Tina Giannoukos reviews Fragments by Antigone Kefala

Antigone Kefala, Fragments. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2016. ISBN : 978-1-925336-19-1

 

Tina Giannoukos

 

Antigone Kefala is a singular poet, one who has carved her own linguistic space. Her work is its own topos or place. Whether we read a poem from Kefala’s first collection, The Alien, in the 1970s, or a poem in her latest collection, Fragments, published in 2016, we are in a poetic reality that is like no other. Thus, Fragments enfolds into itself the poet’s life-long preoccupation with memory, loss and estrangement. Her disciplined rhythm and conceptualised imagery reveal her lyric at its compositional best.

A fiction writer as much as a poet, as well as a non-fiction writer, Fragments is her fifth collection of poetry, and her first in almost two decades. Born in Romania to Greek parents, she lived first in Greece and then New Zealand and Australia. After decades of writing in English, she has made the language her own, bending it to her own use, uncovering other cognitive potentialities in language than mere verisimilitude. She reveals how a consciousness as ethically concerned as hers might react to the unknown landscape before it and how it might carry the past into this new territory without violence but with humility.

As in much of her poetry, Fragments is trained on the dislocated but from unusual angles, the mood and shape of it, contouring experience itself. The subject confronts the truth of its provisional existence in a language that is as beautiful as it is unflinching. In the process, Kefala evokes the extraordinary. In the well-known poem ‘The Alien’ from her first collection, The Alien (1973), landscape and psyche merge:  ‘at night I see it rising from the hollow tower / dripping with mist / this land we search for in each other’s eyes’. It is less a question of whether Kefala’s poetry evokes an Australian landscape, though that is important in the particularities of her work, but the way elements of a natural or physical world, chiselled out of the landscape of language with the pickaxe of poetry, evoke affective states of being. In ‘Letter II’, memory is associative rather than direct, and the landscape evoked an Australian one by association but it could be anywhere. Kefala says:

The light today

clean as if made of bones

dried by a desert wind

fell in the distance of the roofs

and I remembered you.

(4)

The disturbing power of the poem lies in the way light recalls death, as if illumination is the secret knowledge of death made manifest, and memory the means of its manifestation.

In Fragments, Kefala’s restrained aesthetic, her spare lyricism and compositional acuity, intensifies the collection’s elegiac, if ascetic, tone. Kefala is uneasy at what returns to haunt the subject, but instead of lament or overpowering loss, she distils the essence of the experience, so the past and the present fuse in one extraordinary moment. Her ascetic response to loss yields a secular knowledge of time. In essence, Fragments pivots on the border between death and life, for what is remembered is re-enlivened. Having performed the Sisyphean labour of remembering, the spare beauty of her poems, as opposed to any verbose over-intellectualisation of mourning in dense lines of poetry, is the gift. But as much as many of the poems in Fragments are about what has passed, they are also about what is possible. In ‘Dreams’, Kefala says:

Dancing in empty rooms

with a young man

with white hair

dancing in rooms

that were growing

bigger and bigger

your touch

light on my skin

and the warmth

of your body

peaceful.

(5-6)

To remember the past in ‘Dreams’ is to summon the beauty of youth, an almost Greek worship of the kouros, those marble statues embodying the ideal of male beauty and youth. But the memory of youth and the reality of old age rather than being at odds yield instead a knowledge of what was and what is.

The collection consists of sixty-one poems across five parts. In the first part of the collection, which consists of thirteen poems, the past unsettles. In the section’s opening poem, ‘The Voice’, the eruption of the past into the present disturbs the already not-so calm tranquillity of the speaker:

At the sound

I turned

my veins full of ice

that travelled

at high speed

releasing fire.

 

This return

the past attacking

unexpectedly

in the familiar streets.

(3)

The past in the poem is an ever-threatening force that releases pent-up energy as much as much as it recalls the speaker to its power.

But the unsettling power of the past in Fragments comes from its power to nourish and wound; thus, in ‘Photographs’, the dichotomy of the past is that it is a force that intrudes, either positively or negatively, on the present. But this dichotomous power of the past to unsettle for good or bad is one that in our existential vulnerability we ourselves conjure:

The past

a drink, a coolness

we thirst for.

 

The past

a drink, a poison

we thirst for.

(7)

But if the past was merely an intrusive force for good or bad, the poem, and Kefala’s reflection on memory in Fragments, would remain a predictable dichotomy between now and then. Instead, Kefala refigures this dichotomy as something much more disturbing in its affective power to evoke loss:

Watching our selves

these unknowns

more adventurous

more luminous

new, glossy beings

unaware of the dangers

touching

in their innocence.

(7)

It is as if the speaker sees into the past and seeing is able to reimagine time as a regenerative force that yields a melancholy, if ironic, regard for the innocence of youth.

The poems in the second part of the collection are remarkable for their painterly exploration of the natural world. In all, there are eleven poems, distinguished by their empathy. Their mood can be ecstatic, even as darker elements surface. In ‘Travelling’, the stuffiness of the city heat in the first stanza, where the desert wind is ‘blowing parched / through the windows’, gives way to the ecstatic experience of the bush after driving through ‘The suburbs dark with soot’ (24). In the final stanza, Kefala says:

But the bush

full of silence

the wind at night

the sound of waves

high in the gum trees.

(24)

The poem’s attention to ‘The suburbs dark with soot’ or the two men on their verandah ‘watching the traffic / in the apricot light / of the late afternoon’ opposes the contemporary architecture of urban life with that of the natural splendour of the bush.

Whilst the poems in the second part of the collection are beautifully resonant, like the last stanza in ‘Travelling’, their affective power comes from Kefala’s articulation, in a mode suspended between celebration and sorrow, of an ecstatic response to the natural world. In ‘The Bay’, Kefala says:

Three divers

near the boat house

strange amphibious creatures

with black rubber skins

wrestling the waves

climbing the rocks

in the apocalyptic sunset

that left

gold orange strands

on the dark waters.

(26)

In poems like ‘The Bay’ Kefala oscillates between the beautiful, or within human understanding, and the sublime, or beyond human understanding. In ‘Still Life’, she says:

The light

caressing the water

with the hands

of a lover.

 

The trees

self-contained

balanced

at the exact point

known to them all

but not to us.

(30)

The poem, like others in this section, is awake to the enigmatic, as the experience of the sublime in a world where not all is readily available to the senses or the understanding.

It is in the four poems of the collection’s third part that Kefala most intimately articulates the passage of time. The poem, ‘On Loss’, represents her most direct treatment of anger at what death takes from the living, when Kefala declares in short, strong lines that ‘Death needs no one / comes wrapped / in self-sufficiency’ (41). The confronting ‘Do you hear? / You all who strive for self / sufficiency / this is the way’ (41) is oracular in its evocation of the power of death. In relatively short lines in ‘The Neighbour’, Kefala asserts the existential reality of death:

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

drinking tea

unaware of the maple coffin

and she lying dead

and all the lovely flowers.

(43)

The fourth part of the collection consisting of thirteen poems revisits themes of loss. One of the poems most evocative of the passage of time is ‘Transformations’, where the image in the mirror or in a photograph becomes the dissociative experience of an unsettling encounter with time:

Our faces

these unknowns that shape

themselves silently

watch us out of mirrors

photographs

an accumulation so subtle

so untraceable

(53)

The fifth part of the collection, which consists of twenty poems, is the most public. In ‘Public Figure’, the subject of the poem has become his past, ‘a famous story / he no longer challenged’ (65). In ‘Old Friend’, a friend’s trauma requires the relinquishing of one’s own right to an experience of the moment:

She was uneasy

an inner vertigo

that held her

we gave her our attention

we renounced whatever claim

we had on the moment

to offer it to her.

(76)

In conclusion, Fragments articulates Kefala’s singular voice. Her heightened attentiveness to memory and loss reanimates the past and reveals what lies concealed in the moment. Above all, her concentrated poetics refine experience into its quintessence, offering insight without attachment.

 

Tina Giannoukos’s latest collection of poetry, Bull Days (Arcadia, 2016), was shortlisted in the 2017 Victorian Premiers Literary Awards and longlisted for the 2017 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal.

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