Fragments by Antigone Kefala, Giramondo Poetry 2016
Antigone Kefala’s work spans decades; it is some of the most spare and eloquent writing about what it means to be a woman writer traversing the cultural institutions of writing and publishing in this country. This essay focuses on Fragments, her long awaited and much anticipated collection of poetry, almost twenty years in the writing, and published in 2016. As its title suggests, Fragments is replete with poems that address the fragmentation of human life, her own and others, across various physical and psychic landscapes that are themselves in the process of erosion. In representing the immediacy and specificity of everyday encounters, the poems succeed in metaphorically subjecting time – in the sense of the time of reading the poetry together with our aesthetic appreciation of its formal techniques – to both its suspension, and its decay.
My own introduction to Antigone’s work was in the early 1970s when I stumbled across a short piece published in the weekend edition of The Australian. My memory of that dense, tiny dot of a poem is of how in reading it I felt suspended somewhere between ‘here’ and another temporality which seemed both familiar and unrecognizable to me. Its cultural significance in being published in The Australian was not lost on me, especially as a second-generation Australian schoolgirl of Greek heritage who had never read anything by any immigrant writer. Voices like Antigone Kefala’s were rarely heard in Australia’s cultural institutions at that time. They would circulate as fragments, scattered here and there. For me, the title of the collection Fragments alone evokes this wider sense of the history of immigrant women’s writing over the past forty years which includes the struggles to speak from within the major cultural institutions and in doing so, to be heard as carrying the poetic authority often attributed to groups other than those of post war immigrants.
In her early prose, Antigone Kefala traced the conjoined question of identity and genre in representing the institutional forces that informed her writing as an immigrant woman. Identity as such, however, was never represented by her as a singular subject position from which she could only be heard to speak as an immigrant, commonly understood as an object for sociological enquiry. Her work has always been keenly aware of how the reception of immigrant writing in this country has tended to erase the plurality of immigrant identity as it is formed through traversing and mediating specifically literary forms of subjectivity.
Fragments, similarly, poses questions for me about the adequacy of poetic forms in representing a culturally hybrid identity such as Kefala’s, particularly alongside the prevailing views of identity as something that fits securely and seamlessly into everyday life and that continuously arises out of a transparently traditional past. Her textual practice is more than capable of providing a fragmented and dislocating representation of identity. Moreover, her poetry’s preoccupation with fragmentation works as a condition of speaking poetically precisely as a disruptive partial presence, to use Homi Bhabha’s definition of the hybrid. For Kefala, the haunting presence of the past that reappears in her poetry and prose lies in the spaces and time of repetition itself, where it is released through her fondness for uncanny imagery and lyrical rhythms.
In tracing the force of her cultural identity which also persists in the trajectories of her memories the poems do indeed offer creative solace to daily life. However, memory and culture also enter into her poetry as the very material that is itself subject to decay, and in this sense, the collection’s focus on how identity is irrevocably fragmented over time is grafted onto the experience of aging as an immigrant woman writer. Such writing about the fears and desires that accrue in one’s store of memories over time and multiple cultural displacements only to be released unexpectedly further down the track in old age, foregrounds the disjunctions between past and present which put simply, are not overcome in looking to the future.
The collection is acutely aware of how memories are about the power of the past in assaulting one and as a consequence, splintering the sense of a unified self in the present, almost as a dramatic psychic dislocation of time from space, and also within the time of the poet/subject herself. Her interest in the personal and cultural ruptures between past and present, time and space shares many of the concerns of Australian modernism, especially in terms of modernism’s preoccupation with cultural homes for the diversity of new voices in Australian literary production. If anything, Fragments, construes being at home culturally not as a question about ‘belonging’ to a place of departure or arrival so much as becoming haunted in and by her new homes of culture as much as by her old. In this sense, Fragments’ poetic voice is attuned to the local landscapes which she describes as resonating with the silence that overrides Australia’s disavowed white colonial and immigrant histories of dispossession, including her own partial presence in this literary environment.
The opening poem of the collection, ‘The Voice’ introduces this preoccupation with time not only as personal history or memory; it also establishes a sense of her poetry’s complicity with the splintering effects and affects of memory on the individual, particularly memories that are neither sought nor valorized by the poet, but which nonetheless speak for her. Most obviously, the poem represents the dramatic moment of a shock of recognition, a voice from her past that triggers unwelcome memories:
At the sound
my veins full of ice
at high speed
Suddenly unsafe in the familiar surroundings of the present, simultaneously frozen and intensely self aware, this injection of menace from the past turns the poet into the target of time itself, she is frozen. Yes, this is a poem about a bad unbidden memory that is triggered in hearing a familiar voice, but it’s also about memory’s irresistible and possessive force. In a flash, this voice which is significantly described as ‘the sound’ is also of the poem, arising out of the drama of the very moment it is created as a subject for the poem. It is in this sense, then, that her recognition of the disembodied sound as a voice from her past works also as a form of self-recognition – and it is that which I think makes her a poet of subjectivity.
Moreover, the dramatic speed with which this unwelcome memory ambushes the poet, threatening a type of annihilation in destroying her peace of mind, points to the vulnerability of the self, in particular, to the memories that may splinter self awareness, thus exposing her to the experience of a force which is more than capable of dislocating the present moment, in an instant. I’m also thinking here of how individual identity is multiplied by one’s memories so that the self no longer feels like a discrete repository of past experiences collected over time and in familiar spaces, somehow firmly grounded in the present. The voice from the past in and of this poem takes that sense of poetic subjectivity that may seem fully self aware and transparent to itself, as its departure point. It does not, however, supersede it.
And nor does the future offer solace to the aging poet, for it is quite literally faceless, that is to say, devoid of any traces of self recognition; memories quite simply do not extend back from there. Nonetheless, there is always a sense of being on the threshold of sense in encountering the opacity and materiality of poetic language and cultural identity, even when or perhaps most especially, when it is a clarity that is ‘light …clean as if made of bones,’ to use an image from the ensuing poem in the collection, ‘Letter II’. Here, the persistence of feelings of loss and grief are being eroded imperceptibly by the natural forces of decay. The quality of light itself, as the trace of her grief is embodied as a material form that is subject to erasure:
The light today
Clean as if made of bones
Dried by a desert wind
Fell in the distance on the roofs
And I remembered you.
What is most poignant about this poem’s representation of bereavement is the redoubling of loss that is barely spoken but nonetheless, delicately registered in the images of how the intense memories, the feelings, may fade over time, even in their return. This, however, is no compensation for her loss, because ‘Nothing will bring you back’. (The negative logic of ‘the loss of the loss’ just doesn’t work like that.) The final line, ‘And I remembered you’ implicitly suggests its opposite, the forgetting out of which the poem’s memory arises, and the entropy laying waste to memory.
Compensation for loss, when it is felt, is felt paradoxically. In ‘On the Bus’, the poet has recourse to the moment, but in the instant of recognizing the present moment, the now of the present, she also recognizes its commensurate, fleeting nature. She feels herself suspended in this linear progress of moments that succeed one another but she is also inexorably moving towards her own (bus) stop which is the moment of her own stopping in death. ‘On the Bus’, I think exemplifies this idea of being suspended not just within a moment but also within the erosion of time. Its apprehension in the poem is a moment of recognition that coincides inseparably with the loss of the moment.
From being transported in a state of temporary suspension to being transported joyously by aesthetic experience, Kefala’s poetry is also about the affect of movement, of being moved not only from one space to another, but between states of mind that correspond with death and life. In the final poem, ‘metro cello’, she plays on ideas of ascending and descending. The cello music emanating from the underground, as if from a tomb, is a musical movement implicitly likened to that of Persephone’s return, measuring the energizing albeit temporary force of aesthetic forms against the natural force of death. Indeed, this measure’s temporary nature is addressed in a number of the poems, not always so positively. In ‘Poem for Chitra’, for example, Kefala speaks to her dead friend and former fellow writer, Chitra Fernandez:
Our friends are listening
In the darkness of the theatre
in their emaciated bodies
exposed faces that have acquired
the look of adolescence.
The physical fragility of the human body described here so movingly also suggests the tragic uselessness in attempting to counter nature’s force by identifying with art:
they live vicariously
the fatal prophecies.
The implication is that the poet is one who does not forget ‘the fatal prophecies,’ that she moves within them in a measured manner so as not to appear pitiful. And indeed, Kefala’s poetry does carry a sense of fatalism as a distancing affect, one that seems to work aesthetically and psychically in forestalling self-pity and enabling a dignified stance in the face of aging and the inevitability of death. Talking to the dead about the living, ‘our friends,’ behind their backs, what is more, suggests precisely that movement into the acceptance of the decay at work in everyday life and also in art.
But lived experience without recourse to the means of adequately representing it, may itself be a type of death, ‘a great forgetfulness,’ as it is in the poem ‘Diviner II’ which addresses the pressure of time and distance on refugees’ memory:
Obsessed with the great depths
could not find other measures
watching the waters in the evening
you traced the way
a great forgetfulness.
Sometimes, a ‘great forgetfulness’ is the only appropriate approach in mediating the experience of unfathomable pain, if only because it seems commensurate with great suffering but without the risk of reliving the trauma. The cost however, is for the refugee to be left with only traces of memory, disconnected from one’s cultural identity and unable to articulate how and why one’s dislocation matters, let alone be heard to matter. Kefala doesn’t speak for refugees; she does not take on the accent of the other in this poem, even though she herself was first a refugee from Romania, and then an immigrant to New Zealand and finally to Australia. Rather, the poem suggests something of the contradictions and differences between the representation of experience and lived experience especially in the context of refugees who can neither return to their homeland, nor speak easily of their past, a past which continues to haunt them in the process of becoming an unspeakable place in the present, simply a trace.
Other poems, however, draw on her immediate physical surroundings to create a sense of time’s passing from within the timelessness of poetic inspiration. In ‘Noon’ the clarity and concentration of the language plays with how our attention is distracted, grabbed and then shifted, moving our perspective from the ground up into the imagination. The simple opening lines: ‘Only a lizard / riding the dry leaves’ suggest that there is nothing special going on here, but they are of course, a dry introduction to the ensuing lines about fluidity, about the ascending and descending qualities of poetry, its power to move us, to touch us, through its admixture of musicality and tactile imagery:
such silk, that fell
and rose, heavily,
singing through the air.
At the heart of this gem, in the proximity of poetry to the motility of the senses, the stirring of the senses, lies waste – there it is again, inescapably, in the sound of the ‘dry leaves’ wherein lies the ‘fatal prophecy’ of the poem, and indeed of the collection. Ascending and descending in time much like aging or music itself, the poet’s (moving) breath structures the poem’s affect of loss as an extended song which also hints at the final expiration.
Fragments includes many fine poems which create a memorable sense of place in the Australian landscape – indeed there are poems that are almost elegiac in their compassionate view of the fragility of the land and others which are wryly observed commentaries on Sydney’s splashy-splashy displays of ironic sophistication, that is its summer art’s festival atmosphere (present company excepted). From these, I offer, by way of conclusion, a reading of ‘The Ringbarked Trees’ a poem from the second section which is entitled, somewhat ironically, ‘First Encounter’. Here, the poetry returns to the repetitions which mark the nature of the persistence of the past in her work. Time is not anchored in the sequential or the timeless, but is represented as an energy that is depleted through waiting, which is seen in the landscape that has been laid to waste by it. Its enervating affect is more akin to an unsettling gothic return of the repressed whereby the violence of an original rupture is returned in the poem as something that is at once in the process of reappearing, as if stuck in the scene of the traumatic event, and also eroding perceptibly.
The haunting opening line of ‘The Ringbarked Trees’ positions the reader in their first encounter with just such a return alerting us to the condition of possibility of the poem itself: ‘They came in the evening’. This is a striking insertion of Australian history into the poetic time of the evening without, however, becoming an allegorically drawn moral tale about that history’s content. ‘They’ here refers to the dead stands of the ringbarked native forests which have been robbed of their time through the programmatic violence of state-sanctioned deforestation. Note that the tree ring is a measure of trees’ time, and that they have been killed in a way that recalls the line from an earlier poem, ‘Memory’ published in European Notebook, ‘They steal my time’. In ‘reanimating’ the dead trees in the time of the poem, Kefala en/counters the ongoing effects of white colonialism clearly mediating an environmentalist discourse together with Australian discourses of identity politics and Aboriginal histories of struggle:
their maimed arms rigid
the movement that had stretched
towards the sky cut off with
a sword of fire.
The arresting rhythm of the first stanza together with its imagery of arrested movement is nothing short of a masterful representation of a rupture in time, almost mythic in its reference to “a sword of fire”. While the living presence of the trees alone appears as the senseless excuse for the war waged on the environment, their skeletons serve as a reminder of the inescapable entropy at the heart of life. The poem moves between these two distinct albeit inextricably connected times, the contextual political time of histories and the time of entropy – from the image of ‘rigid’ to the final cut of the sword in the first stanza to the images of ‘scattered’, ‘eerie’, ‘alone’, ‘silence’, ‘fall’, ‘lie’, ‘eroding’ and ‘ashes’ in the second stanza. The spare imagist structure of the first stanza is superseded by the more descriptive, delicately touching imagery including the simile, ‘like sea horses, skeletons’ in the second stanza, as if to foreground the pity of loss which accompanies the processes by which waste accumulates in the world just as it also piles up in poetry, in particular, in the second stanza’s ‘excess’ of imagery before entropy finally reduces the whole lot to ‘ashes’.
Abandoned, exposed, made even more vulnerable to the senselessly eroding repetition of ‘mornings and nights,’ the ‘scattered army’ in its wasteland reappears not as witness to the utter uselessness of the annihilation inflicted through politically motivated nation building, particularly in the postwar period of mass migration and resettlement. Rather, the poet’s encounter with the wasteland, a landscape bereft of its own time, produces a compensatory affect of tenderness which is a familiar affect in much of her work. It’s a tenderness for the other, generated in the grief for the irretrievable loss of the time of the other. Australia’s failure to accommodate cultural differences precisely at the time it was working institutionally in clearing cultural and physical spaces for itself as a postwar nation, coincides with its discursive inability to hear precisely the tenderness for the other in Kefala’s poetry as the immigrant’s desire to love Australia.
An earlier version of this essay was first presented at the Rose Scott Women Writers Festival, Sydney and at The Shop Gallery, Glebe in launching Fragments in 2016.
This version is forthcoming in a collection of essays – Antigone Kefala: New Australian Modernities, Edited by Elizabeth McMahon and Brigitta Olubas UWA Press. Forthcoming 2021
Karalis, Vrasidas and Helen Nickas (ed), Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey (Brighton, Vic.: Owl, 2013).
– Efi Hatzimanolis
Efi Hatzimanolis is a poet, writer and independent scholar working in the areas of cultural and textual criticism with a particular interest in the intersections between identity politics and representation. Her critical essays on cultural and gender differences in writing are published in a number of journals and books while her short stories are published in the anthologies Mothers from The Edge (Owl Publishing, 2006), and Fathers from the Edge (Owl Publishing, 2015). Her chapbook Nature Lover (Owl, 2019) is an edited collection of her poetry which first appeared in draft form in project 365plus.
Fragments by Antigone Kefala is available at https://giramondopublishing.com/product/fragments/
Rochford Street Review is free to browse and read at your pleasure. As an independent journal, which doesn’t receive funding from any government agency or institution, we rely on the generosity of our readers to be able to pay our writers and to meet our ongoing costs. If you are in a position to do so please consider “paying’ the suggested sale price of Aust$10 for Issue 30. You will contributing to the future of Rochford Street Review and ensuring that our writers get at least a small contribution for their work.