Antigone Kefala: Fragments

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2016, 82pp.

One of the things about Antigone Kefala’s fifth book of poetry (her first, The Alien, was published all of forty-three years ago) that stays in the corner of your mind as you read it, is the title. Nothing could seem less fragmentary than these elegantly shaped lyric poems which are marked out by their self-contained unity. The fact that four of the poems carry a “II” after their titles and that there is no equivalent “I” in the book leaves the reader with the impression that the poems of this volume might have been chosen from a much larger corpus of work and so, in a sense, the entire book might be said to be no more than fragments of that larger work. And then, of course, there is the possibility that with increasing age – one of the themes of the poems – one might well want to find some fragments to shore against your ruins. But I think the issue is a bit more complex than that and that perhaps the answer lies in one of Kefala’s most important (and compulsively readable) works, her Sydney Journals, where excerpted journals record daily life in Sydney and on travels.

These prose pieces, like the poems of Fragments, have their own lovely shapes but they are clearly fragmentary. They are month by month selections grouped into ten journals. They tend to omit names so that we don’t have the usual voyeuristic pleasure of diaries: seeing what the writer says about people we know – or know of. A group travelling or, more likely, going out to dinner is usually just “we” and visiting artists are ”the Canadian writer” or just “she” as in the entry for February in Journal X: “She was back in Australia for the ceremony. She still looked at Australian society with affection and contempt, like the young . . . . . When she spoke about someone she disliked, her entire face collapsed, but her eyes dark and very warm, thinking from inside, trying to come to some balance.” It’s not so much that these pieces are fragmentary because they are selected from fuller accounts; they are fragmentary because they reject any attempt to totalise the experience, instead paring away everything, like identifying names, that seems inessential. Perhaps – and it may be the same with the poems of Fragments – they convey what can be conveyed.

They share with the poems a sensitivity to weather and, especially, to light so that you feel that Kefala’s first look must always be upward, towards the sky. Countless journal entries begin with something like “Raining and a slight wind. The trees moving as if shaking themselves under water” or “Stormy night. Brisk walk to the Opera House. Sydney wet and beautiful in the night, full of golden lights, the sea”. Even dreams, an important part of these journals, are described in terms of the light:

I was falling in and out of sleep, dreaming of Mother in the backyard putting clothes on the line, talking. I helping, making myself useful. The light on the clothes, brilliant white, peaceful, full of a live element, like the light for the last few days – luminous.

So when we get to a poem like the second poem of Fragments, “Letter II”:

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.
Nothing will bring you back
only this light
falling so innocently
yet so self-contained
in an unbearable indifference.

it’s hard not to be reminded of the Journals and to begin to speculate how many of the poems had their origins in notes made in the Journals and omitted in the final, edited version.

There is also the fact that Kefala’s poetry has gradually become sparer as time has gone on – perhaps more Greek, if that isn’t too crude a cultural generalisation – and there seems less an attempt to build something larger out of dreams. It’s tempting to compare these poems with the first poem of The Alien, “Holidays in the Country”, a complex and extended piece with a touch of narrative. It could be read as a reasonably realistic account of a child overhearing her parents at a country retreat speaking enigmatically of a neighbour or servant, Katke. This latter gives an account of the well which, if you jump into it, will bring you into a kind of otherworld “where hills and trees / are of the purest gold, where glass birds sing”. It’s possible the child misunderstands Katka’s speaking of an imaginary journey to the antipodes – New Zealand or Australia. Thanks to Kefala’s many illuminating autobiographical accounts we now know the basic facts of her early life well enough and we might think that the whole poem was a dream perhaps provoked by talk of emigrating. I used to find this readerly uncertainty about the very core of the poem to be unsettling, and thought it was the result of the fact that this was a different writer writing out of a different tradition where the border line between reality, dream and myth might not be as razor sharp as it is likely to be under the fierce Australian sun. Now, I’m a bit more comfortable with the experience and am inclined to appeal to a reader’s modification of Keats: we should be able to live in a poem and let it breathe without the irritable search for certainties. At any rate, compared with the poems of Fragments and, to a lesser extent, European Notebook (a significant title) “Holidays in the Country” is comparatively expansive.

There is another, more overt, way in which the Journals prepare the reader for Fragments: in the occasional comments made about the poetic process itself – or, at least, in Kefala’s practice. There is an early passage which, brief as it is, opens up a large debate about literary expansiveness versus literary spareness (at its extreme: minimalism):

Discussing with I. the idea of size in literature. I felt that it has something to do with the physical space of the country, as in America too, people trying to cover it by inflating all things – oversized cars, buildings, novels, instead of concentrating them as in populated countries . . .

And there is a shrewd description of a fortunately unnamed poet at a reading:

The young man reading before me had a rough voice, a de rigueur voice developed in pubs, which they are giving us in literature too and think that this makes them Australian. A sort of inner brutality now that masks pretentiousness, an energy that never questions itself, a battering of language with no sense of its fragility, the beautiful energy, the dynamics that can be released when well used.

When Kefala speaks of her own writing it is in terms of paradoxical wrestlings with language:

Writing – constantly trying to recapture the living element at the beginning of the experience, an elusive element that has to be re-created constantly by discovered means that will bring it out. A process which seems far removed from the experience itself, grounded in the medium.

Finally, one can recognize in the Journals, situations that will re-appear in the poems of Fragments. It’s not possible to tell whether the situations are the same since, understandably, the poems omit all markers of identity and the Journals themselves, as I have said, are often deliberately vague. So the pungent little poem about the death of a neighbour –

On Monday, she said
they took her away
on Tuesday
the dog was put down
on Wednesday
the furniture went . . .

might or might not be about the Mrs Crawford of the Journals: “the small utility carrying away Mrs Crawford’s meagre furniture . . . It seemed such an impoverished ending, sad and vulnerable”. And the dying figure of another poem, “Anniversaries”

Faster and faster you were sinking
pushed gently by those unseen hands
the disinheriting
who took away relentlessly the gifts . . .

might or might not be the figure on the second page of the Journals: “Little is visible on his face, yet they say he is dying”. On the other hand there is not much doubt that “Metro Cellist” –

The faint sound travelled
from the centre
through the tiled tombs
the pores of the concrete
rode boldly through the doors,
we were floating on sound.
The earth was singing,
singing in an exuberance
of youth.

is based on an experience in the Paris Metro documented in the Journals:

He was young, almost an adolescent, with black eyes and hair, the score was open in front of him, and he was drawing these long, full tones. Bach was reverberating in the closed space. And as I came up on the platform, the sound was coming through the pores of the concrete, through the openings, as if the earth was singing.

Of course, all of this searching for a book’s origins, methods, and resonances rather takes one’s attention away from the matter at hand, Fragments itself. The poems are collected into five parts on what seems, generally, to be thematic principles. One wouldn’t want to be too definite about this since the first section, which one might want to think of as poems about the way the past (and figures from the past) imposes itself on the present in memories, dreams and sudden irruptions (“This return / the past attacking / unexpectedly / in the familiar streets”) also contains what looks to be a straightforward character portrait where the second stanza provides an expressionist comment on the first:

She was smoking
stirring her coffee
giving me her news.
A detached observer
presenting a life
unconnected to her
that left her
Through the glass
the sea green with the wind
and the seagulls
icy white with red eyes
shrieking above the beach.

“Variation on a Theme II” in which, in reality or dream, someone plays an ancient instrument, touches on a less personal conception of the past – though one that you meet in Kefala’s comments about writing – that art and language come out of the far past of an individual culture. It’s a chthonic approach where the sounds made by the instrument are

close to the truth of bodies
a truth that went beyond
the skin, the bones, the nerves
to some dark soil
that he found by touch
to feel the beat
release it of all bonds.

The poems of the second section are, generally, poems about meetings with places and, in pieces like “The Bay” and “Summer at Derveni” we get a chance to see Kefala’s impressive ability to “capture” the atmosphere – the “weather” – of a place, as well giving a precise visual rendition. Take the former of these, for example:

Green sea
fermenting into waves
laced with white foam.
Along the empty quay
abandoned houses.

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.

I think this is rather wonderful. It’s an example of one of the things that poetry can do. And although one wouldn’t want to live in a culture which thought that this is all that poetry can or should do, there is something exhilarating about a poem that does it as well as this.

The central section of Fragments is unremittingly about loss and is, interestingly, made up of poems that are a little unlike the style of the other sections. They might be said to be more like Kefala’s poems in her earlier books, tending to expand an experience (by taking it into a compressed sequence) rather than paring it down in the manner of the Journal entries. Again one wouldn’t want to be too schematic about this: the section contains, after all, only a three poem sequence, a two poem sequence, and two small poems.

The fourth section is intriguing because it seems to want to expand the imaginative resources of the poetry by moving into almost surreal territories of idols and rituals. Though the poems share the same spare quality of the poems of the first two sections, they have precious little connection to the world of the Journals. There seems a distinctly European quality about some of them: “Sacred Idols”, for example,

They watch us from inside
in silence
anxious too
trying to sustain
their brittle images
worn thin by our hands
constantly greedy
for some tangible proof.

or “The Furniture of Generations” where the objects of the title rest

at ease and self-sufficient
as if since the beginning
they had dreamt themselves
exactly as they were . . .

There is also, in this section, a poem, “Diviner II”, which recalls one of the poems of European Notebook. Both concern a totemic creative figure in touch with the wellsprings that lie under the ground and both refer to a fire-ravaged above-ground:

Traveller from a rocky country
scorched by a great fire
the shredded trees
black veils moving in the wind
full of distant echoes
that only you could hear.

Obsessed with the great depths
could not find other measures
watching the waters in the evening
you traced the way
a great forgetfulness.

It’s possible of course that this may be another portrait of a contemporary or even of a figure from the past but the imaginative approach – surreal, suggestive, totemic – is a lot different to the capturing method of poems like the ones of earlier sections.

Or, for that matter, those of the last section which is largely composed of portraits. Sometimes these are portraits of friends – “Patricia” – and sometimes, as in “Public Figure” or “Committee Member”, of figures seen only from a distance. Often they are spare, compressed portraits of people reduced in some way – by age or incapacity. The final portrait is the cellist in the Metro which I have already spoken about: it seems fitting that a book which is concerned so much about loss and ageing should conclude with an unnamed creative (or expressive) figure, perhaps an avatar of the diviner, capable of harmonising the body and the instrument with the depths of the earth so that the earth itself “was singing, / singing in an exuberance / of youth”.