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A Review of a Review

Written response to:
In Short Measures

I was shocked to see Simon Patton’s recent review of Antigone Kefala’s latest book of poetry Fragments in the SRB. Shocked not simply because of its incompetence or carping and misdirected pedantry but because it used the same stereotypic methods that I first identified  several decades ago as being the default way that many Australian writers of non Anglo-Celtic background get treated by the gatekeepers of Australian literature. So let us examine the criteria for Patton’s competence (the implication being: why was he chosen as reviewer?).

Patton appears to be a China specialist and so is accustomed to dealing with the ‘foreign’ and is used to being involved in acts of translation because clearly he feels that this poet needs to be translated even though she has been writing in English for over forty years. At the end of the review he thanks “the State Library of Victoria for access to books consulted in the writing of this review.” Presumably he had to do this research because he was not familiar with Kefala’s work and her other publications are not readily available (no surprises there). One of the publications he cites (though not the editors: Vrasidas Karalis and Helen Nickas) is Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey which is a collection of essays on her work and contains the names of numerous writers and scholars who are indeed familiar with her writing. Patton then proceeds to give Kefala advice on how to improve her poetry. This too is familiar territory for those laboring in the field of examining the reception of non Anglo-Celtic artists in Australia.

So perhaps we can pause and consider Patton’s own competence by analyzing what he chooses to single out. In the first paragraph he tells us that Kefala is a ‘Romanian born poet who migrated to Australia in 1959’. The implication is that English is not her first language but no mention is made that she arrived in Australia via another Anglophone country, NZ, where she completed her university training (in English). About half-way through the review we come upon an odd passage where Patton appears to take umbrage at the (mildly satiric) portrait of a bookish young man in the poem ‘Committee Member’.  As a long-serving arts administrator in the Australia Council Kefala presumably knows whereof she speaks but somehow this depiction gets under Patton’s skin since he states  somewhat defensively (feels preempted by this portrait?) that he himself is neither ‘young nor spruced up’  but will none the less give an evaluation of the poetry and this he proceeds to do with a vengeance.

First, he tells us that Kefala does not live up to the philosophical? existential? statements made elsewhere in her books (Sydney Journals) and interviews e.g. her work ‘is courageous in its way, but it doesn’t do justice to her ideas on the matter’. Then we are told how Kefala is a poet of moods but that somehow these moods are not created through the words she uses: ‘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’. How precisely are diction, mood, images and words to be separated from meaning? Later we are told that several images don’t work for him e.g. the ice that turns to fire in the first poem. Really! That extreme cold can mimic heat is too much of a revelation to contemplate? Then we are told that shredded burnt trees cannot possibly evoke ‘black veils moving in the wind.’ Another indicting example is ‘horses riding past’ but the further lines are ‘the horses riding past/graceful, at ease, young girls/their manes fanning the light.’ In other words, the horses and the young girls riding them are collapsed together to form the kind of hybrid beings that convey an indication of the fabled relationship between adolescent girls and their horses. The failure of imagination is embarrassing and one doesn’t quite know where to look.

Patton could have followed another direction, another clue that appears in his review—the acoustic. Kefala’s collection begins with the poem ‘The Voice’ and ends with another titled ‘Metro Cellist’ which describes the way measured sound escapes from a confined space to soar in an unconfined one: ‘The earth was singing,/singing in an exuberance/of youth’. So much for the persistent dolefulness and melancholy parameters to which Patton insists on confining this collection. What has marked all Kefala’s work is a sense of the musical dimensions of language—each different language and, after all, she is at home in Greek, Rumanian, French and English. Both thematically and rhythmically Kefala’s work has always carried this element of the acoustic and it is that factor amongst others that renders her own poetic voice unique.

Surely, by now, there is enough of a talent pool for SRB to be able to choose a reviewer who can do justice to a unique poetic voice in Australian letters who has been contributing in English for 44 years.

— Sneja Gunew

Simon Patton responds:

Dear Sneja,

I thank you for your ‘Review’ of my review of Antigone Kefala’s Fragments, but I must respond in full measure to its derisive and bullying manner. Such behaviour in the fragile world of Australian literary criticism is unacceptable.

As a passionate advocate of Kefala’s work, you could have provided a comprehensive, alternative account of the poetry contained in the collection and presented a convincing account of qualities in it which I might have missed or misunderstood. Indeed, your comments on the acoustic element in Kefala’s work is a step in this direction (although no other review I have read has mentioned this aspect either). But the fact that you decided to attack me personally, sneer at my competence as a poetry reviewer, and simply brush aside some of my criticisms as ‘odd’ and ‘embarrassing’ has deprived us all of the chance to see Kefala’s work from an expert academic perspective. No reader, however, will take your unprovoked attack on my competence as offering proof of the value of the poetry in Fragments. In fact, your failure to engage adequately with my criticisms might confirm the view that the book is far from satisfactory.

As I point out in my review, certain conspicuous elements in Fragments present a major obstacle to any favourable assessment. Such elements include the brevity and lack of substance in the structure of the lines, the generally slow movement of poems in their unfolding (a factor linked to a lack of compelling rhythmic organization), the lapses in tone that affect the all-important atmosphere of certain poems, frequent instances of incoherence in the imagery, and the excessive repetition of the ‘full of + noun’ structure. Kefala may be a very good poet, Sneja, and she may have written some very good poetry, but there is little evidence of this in this particular collection.

I do acknowledge, however, that no other review of the book offers any substantial criticisms of Fragments: Martin Duwell particularly praises Kefala’s ‘impressive ability to “capture” the atmosphere —  the “weather” — of a place, as well as giving precise visual rendition’; for Gig Ryan, ‘In Kefala’s poems, each site is a plane of time necessarily rippled and haunted by the past’s undertow, and nothing is static’; Geoff Page describes it as a ‘collection of discrete encounters, events and memories, described with almost preternatural awareness and compressed, for the most part, into fewer than twenty lines of careful and evocative writing’; while Dmitra Harvey, in an impressively sophisticated response, draws attention to the fact that ‘the interplay of sensuousness and memory evokes non-linear temporalities’. I think both you and I would be interested to hear what these critics say on the validity of the points I raise.

It is my belief that Australian poetry suffers from the lack of open criticism. (I was once told by an editor who rejected one of my pieces that she couldn’t see why I bothered to review a book that did not appeal to me.) Your behaviour with regard to my own work can only further exacerbate this unfortunate situation, with the result that Australian poetry reviewing will, for the most part, go on being timid, over-cautious, and unrealistically positive. You may also discourage emerging reviewers such as those who have participated in the Sydney Review of Books’ Emerging Critics Fellowships from engaging whole-heartedly in the activity: who, expecting the dignified exchange of ideas in a tolerant and civilized forum, would wish to subject themselves to your unkindness and lack of respect?

I have no professorship, no position, no institutional affiliation, no power, no regular job, no wage — and I rely on the resources of public libraries to pursue my critical writing. I think even you would acknowledge that this makes me a very unusual kind of ‘gate-keeper’, as you call me. But I have been reading, writing and translating poetry for the past 35 years, and I take my stand on that. I also have something else: I have absolutely nothing to lose, which makes me completely fearless.

Finally, Sneja, I must ask you not to make assumptions about my ethnicity in the public domain. Until you know all the facts of my painful personal history, you would do well to hold your tongue.

Yours sincerely,

Simon Patton