Dimitra Harvey reviews Fragments by Antigone Kefala
by Antigone Kefala
Reviewed by DIMITRA HARVEY
Stark, radiant imagery; lean punctuation; the slightly disorienting effect of the syntax; an imaginative vision of sensuous waking life enmeshed in subterranean realms of memory and dream, struck me on my first encounter with Australian poet Antigone Kefala’s work: an English-Greek bilingual edition I stumbled across several years ago containing selections from each of her then published collections, The Alien (1973), Thirsty Weather (1978), European Notebook (1988), and Absence (1992). Fragments (2016) represents Kefala’s first collection of new poems in more than twenty years. Like those earlier collections, Fragments effects Banksy’s famous maxim, that ‘art should…disturb the comfortable’.
The voice of Fragments travels across countries – cities and shorelines, edgelands, bushland, and dream – as it attends to states of grief and aging, to the intricate entanglements of sensory experience, memory, and imagination. Kefala’s attention to these entanglements disrupts what theorists Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch conceived as the ‘political-cultural construct’ of modernity – the ‘seamless continuum’ of rectilinear time (Seremetakis 19-21). Oriented towards the past, rendered ambiguously as ‘a coolness / we thirst for… / a poison / we thirst for’ (7), and by which the present is constantly interrupted, judged, made sense of, and ‘reimagine[d]’ (75) – the collection resists the future-orientation of setter-colonial society, its practices of’ ‘concealment’ and ‘amnesia’ (Rose 16, 11).
Kefala engages the senses with startling vividness. Fireworks pour from the Sydney Harbour Bridge as ‘a rain of stars… / crushing against the polished / marble of the waves’ (25). The eyes of kangaroos are ‘large sequins / splashing in the night’ (31). In the divers of ‘The Bay’ (26), we meet ‘strange amphibious creatures / with black rubber skins / wrestling the waves’. Throughout Fragments, the interplay of sensuousness and memory evokes non-linear temporalities. In the opening poem, ‘the sound’ of a voice thrusts from memory to synaesthetic presence: the speaker feels her ‘veins full of ice’ as the voice ‘travel[s] / at high speed / releasing fire’. The sensory-emotional cascade ruptures unilinear time as the speaker observes ‘this return / the past attacking / unexpectedly / in the familiar streets’ (3). Akin to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s concept of time-knots, which identifies ‘a plurality of times existing together, a discontinuity of the present with itself’ (in Rose 25), in Kefala’s poem we witness the past violently rupture the present – ‘return[ing]’, resisting closure – and implicating the experience of time in layered, cyclical trajectories.
Trajectories of return permeate the collection. In poems such as ‘On Loss’ (40), remembering the dead embodies the ‘contradictory, equivocal, and ambiguous’ return of exhumation (Danforth 69). As anthropologist Loring Danforth points out, ‘the return that takes place upon exhumation should be an occasion for joy. But an exhumation is not a joyous return…The exhumed remains are above ground, no longer separated from the world of the living, yet they are only bones’ (66-69). In ‘Letter II’ (4), the ‘light…clean as if made of bones / dried by a desert wind’ reminds the speaker of the ‘you’ she addresses. The implication is clear: that person is dead, the body decomposed. The poem pivots on the paradox of being a letter to one who is no longer alive to read it – reminiscent of poems such as Donald Hall’s ‘Letter with no Address’ (103); however, in Kefala’s poem, the crystal hardness of the imagery generates the aura of a rite. Light exhumes memory even as it returns knowledge of total separation: ‘nothing will bring you back’. Like the ‘hard white bones’, evincing ‘[t]hat which has been separated so painfully cannot be rejoined… and the contradiction between our lives and our deaths can never be resolved’ (69), the speaker in ‘Letter II’ acknowledges that there is ‘only this light / falling… / in an unbearable indifference’.
Kefala links the seasonal cycles with aging and death. The title of ‘Moon Wolf’ (33) reverses the Native American seasonal term, specifying the full moon of midwinter associated with death vis-á-vis extreme cold and scarcity. The speaker sees the moonlight ‘aiming at [her], swooping down / a bird… / its hollowed eyes / pencilled in crimson / its incandescent tail… / searing through the air / …closing in / burning the ground’. The sense of the speaker as prey and her awareness of her mortality crystallise in the image. In the suggestion that the speaker has approached the ‘winter’ of her life, the threat and proximity of death is intimated as both material fact and something that preys upon her mind. This is unnervingly intensified in the final observation of the moon’s light stalking ‘at [her] feet’: ‘the white wolf / the tense arch of its back / blue phosphorescence’.
The cyclical trajectory of aging emerges within poems such as ‘Letter to Chitra’ (42), where the subjects take on the appearance of pre-adult states: ‘Our friends are… / holding themselves / in their emaciated bodies / exposed faces that have acquired / the look of adolescence’. In ‘Birthday Party’ (67), ‘she was waiting on the couch / very pale, white dusted / incredibly small now… / not coping with her glasses / that had grown / to a giant size’. Much of Fragments meditates on the physical and psychological impacts, as well as social alienation, of aging, in a culture that largely dismisses its elderly; ‘a culture’ – as Dmetri Kakmi points out, ‘that has set a taboo on ageing, and makes a cult of youth and the inordinate preservation of the body’ (103).
The biting poem ‘The Neighbour’ (43) lists the actions carried out after an elderly woman dies:
On Monday, she said
they took her away
the dog was put down
the furniture went.
And poor bob
still at the Resting Home
that nice place
the walls white, the bed covers red
and he sitting there in his pyjamas
unaware of the maple coffin
and she lying dead
and all the lovely flowers.
The noting of perfunctory tasks trivialises the woman’s death, reducing her life to material fragments, easily dismantled. The casual, conversational tone amplifies the brutal apathy of the failure to notify the nursing home-bound husband, making the poem a pointed critique of neglect.
In ‘Day by Day’ (75), cycles and seasons correlate with backwards and downwards trajectories that gesture to moral accountability. The speaker’s observation of ‘another spring / the peach tree in flower again’ spurs the looping verse of the second stanza: ‘backwards me turn / we turn backwards / measure our failures’. ‘Day by Day’ contests the ‘deflection of responsibility’ embedded within what Deborah Bird Rose describes as the Australian settler-colonial ‘paradigm of progress’. Oriented to the ‘future that will emerge from, and will be differentiated from the present’, as the present was from past, and through which ‘current contradictions and current suffering will be left behind’, ‘progress’ encourages ‘us to turn our backs on… social facts of pain, damage, destruction, and despair’(16-18). Yet for the speaker of ‘Day by Day’, the past appears as neither closed nor disjunctive with the present. Retrojection enables her to ‘measure our failures / with infinite patience’. Kefala traces the past underfoot as well, with pigeons ‘assiduously tapping the earth’ alluding to the underworld and the dead who become soil where the peach tree sets roots. In order to ‘reimagine the times’, we also must ‘assiduously’ touch, tap, turn up, examine the past. Kefala resists the notion that we should ‘accept an account of history that enables us to feel “comfortable and relaxed”…[or that] amnesia should surround that which causes discomfort’ (Rose 11).
Poems such as ‘The Snake’ (48), ‘The Fatal Queen’ (50), and ‘Pilgrim’s Tales’ (51), also offer resistance to these paradigms, embodying the ‘post-mythic’ storytelling mode explicated by anthropologist Nadia Seremetakis (31). The speaker of ‘The Snake’ situates herself and an accomplice – possibly the reader – in the narrative: ‘Dusk, the two of us / waiting in silence / at the waterhole’. She describes a failed attempt to seize a powerful, ancestral-like being, evoking the ‘substance and fragments of myth’, and fusing them to the present. The omission of the verb ‘to be’ (i.e. ‘are’ or ‘were’) in the first stanza, as well as the final stanza, ‘We still at the edge / watching the water’, makes the tense ambiguous, inferring and enmeshing multiple temporalities, creating ‘passageways between times’. ‘The Snake’, and others like it, interrupt contemporary ‘myths’ which quarantine the past from the present and portray them ‘as separate homogeneities’ (Seremetakis 31).
Kefala’s critics over forty years have almost obsessively characterised her poetry as ‘foreign’. A great deal has been made of the fact she’s a migrant, and of her writing’s (non-Anglo-Celtic) European, and apparently therefore ‘un-Australian’ sensibilities (Duwell in Radford 200; Page in Gunew 210). But perhaps these characterisations demonstrate more the insularity of the hegemonic white literary landscape. These characterisations enable Kefala’s critics to cauterise the disruptive ethical and cultural implications of her work, which remains firmly rooted in the modern Australian condition.
Dandforth, Loring M. The Death Rituals of Rural Greece. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press 1982. 66-69.
Gunew, Sneja. ‘“We the only witness of ourselves”: Re-reading Antigone Kefala’s work’. Ed. Vrasidas Karalis & Helen Nickas. Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey. Melbourne: Owl Publishing 2013. 210.
Hall, Donald. The Selected Poems of Donald Hall. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2015. 103.
Kakmi, Dmetri. ‘On Poems – a bilingual edition in Greek and English’. Ed. Vrasidas Karalis & Helen Nickas. Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey. Melbourne: Owl Publishing 2013. 103.
Radford, Kristian. ‘Antigone Kefala: Alien Poet’. Ed. Vrasidas Karalis & Helen Nickas. Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey. Melbourne: Owl Publishing 2013. 200.
Rose, Deborah Bird. Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press 2004. 11, 16-18, 25.
Seremetakis, Nadia. The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1996. 19-21, 31.
DIMITRA HARVEY has a Bachelor of Performance Studies from the University of Western Sydney and a Master of Letters in Creative Writing from the University of Sydney. Her poems have appeared in Southerly, Meanjin, Mascara, and Cordite, as well as anthologies such as The Stars Like Sand and A Patch of Sun. In 2012, she won the Australian Society of Authors’ Ray Koppe Young Writer’s Residency.