12 Dec Vale Antigone Kefala
This is an excerpt from a tribute written for Antigone Kefala on the occasion of the Patrick White Award for her contribution to Australian Literature. The award was made just two week before her death on December 3 2022.
The Patrick White Award is given each year without application “to a writer who has been highly creative over a long period but has not necessarily received adequate recognition”. This well described Antigone Kefala, who had been writing extraordinary poetry and prose for over half a century and who, though immensely admired and respected, was far too little known and celebrated in Australia.
Kefala was born in Brăila, Romania, part of the Greek diaspora settled there since the mid-19th century. Her family became refugees, fleeing to Greece then to New Zealand, after World War II, when Romania was occupied by the Soviets. She arrived in Australia on her own in December 1959. Her account of sailing into Sydney must be one of the most joyous acclamations of arrival in Australian literature:
AUSTRALIA … AUSTRALIA … we entered Sydney Harbour a summer morning. The colours of the rock wall at the gap were warm apricot, the sun was coming down on the waters, the whole landscape shimmering, overflowing with light, with heat, with movement.
I was suddenly released from the greenness, from the rain, the wind, released, at least for the moment, from my inner problems. My past in Romania, in Greece came back as meaningful experience in a landscape that had similar resonances. Sydney seemed alive with people, activity and intellectual excitement.
Kefala’s jubilation in this passage comes from her recognition that she might be able to forge a way of living in this new place that resonates with the landscape and culture of her past. Sydney is both new and old, simultaneously evocative and original.
The passage shows the profound interconnection between the outer world and Kefala’s inner self, something that is characteristic of her writing. It also demonstrates her awareness of the necessity of community and a milieu. Inevitably perhaps, those initial hopes met with some disappointments, but her three volumes of memoir – Summer Visit (2003), Sydney Journals (2008) and Late Journals (2022) – provide a record of her daily constitution of this community, and of a creative life.
Kefala’s first language was Romanian, her second language was French, her third was Greek. Finally, there was English – her fourth language and the language of her literature. As she writes:
I feel you have to live in a language to be able to write in it and […] I couldn’t write in Romanian or Greek or French because they were languages that I had somehow passed through. English was the language I was actually living in – imperfectly.
But, as she continues:
My approach to English is not quite an English approach. The kind of imagery that I use, the kind of vocabulary that I use, the whole texture of my language is not an English texture.
The result is a new, revived, original English, as in this short example from her poem Nameless:
You are the resonance
in the fanatic colour
of the sky
that fans over the sea
a heavy cloth of shimmering
white gems on the horizon
Excesses of a terror
that can never be appeased.
As her publisher Ivor Indyk has observed, Kefala’s voice is distinctive, characterised by a minimalism that is “evident in the short lines, which throw emphasis on syllables that are barely audible in English”. This “accented English” is integral to the energy and intensity of her poetry. It revivifies English and its poetic capacities.
Some early readers of Kefala’s work struggled with these features, though she has always had her champions. More recently her poetry collection Fragments was awarded the 2017 Judith Wright Calanthe Award, and the Patrick White Award recognised her brilliance across genres. In their citation, the judges observed:
Kefala is a deliberately spare writer, practising an aesthetics of asceticism that is crucial to the power of her work across all forms. Her poetic minimalism belies the meticulous construction of echoes and patterns in her poetry, while the notable formal compression of both her prose and poetry distils intense experiences and perceptions.
Antigone Kefala contributed to Australian literature for 50 years, publishing many volumes of poetry, fiction and memoir. She was also a strong supporter of community arts and contributed to the promotion of a diverse Australian literature. The 2019 ASAL conference convened by Brigitta Olubas and Elizabeth McMahon led to the publication of Antigone Kefala: New Australian Modernities. The introduction to that volume made this last important claim:
Antigone Kefala is one of the most significant of the Australian writers … it would be difficult to overstate the significance of her life and work in the culture of this nation.
The Alien (1973)
Thirsty Weather (1978)
European Notebook (1988)
Absence: New and Selected Poems (1992/1998)
The First Journey (1975)
The Island (1984)
Alexia: A Tale for Advanced Children (11995)
Summer Visit: Three Novellas (2003)
Sydney Journals (2008)
Max: The Confessions of a Cat (2009)
Late Journals (2022)