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In Short Measures

Fragments cover
Fragments
by Antigone Kefala
Giramondo
96pp
24.00 AU
Published September, 2016
ISBN 9781925336191

In 1971, the poet and critic Alexander Craig declared that Australian poetry was suffering from a fatal virus. He presented his diagnosis in the following damning terms:

The typical Australian poet writes a good line, then adds three or four lines explaining it: not trusting the reader, he [sic] dilutes any poetic force with a watery, discursive prosiness. This ailment of our poetry seems to be breathed in with our Australian air, a virus permanently attacking our verse all the more viciously because no one knows or admits that it’s there (and that it has been, ever since verse was first written in English on this continent).

To this day, prosiness continues to be a feature of much Australian poetry, but one notable exception is Antigone Kefala, the Romanian-born poet who migrated to Australia in 1959. Since the publication of her first book The Alien (1973), she has consistently written shorter poems. Her latest collection, which appears after a poetic silence of almost 20 years, is even more compressed than its predecessors, and contains mainly terse, splinter-like poems, many of them composed of fewer than ten lines. Ezra Pound, in his ABC of Reading, tells the story of how Basil Bunting, fumbling about with a German-Italian dictionary, stumbled across the fact that the German word for poetry, Dichtung, is related to the verb dichten, meaning ‘to compress’, an anecdote that confirmed Pound’s own thinking about literature as ‘language charged with meaning to the utmost degree’. If condensation is considered an essential quality of modern free verse, does Kefala’s work then provide evidence of poetic health, in modernist terms? And what can it tell us about the difficulties confronting those who attempt to write with concentrated intensity?

To answer these questions, let’s start with one of the poems from the opening section of Fragments, ‘Winter Afternoon’:

She was smoking
stirring her coffee
giving me her news.
A detached observer
presenting a life
unconnected to her
that left her
indifferent.

Through the glass
the sea green with the wind
and the seagulls
icy white with red eyes
shrieking above the beach.

Kefala tends to use very short lines containing one or two stressed syllables. These are generally broken according to grammatical boundaries, but I suspect that visual regularity is a factor in some cases. The word ‘indifferent’ is given a line to itself, partly because it has a private significance for Kefala (it appears in at least two other poems), and also to allow a double reading: life leaves the unfortunate protagonist of the poem indifferent, but it also leaves her behind, abandoned. Other characteristic features include the slow movement of the poem in its unfolding (this is linked to the small number of stresses as well as the line-breaks), occasional lyrical flourishes such as ‘the sea green with the wind’, and the syntactic simplicity of the writing — note how both the second and third sentences are grammatically incomplete, and how Kefala favours the untensed –ing form of verbs.

Another significant feature of the poetry in Fragments is the two-part structure. The first part is generally fairly mundane and descriptive. The second part, often not obviously linked to the first, tends to be more lyrical, ornate and effusive in its language, reaching for a deeper meaning that is implicit in the first part. Kefala regularly locates her main poetic impact in that gap between the two sections: for her greatest effects, she relies on the resonance between them just as much as she does on anything explicitly formulated on the page.

This gives us another way to think about the short poem. In ‘Winter Afternoon’, Kefala is not really interested in condensation. Instead, her approach involves suggestiveness: the reader is made to discover the full sense of the poem in trying to reconcile the two seemingly disjointed parts. Bound up with this is a concern for atmosphere: it is the mood of the poem — formed by the spare diction, by the overall tone, by the choice of images — rather than any densely-packed meaning that contributes most to her power as a poet. This is demonstrated by another quite repetitive poem from the first section entitled ‘Photographs’ which, like ‘Winter Afternoons’, is sombre in tone:

The past
a drink, a coolness
we thirst for.

The past
a drink, a poison
we thirst for.

Watching our selves
these unknowns
more adventurous
more luminous
new, glossy beings
unaware of the dangers
touching
in their innocence.

Again, Kefala slows the unfolding of the poem by the deployment of very short line-breaks, and by the reduction of her syntax, simply juxtaposing ‘the past’ with its attributes. You’ll notice too that the final sentence of the poem is grammatically incomplete — it is basically the phrase ‘watching our selves’ followed by a string of modifications of the word ‘selves’. This syntactic looseness allows Kefala to create a certain estranging oddness of atmosphere: grammatically, there are times when we are not quite sure where we stand with regard to her language. The word ‘touching’, isolated by a severe line-break, makes it possible to associate it with the previous line — the glossy beings in the photograph are unaware of the fact that danger is always close by — as well as with the line that follows. The effect is a bit like that of a piece of slow piano music in which a series of chords is played: each new chord modifies what has preceded it, as well as preparing the way for the next acoustic imprint, the multiple overtones accumulating over the whole course of the performance, right to the end.

The title Fragments refers to more than just the extent of the poems; it also hints at broken-ness, loss, the passage of time that takes us out of life. This is confirmed by the themes Kefala tackles in this collection, most of them pitched in a minor key. At the mild end of the range, we find poems about the return of forgotten memories, the silence of the bush, a feeling of homelessness, the loss of one’s youthful self, a failure to become self-contained, and the puffed-up self-importance of leaders and kings. At the starker end, Kefala takes on forms of bereavement, as well an insidious loss of life over time that leads to what the Chinese describe as ‘the decay of animal spirits’. There is indifference to life, resignation, helplessness, fatalism, together with death in a multitude of manifestations (burnt trees, ringbarked trees, people sick and dying in hospital, a male suicide, lambs slaughtered for their meat, and men with guns breeding ‘another race of killers’).

As Kristian Radford observes in his 2013 essay ‘Antigone Kefala: Alien Poet’, reviewers of her first book singled out ‘silence’ and ‘darkness’ as two prominent motifs. Forty years later, little has changed. The dark mood is consolidated by two keywords, ‘silence’ and ‘emptiness’:

She knew that now there was / no home, and no home comings, / only the emptiness / inside that waits in silence / not searching for an answer. (‘Night Thoughts’)

In the crisp silence / the earth steamed in the light (‘Dawn’)

Across the empty land / a scattered army, eerie ghosts / left there to face alone / the mornings and the nights / to wait in silence for the / final fall . . . (‘The Ringbarked Trees’)

just night / the silence, resonant like an organ / breathing deeply in the arches / of an empty church. (‘Sydney Harbour — New Year’)

We sink in light / disappear in the silence / nothing but / the slow folding of the sea. (‘Summer at Derveni’)

The piano tuner rang last night / during your absence. The ring / aggressive in the silent house. (‘The Piano Tuner’)

In his book on the English poet Edward Thomas, Henry Coombes noted that ‘keen consciousness of an all-absorbing silence is not the best incitement that a poet can have to write down words confidently’, and Kefala’s preference for shorter forms is to some extent motivated by a similar awareness. In fact, she comes close to saying more or less the same thing in her insightful Sydney Journals:

Trying to write, one needs so much confidence in oneself to carry even a sentence. The moment the level goes down one realizes the futility of all things, the thin nature of the enterprise and language that refuses to work.

Her predicament is exacerbated by the fact that she conceives of silence and emptiness as overwhelmingly negative forces.

The powerful death theme is most concentrated in the middle third section, which serves as the centre of gravity for the book. One example from this section is the third poem in a suite called ‘Anniversaries’:

The clock ticked only
in the room
the furniture at rest
but for your photograph
on the bookcase
facing the mother
no trace of you.

“ . . . when my beloved wife . . .”
a spent image now, brought out
dutifully before guests.

Then his new dog came in
silk chestnut and
as it looked at me
your eyes were watching me
from humid depths
indifferent and distant
in the stillness
and I was suddenly afraid.
Had I too failed you?

Typically, the poem operates in two sections. The first two stanzas set the scene, while the third moves to disclosure of the speaker’s fear that she has betrayed her former friend in some unspecified way (perhaps, just by surviving). The syntactic looseness at work in the odd positioning of ‘only’ in the first line, and the striking use of the definite article in ‘facing the mother’ help generate a sense of unease that contrasts sharply with the well-ordered domestic interior. Again, indifference is evoked, a lack of acknowledgement that triggers the speaker’s vague sense of guilt.

A reader might expect Fragments to contain some form of spiritual response to the themes of ageing, suffering, and death, but, by and large, Kefala treats the numinous with scorn. In ‘Sacred Idols’, such forces are referred to as ‘brittle images’, worn thin by our efforts to obtain some tangible proof of their existence, while in ‘Pilgrims’ Tales’, seekers after enlightenment come back in distress, their eyes ‘scorched’ and their hands ‘like open wounds’. Another puzzling poem called ‘The Snake’ describes two ‘pilgrims’ waiting avidly by a waterhole for the appearance of a magical creature from which they hope to ‘tap the secret powers’. They fail miserably. Back in 1974, Kefala expressed a similar idea in her translation of the following lines by the Greek writer I. P. Koutsocheras: ‘The indifferent gods / the inhuman men / fight always and resist’.

In the book’s final section, Kefala includes a few satirical pieces, and these provide a refreshing break from the almost uniformly doleful poems of the rest of the book. In ‘Public Figure’, a man is described as having a past which he wears like ‘an ill-fitting garment’ for the adulation of an audience of uncritical dupes. Two other poems chide the pretensions of literary critics, including the ‘committee member’ dissected for us in a poem of that name:

He was young, spruced up
with a careful voice
full of an obvious
impeccable efficiency,
one imagined that
he wound himself up
every morning
to last him through the day
through
the routine of reading books
of talking about books
of placing them, just so
in the pyramid
of his evaluation.

Clearly, we are meant to feel that this young man is overzealous, but the criticism is broadly signalled rather than satisfactorily realized in the specific details of the poem. From the evidence of the text, the committee member has no real failings: he is careful about his appearance, he is ‘obviously’ efficient, he is enthusiastic, he takes his reading seriously (you could just as well talk about a committed poet having a ‘routine of writing poems’), and it is clear that he doesn’t just swallow books mindlessly — he tries to relate what he has read to other books and to reach a judgement about their relative strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps ‘pyramid’ indicates an overly narrow concern with hierarchies that diminishes the complexity of serious writing, but on the whole I can’t help liking the man for his devotion to literature.

Though neither young nor spruced up, let me attempt an evaluation of my own here. At her best, in the stronger poems such as those quoted above, as well as others such as ‘The Future of Generations’ and ‘Birthday Party’, Kefala creates memorable short poems that are just uncanny enough to unsettle you about what can happen to us in our twilight years. Their success depends largely on the contrast between a simplification of rhythm, diction, and grammar on the one hand, and an intensification of strangeness and suggestiveness on the other. This technique courts a couple of dangers: firstly, the integrity of individual lines is weakened by the lack of content and the almost constant enjambment; secondly, the deliberate soft focus so essential to atmosphere can sometimes slacken.

If you think of the line as a kind of gesture, a gesture which carries an expressive force, then it becomes possible to see how restrained Kefala’s gestures are in ‘Winter Afternoons’ and ‘Photographs’. Because Kefala simplifies so many of the poetic resources available to her in a bid to intensify mood, the lines in Fragments rarely achieve sufficient distinctness to make them memorable. It is primarily this that gives them their fragmentary quality.

The suggestive minimalism of the lines and the absence of strong syntactic connections can yield incoherence. Sometimes, in the effort to compose a striking image, Kefala pushes hard to bring disparate associations together. The opening poem, for example, contains an image that compares the intense feelings associated with a sudden act of remembering to veins full of ice ‘that travelled / at high speed / releasing fire’ (‘The Voice’). Perhaps this image works for you, but I find it hard to reconcile the contradictory elements of an ice that moves rapidly and gives off flames. Another image in ‘Diviner II’ depicts a scorched landscape: ‘the shredded trees / black veils moving in the wind / full of distant echoes / that only you could hear’. This also made me stumble. I can’t really see how the shredded trees can resemble (intact) veils. Elsewhere, diffuseness is created by misleading or redundant terms: I was distracted by ‘a mass of naked crabs’ in ‘Dreams’, ‘rushing with velocity’ in ‘Weapons’, ‘an inner vertigo’ in ‘Old Friend’, and the disconcerting image of ‘the horses riding past’ in ‘Bus Stop’ (my italics). Finally, the structure ‘full of + noun’ appears in at least ten poems, including the dream-like but contradictory lines ‘to reach the house / full of retired gentlemen / resting in empty billiard rooms’ (‘Home’). It is at these points that the atmosphere withers.

And what of Kefala’s attitude to mortality? The fatalism expressed in ‘The Burden’ — ‘From the beginning / the tower of our fate / planted at the core. / We move into the new / morning, unaware / full of the weightless / burden’ — is courageous in its way, but it doesn’t do justice to her ideas on the matter. In an interview she did with Jenny Digby, she presents her fatalism in a much more appealing light when she points out that it involves recognising human limits: if we could accept that life has certain ‘fundamental conditions’, we would perhaps be able to achieve ‘a much more human measure’. I would have liked to have seen more of this spirit in Fragments. Although I’m not sure many of us would ever have the courage of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’ — ‘Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ — I would welcome an option with a bit more energy. In the poem ‘This You Should Know’, the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf offers us an alternative vision of the human finale:

There is one thing you should know:

Pain likes to have a bit of company
It has no wish to be left to its own devices
So no going back to bed for a lie-down

[ . . . ]

No, you will sit up
Rock back and forth
Lean this way and that
Keep yourself amused
Write a letter to someone
If you have someone you can write to
Otherwise, write to no one
Just like I’m doing now
Move objects
From one spot to another
Perform small tasks in the kitchen
If you have any, and can walk
And think thoughts if you can do that
Or do something with your hands — knit a sock
with a foot a mile long. Keep your pain
Company, entertain it
Right up until that moment the grey morning dawns

Kefala herself ascribes the prosiness of much contemporary Australian literature to the physical size of the country: people, in their unconscious anguish, try to cover up this massive space ‘by inflating all things — oversized cars, buildings, novels — instead of concentrating them as in populated countries’ (Sydney Journals). She also speaks compellingly in her interview with Jenny Digby about the need to resist ‘tendencies created by advertising techniques’ and about the difficulty of writing in a language that cannot be used ‘to express fundamental human issues’. But is it possible for a poem to be too brief? Charles Baudelaire thought so when he wrote of poems that could not ‘provide enough pabulum for the excitement created’ and so failed to ‘satisfy the reader’s natural appetite’. He concluded by adding: ‘However brilliant and intense the effect, [the poem] will not last; the memory will not retain it; it is like a seal too lightly and too hastily applied, which has not had the time to impress its image on the wax’. Although there is nothing hasty about Kefala’s art, Fragments serves to remind us that in the final analysis simplification and compression are not the same thing.

Sneja Gunew has responded to this essay here.

References

Charles Baudelaire, Selected Writings on Art and Artists, Penguin, 1972

Henry Coombes, Edward Thomas: A Critical Study, Chatto and Windus, 1973

Alexander Craig, Twelve Poets 1950-1970, Jacaranda, 1971

Jenny Digby, A Woman’s Voice: Conversations with Australian Poets, UQP, 1996

Antigone Kefala, Sydney Journals: Reflections 1970-2000, Giramondo, 2008

P. Koutsocheras (translated by Antigone Kefala) Men for the Rights of Men Rise: A Poetic Manifesto, Alpha Books, 1974

Ezra Pound, An ABC of Reading, Faber, 1961

Kristian Radford, ‘Antigone Kefala: Alien Poet’ in Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey, Owl Publishing, 2013

Carl Sommar, Gunnar Ekelöf, Albert Bonniers, 1989

Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems 1934-1952. J. M. Dent, 1972

Acknowledgement

I would like to thank the State Library of Victoria for access to books consulted in the writing of this review.