Antigone Kefala, Fragments (Giramondo 2016)
The final issue of Ivor Indyk’s literary journal Heat, published an astonishing 6 years ago, included an interview of Antigone Kefala by Amanda Simons. The conversation ranges widely, from Kefala’s ‘scribbling’ in her childhood home in Romania before World War 2, over the role her mother played in her creative life, to the critical isolation that comes from being classified as an ‘ethnic’ writer. She says this about poetry:
It is a medium that has its own directions. It comes when it wants to come, doesn’t come when it doesn’t want to come. You can never force it, you have to wait for it.
Fragments is a collection of 61 poems that feel absolutely unforced in that way, almost as if each poem catches an unbidden thought, or dream, or observation, or burst of emotion, and finds a precise form of words for it. If they are fragments of some greater unity, the book is not concerned to find that unity, or to explain contexts, but invites us to focus on each fragment in its own right. Take the first poem:
At the sound
my veins full of ice
at high speed
the past attacking
in the familiar streets.
The speaker hears a voice from her past. Perhaps it’s associated with a terrible memory, or it might remind her of the voice of a loved one who has died. The poem isn’t interested in the specifics, nor in what happened next. Did the speaker approach the owner of the voice, did she go about her day as if nothing had happened or was she shaken to the core? The poem doesn’t go anywhere near these questions. It focuses tightly on the moment of hearing, and renders it with wonderful precision and complexity: there are the explicit images of ice and fire, and possibly an implied reference to the kinds of warfare that turns city streets into war zones. It’s not ‘difficult’ poetry, but it rewards you for time spent in its company.
The poems, only a handful of them much longer than the first, are divided into five sections. Here’s my guess at their organising principles:
- a thematic introduction: poems of memory and loss, dream renderings, observations of social life, dark love poems
- evocations of places, mainly Australian, including a scene from the movie Wake in Fright
- poems of grief, loss and impending loss
- dreams and visions, surrealism and metaphysics
- social poems – quick character sketches, satirical jabs, laments, a little politics.
In the Heat interview, Antigone Kefala observes that ‘we ethnics are constantly being compared to other ethnics, but not to Australian writers’, and asks if her interviewer has ever seen a comparison between her work and that of Les Murray. Well, perhaps with that quote working at the back of my mind, I found myself making just such a comparison. Here’s her poem ‘Weapons’ – I hope it’s OK to quote it in full:
corpses in the sun
men moving cautiously
in the abandoned streets
close to the scarred walls.
Men on top of houses, hills,
coming from dark undergrounds,
men holding on, hugging
these metal erections
a spray of semen
rushing with velocity
to breed another race of killers.
The evocation of the battle-zone is followed by what at first looks like crude, even trite feminist anti-war rhetoric – the gun as phallic symbol – which becomes almost shockingly explicit with the ‘spray of semen’, and then is brought home in the powerful last line: this isn’t just emotive rhetoric, there’s a strong idea here.
The poem reminded me of Les Murray’s ‘I wrote a Little Haiku‘, which similarly compares bullets to semen. In Murray’s poem, the molten bullets drip from a burning farm rail, and he sees the drip as ‘the size of wasted semen / it had annulled before’. It’s the visual image that counts: one’s response is to admire the poet’s mental agility in seeing such a comparison: the notion that the bullets had ‘annulled’ real semen when they were fired in the past – that is, they had killed young men and so prevented them from fathering children – is almost a melancholy afterthought. In Kefala, the visual image matters, but the force of the poem is in its idea. We’re not invited to admire her cleverness, so much as to dwell on what she has unearthed.
Oddly, the comparisons that came to mind most strongly as I read this book are with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, both of whom have grappled with ageing in their recent work – Dylan’s ‘Mississippi’ for example, or Cohen’s heartbreaking ‘I’m Leaving the Table’. Kefala too brings a ruthless eye to the experience of ageing, and at the same time, like those two writers (in other ways very different from her), conveys a deep joy in living and creating. I love the bitter-sweet final lines of the book’s last poem, ‘Metro Cellist’:
we were floating on sound.
The earth was singing,
singing in an exuberance
Fragments is the thirteenth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my free copy.
As my regular readers will know, I have a self-imposed task of writing fourteen 14-line verses each November and putting them up on my blog. I was going to let this post go by to avoid putting any of my verse on the same page as Antigone Kefala’s infinitely superior work, but then I read her saying in the Heat interview that she could not write a sonnet: ‘You know how writers do exercises in terms of poetic forms; I have never been able to do that.’ Perhaps one day I’ll outgrow my attachment to the form of the Onegin stanza, but for now, here’s one more, an attempt to explain the joys of this attachment:
November Verse 11:
A turn of phrase, a half idea:
that’s enough for my first lines.
The path ahead is far from clear
but through mind’s muddle somehow shines
an argument. Then, as I’m seeking
rhymes and scans, the sense starts leaking
into somewhere unforeseen
and who knows what line eight will mean?
Six lines to go, and now I’m counting.
So much that I wish I’d said,
not on the page, still in my head!
Its all a mess. The panic’s mounting.
With luck I end my little song
as if I meant it all along.