: fragments salvaged from time’s erasures. The final poem in this set, ‘Looking Down on the Lucky Country’, affords glimpses of and reflections on Australia viewed from an aircraft, extending the human timeline back to the arrivals of First Nations peoples:
[…] They knew
only one secret mattered: water
and where to find it, so they sang their way
across the land, memorizing each source,
bequeathing a map for survival… (29)
Part II, ‘Grounded’, continues the theme of flight in ‘Night Flight to Ithaca’, the poet’s homecoming through sleet to rejoin her husband. Embedded in the poem is a vignette of another perilous flight, out of Vientiane (Laos) in 1969. Whereas the poems in the first section speak mostly of the moment recaptured, the poems in ‘Grounded’ inhabit the moment, in places in and around the poet’s present home. Just as some of the poems in ‘Lucky Country’ (Part I) contain glimpses of this present place and time, some poems in ‘Grounded’ (Part II) offer glimpses of the poet’s past life in Australia, drawing comparisons and contrasts that her children, raised in North America, are oblivious of. Nevertheless, in contrast to the first section, these are mostly poems of the ‘near field’, taking pleasure in everyday life, moments illumined by fresh awareness, as in ‘On the Bridge at Treman Gorge’, where the poet learns from her son that
In nature […] nothing
is truly random;
The almost infinite
degrees of freedom in turbulent motion
should end in chaos but order creeps in,
an order the eye finds in disorder. (42)
Poetry, as Lucky Country attests, is another way of ordering experience.
In Part III, ‘The Body Forgets’, an oblique reference to Cavafy’s ‘Remember, Body’, seven poems revisit Naples, Bangkok, Lisbon, and reflect, in ‘Archaeology’, on the contents of sound archives, ending with ‘Pruning’, which asks ‘Does memory too need pruning?’ (56) The collection concludes with three poems for British poet Jon Stallworthy which comprise Part IV, in effect an epilogue to, and an elegy for, a long friendship.
The spare clarity of Holst-Warhaft’s poems distils an appreciation of the moment, as well as of who and what has gone before: a sense of a life well lived, rich in experience, in the spirit of Cavafy’s iconic and best-known poem, ‘Ithaca’. Although Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca’, with its echoes of Homer’s Odyssey, is not directly invoked, one senses that it, too, may be an ancestor, so it seems fitting to mention it here, in view of the fact that Holst-Warhaft’s home is now in a place called Ithaca, named for the Greek island from which Odysseus set out and to which he returned.
Queensland-based writer Jena Woodhouse is the author/compiler/translator of eight book publications in various genres, including three poetry collections, the most recent being Green Dance: Tamborine Mountain Poems (Calanthe Press, 2018). She has worked as a journalist in Athens (Greece) as well as a language teacher (English and Russian) and examiner, and editor for a university publishing house. She has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, and has in recent years been awarded writer’s residencies in Scotland, France, Ireland and Greece.