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Inward illumination: On Antigone Kefala

Antigone Kefala is one of the most interesting and interestingly positioned of Australian writers. Her career, beginning with a book of poetry, The Alien (1973), is marked by the way in which it embraces almost all of the shorter forms of writing, including – apart from her four collections of poetry – short stories, a number of novellas, journals and even a parabolic fairy tale for ‘advanced children’. Her work is never merely documentary and is often – especially in the poetry and prose fiction – a combination of precision about physical details and a gestural vagueness about the work’s overall drift.

Michael Griffith, in one of the reviews included in Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey (2013), a collection of material made by Vrasidas Karalis and Helen Nickas, comments very accurately that ‘Kefala’s interest is in inward illumination, not outward exposition’, though he finds the lack of a commitment to such outward virtues as plot to be frustrating: ‘there is little narrative momentum, only the most tenuous thread of story, almost no way to sort out, much less to understand the dramatis personae’. Even Sydney Journals (2008), Kefala’s most recent book, has frustrated readers by the way in which entries are chosen and arranged so that one is not sure which decade particular experiences come from. Thus, what is usually – in the hands of politicians especially – the most documentary of forms is transmuted into something quite different. All of this adds up to a portrait of Kefala as a writer who has something rather different to offer her readers, and demands something different from them.

The critical reception of Kefala’s work and the discussion about her position in Australian writing almost always begin with her biography. There are good reasons for this. She was born in the Romanian town of Braila and grew up there in the pre-war and war years. Her family had migrated from Greece two generations before. If you look at Braila on Google Earth you see that it is at that point where the Danube swings east just before entering the Black Sea. The accompanying photos make it seem a distinctly charmless place, but that may be a result of nearly half a century of post-war communism. Kefala’s own memories are of a cultivated, strongly Francophile, intellectual and artistic environment. Her father and older brother were musicians. The family left Romania for Greece after the war and lived in refugee camps – there is a wonderful photograph in Sydney Journals of Antigone and her brother, Homer, as teenagers walking arm in arm in Athens.

The family was, eventually, accepted as migrants by New Zealand (Australia rejected them when it was found that her mother had a spot on the lung). In New Zealand – ‘the green country’ as she calls it in European Notebook (1988) – Kefala learnt English (after the Romanian and French of Braila and the Greek of Athens), attended University and began writing in English. She came to Sydney in December 1959, and found Australia a far more interesting place than New Zealand, on the grounds that it was a country just beginning to look at its own identity. She worked first teaching English as a second language (and writing in the Mitchell library in the evenings) and then as an administrator in the ethnic arts division of the newly established Australia Council for the Arts.

Kefala’s output is highly accomplished and highly individual. She seems, like all real writers, to have been clear about what she was doing from the very beginning, even when what she was doing involved a lot of uncertainties. Her description of the effect of reciting a poem at school – ‘I don’t remember the poem, what has remained in me was the magic by which the poem created spaces and states unknown before, making it possible to grasp realities far beyond my understanding at the time’ – and of writing a poem at the age of eleven or twelve which caused ‘an immense inner excitement, as that of a craftsperson that has managed to solve the problem of the material and bring something off’ both speak of that distinctive personality that marks out the artist.

In her work, everything is transmuted in her own way and, though it might be disappointing to readers hoping for the documentation of interesting migrant lives, it resolutely explores the inward states which obsess her. It is no accident that, in her poetry, the dream-world seems to contribute as much of the imagery as the ‘real’ world. For readers, the poetry focuses particular problems: we want to know, and not for simple voyeuristic reasons, where the poems touch the outer life directly. But the poems discourage this.

The first poem of Absence – Kefala’s selected poems of 1992 – has a memorable and, in retrospect, perhaps a warning, opening line: ‘In dreams begins the journey, they would say . . .’ It is natural to want to know who the ‘they’ are, even if the poet can claim that the answer is not important to the poem. The title suggests that the author, as a child, is overhearing relatives with whom she is holidaying. The voices speak of an unidentified Katka before switching focus completely:

Put your ear to the ground, virgin,
and hear the walls groaning out of dumb mouths.
The way down cast in mica flames,
burning unheard like eyes; wild men’s eyes,
dead men’s eyes, glazed now in veils
upon veils of stone water.

The jump, Katka had said, would bring you
to the other shore. A land where hills and trees
are of the purest gold, where glass birds sing,
and where the air, fine powdered crystal curtains
hanging from a still blue sky, chimes in an unfelt
breeze. And you are light, shadowless, falling
upon those fields forever petrified in silence.

It is a sophisticated, confident and memorable poem – it has stayed with me for forty years –  but it is also a poem that any reader would struggle with. Under the pressure of the author’s biography we might want to read the journey and the jump as being about migration to a different, better world, which a local, Katka, sees as some kind of big rock candy mountain. But the tone of the poem, as well as the context of Kefala’s other poems, suggests that it is more likely to be a jump into a dream-world, with Katka encouraging the child to go to sleep by thinking of pleasant night visions. Or even more likely, the journey and the jump are towards death, and the world beyond is a naive person’s view of paradise. Whatever the intention, this early work tells readers that the biographical element in Kefala’s work will never be expressed as simple documentary, but will always be transmuted into something far more sophisticated.

In Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey,  Karalis and Nickas have brought together published interviews with Kefala, newspaper reviews of her books, reprints of journal articles from the past, and new essays. The volume envisions itself as a kind of kaleidoscope of perspectives from which some sort overall view of its subject will emerge. In a way, it is a casebook and its structure is something that one would like to see repeated for any number of poets, in the belief that such collections tend to be more valuable than single author essays or monographs. But as I will explore a little later, the decision to allow the author into the book in an essay and interviews means means that we have to face the fact that what a writer finds worth saying about her work is not always the same as what the critical community does.

At any rate, Kefala’s brief essay, ‘Towards a Language’, and the three interviews that follow by Jenny Digby, Mary Zournazi and Amanda Simons make it clear that, for Kefala, the central phenomenon of her early, peripatetic life was language. Defiantly monoglot societies, like the Australia she arrived in, see a person whose first language is not English as someone beginning with a disadvantage and who is thus rather behind her contemporaries. But Kefala is taken, as a writer, by the way in which different languages encode quite different ways of expressing the world. She speaks constantly of the ‘baggage’ (an interesting travel metaphor that someone wanting to examine displacement as a condition of the artist could make a lot of) that a language brings with it. And the polyglot also understands the extent to which language is not a natural phenomenon, matching up to the world. As Kefala says: ‘you realise you are dealing with a construct, something that was created by a group of people with a certain historical base and a certain physical location’.

The rest of the book comprises critical material. It is dispiriting to see how generally unhelpful the newspaper reviews are – and I include my own contribution there – but that is at least partly because a few hundred words is never going to do justice to Kefala’s complex poems and narratives. Most likely, they are only going to register the strangenesses and superficial transgressions of expectation. Not unsurprisingly, the more valuable critical material tends to be found in the collection of ‘Recent Reflections’ towards the end. Forty years after the publication of The Alien, critics, publishers and scholars are a little better at seeing Kefala’s output in some kind of perspective – perhaps, even, seeing it as a whole.

The most ambitious of these inclusions is the essay, ‘The Poetics of Ellipsis in Antigone Kefala’s Poetry’ by Vrasidas Karalis, one of the volume’s editors. His opening sentence – ‘In our days, it is rather impossible to read poetry as an experiment in language and not as a sub-category of cultural studies’ – identifies a central issue of criticism generally and one which has important ramifications in the case of Kefala’s work. It introduces a major issue of critical placement, the resolution of which depends on theoretical issues about whether poetry ultimately derives from some pan-cultural form of linguistic creativity or from individual cultures.

I won’t try to follow this here, partly because of my own theoretical incompetence, but it is refreshing to see Karalis make an attempt to locate Kefala, firstly, in language itself, seeing her work as belonging to a tradition of ‘trans-lingual or trans-cultural poetics, in all the multiplicity and complexity of the concepts’, and then to place it within poetic traditions, seeing her work as having affinities to the ‘aural introspective tonalities of poets like the French Symbolists, the Anglo-American Imagistes, the Russian Silver Age poets, even the Italian Hermetists . . .’

This seems profoundly true to me and a correct basis for describing Kefala’s poetry, which, as Karalis also understands, is not simply homogenous but markedly different from book to book. I should say, however, that much of his essay is not really successful because there is always a danger (a danger met in cruder studies of ‘influence’) that the resonances Karalis observes are a product of his own reading. At any rate, his essay is an attempt to place Kefala’s work, or at least her poetry, in a frame which sees language as a more important, more primary, source than culture.

Though this is a different placing, one more in line with Kefala’s sense of herself, it is still a placing. On my first reading of this book, I had wanted to argue that there was a tension between the criticism Kefala – and any writer – wants and the criticism they get. Writers, it seems to me, desire some sort of response that shows that readers are aware of the complex choices they made at the level of writing, at the level of language itself. They want a sense that the readers appreciate the experience of the work as it was to its producer. What they often get is to be placed in a typology they have no real interest in. In Kefala’s case, this is often to be seen as an exemplar of a political and cultural movement towards the recognition of ‘multi-cultural’ artists.

In her Sydney Journals, Kefala includes a quotation from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (1929): ‘Works of art are of infinite solitude, and nothing is less capable of reaching them than is criticism’. Although one does not want to be caught out taking Rilke too unhyperbolically, I wanted to use this as an expression of a fundamental frustration between producer and receiver, between writer and reader. But on further reflection, this is a little simplistic. Critics are entitled, after all, to ask whatever question of a work they want: they don’t need an author’s approval and the quality or otherwise of their contributions is not judged by how pleasing or enlightening they are to the author. Though it may be infuriating to a writer to be seen as an example of something – which is what happens when someone is ‘positioned’ – the fact of the matter is that every work is simultaneously unique and typical. Which of these two adjectives we should focus on is a debate that goes back to the Greeks. Kefala does belong to a particular moment in Australian literary history: that moment from the early seventies when attempts were made to support the work of ‘migrant’ artists and, by so doing, improve Australian writing – not by adding a dash of a superior, European element, but by adding another dimension to what was already a pluralist endeavour. As an arts administrator, Kefala was engaged in both sides of this activity, as an artist and as an implementer.

Of course, there is a painful irony in using responses to Kefala’s work as an example of tensions within criticism and tensions between writers and critics: it uses an individual writer as a ‘case study’ and thus assumes that some larger whole is more important than the individual example. But the fact remains that a fine writer, like Kefala, focuses these issues in Australian criticism exactly because of her unusual position.

References

Vrasidas Karalis and Helen Nickas (editors), Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey (Owl Publishing, 2013).
Antigone Kefala, The Alien (Makar Press, 1973).
European Notebook (Hale & Iremonger, 1988).
Absence: New and Selected Poems (Hale & Iremonger, 1992; 1998).
Sydney Journals (Giramondo, 2008).