Review Short: Antigone Kefala’s Fragments

27 October 2016

Fragments by Antigone Kefala
Giramondo Publishing, 2016


When casting an eye back at Antigone Kefala’s oeuvre, one finds a poet of the surreal, who has delicately combined reality, folklore, and dream state. She has expressed the trauma of migration and diaspora in hallucinatory ways; she once merged the ache of an old country’s absence with the comfort of myth, and heightened the contrast with dream-like and often disturbing symbolism. Her first book in two decades is titled Fragments – fittingly, given Kefala’s documentation of the cut-up, kaleidoscopic existence of migrants.

Her innate strength is that no word is an afterthought. No line is solid and fixable. Instead, lines are exposed, as if unearthed from underground, to be raked through with questions. The opening poems are abrupt, and convey a tender wistfulness. In ‘The Voice’, she writes:

This return
the past attacking
unexpectedly 
in the familiar streets.

Kefala, the daughter of Romanian parents who lived first in Greece and then New Zealand and Australia, has reached a point where the unfamiliar has become the familiar. The past that she forged in this country – now a place of safety – preys upon her, and catches her unawares. She relates these pivotal moments of emotion with restraint – she holds back, whether for our sakes or for hers.

In ‘Photographs’ the speaker expresses ambivalence. Kefala reminds us that recalling the past is often a jarring experience. You long to drink from it, but it is also a poisonous craving. There is a daydream feel to these poems; they seem to drift into one another like clouds, presenting rather than commenting. In ‘Dreams’, however, there is the enticing Surrealist presence, albeit in a clipped form. The poet envisions a presence in a ‘long dress of silk’ with crystal teeth. Again, the past intervenes:

And then
we were in the old house
full of a silver light
As we came in
someone was plucking
at an aluminium sound

By the second stanza, the scenario has become fantastical, as the speaker and the vision walk on glass, below a ‘mass of naked crabs and chickens.’ Words are not to be taken at face value in Kefala’s work, and she questions the vision:

How come? I said
before we had clean water.
Your fear, she said
changing the place.

Kefala suggests that fear persists, no matter how well acquainted you are with death. She acknowledges the phobia of time that haunted her last collection. Having written of time as lead, time as stolen by others, time peeling things away, she now comes face to face with it, and the results are illuminating.

Part Two is infused with snippets of the natural world that are at once both peaceful and disturbing, hinting at her environmental conscience. There is a deep seeing, whether it is of the demise of ringbarked trees – ‘a scattered army, eerie ghosts/left there to face alone / the mornings and the nights’, or walking by a bay ‘in the apocalyptic sunset / that left / gold orange strands / on the dark waters.’

The book’s flickering impressions create a lulling effect. They provide a connected commentary on the beauty of a sudden moment. ‘Summer at Dervini’ is one such example. The brevity of each line-break emulates the ‘folding of the sea’, and evokes an air of seasonal haziness. The final image recalls the romanticism that Kefala weaves into much of her poetry:

At dusk
the fishing boats
massive dark stones
planted
in a field of moonstone.

These poems are intensely visual. If any readers have regrets about not savouring such moments, Kefala presents them with a neat blueprint.

In the third section one finds longer poems drawing out the intensity of a lifetime’s worth of grief and loss. ‘Anniversaries’ sees the poet reveal emotion in an unexpected gush, as she contemplates both the beauty and sadness of having lived and loved. In ‘On Loss’, she reveals a sharp appraisal of death:

This cut, this total
final cut
like a dead weight
that presses down.
Death needs no one
comes wrapped 
in self-sufficiency.

Much of the collection is concerned with her ageing generation. Those who ‘briefly forget the fatal prophecies,’ wait out their lives in hospitals and homes – ‘the same spent, white faces / under the discoloured high ceilings’ – and yet, they live, and live bravely. She touches upon their frailty in intimate detail, such as in ‘Birthday Party’, where she writes of a friend who has been transformed by the process of ageing:

She was waiting on the couch
very pale, white dusted
incredibly small now
folding inwardly
not coping with her glasses
that had grown
to a giant size.

The very act of these elderly friends gathered for a birthday party and noting each other’s fragility, ‘an exaggerated edge / to our caring’ is a defiant one, and the poem is a strong homage to their spirit.

Kefala’s characteristic fondness for myth is evident, as she writes of pilgrims who wait for a spiritual moment at a waterhole, and in ‘The Fatal Queen’, presents a nameless monarch, who ‘watched us from a dais’, a sort of eternal Medea:

She seemed suspended
above the cliffs…
impatient, inside her
all was set
for the last killing.

These are distilled poems, concentrated in essence. In one of the most captivating moments in the collection, ‘The Piano Tuner’, Kefala displays a candid wit. She writes of a passionless piano tuner:

Sounds were flat things to him
they did not give him vertigo
raise him above…
He would place them according
to some metal rule.
And I, who thought the trade
required perfect pitch.

T S Eliot writes in The Waste Land of ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’. This was a time when long-held values broke apart, ruining a generation who no longer believed in certainty. Eliot speaks of salvaging fragments from the debris, and such a process haunts Kefala’s new collection. She faces the disintegration of a life, but the fragments of her past and loved ones are elevated. The poems drift and offer no resolution, only the potent energy of articulation.

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