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Journal of Modern Greek Studies 19.2 (2001) 299-302
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Antigone Kefala, Poems/. Melbourne: Owl Publishing. 2000. Pp. 118. AU $16.50.
Antigone Kefala is in the front rank of contemporary Australian poets, so that to claim her as a poet of Greek--or Romanian Greek--descent, is only to add to the significance that she already has, as a poet, in Australian literature. Her poetry has always been written in English, so this bilingual selection, with accompanying translations into Greek, cannot really be said to represent a homecoming. Rather, it should allow Greek readers to see how far Kefala has traveled, and to travel with her beyond their customary perspectives. There are elements in Kefala's poetic voice, in her use of traditional poetic elements, in the very understated quality of her poetry, that could be traced back to Greek sources, and that are likely to be even more apparent in the Greek translations; but the poetry itself always insists on the here-and-now, on the distance between the past and the present moment in which the past might be recalled, and specifically, on the physical reality of English itself, which Kefala deploys with a heightened sensitivity to its particular weight and densities.
Nevertheless, it is important to read Kefala's poetry within the context it appears here, in a series whose aim is, in the words of editor and publisher Helen Nickas, "to publish books that reflect the Greek diasporic experience." Australia is a country formed out of the diasporic experiences of many cultures, including that of its own indigenous peoples: the closer Kefala comes to capturing the essential qualities of this experience, the more closely she approaches the defining qualities of Australian culture. And not only Australian [End Page 299] culture; there is, in Kefala's portrayal of the migratory condition, a sense that it is also the defining condition of our modernity.
Thus, a poem like "The Place" is set in a landscape that is at once particular in its detail and general in its resonance:
The place was small, full of hills,
palm trees, almond trees, oleanders,
glass flowers falling from the sky
on the ascetic hills, the bare houses.
The ancients had been there looking for copper.
"The Place" is also a good example of Kefala's feel for the solidities of English: the alliteration of "l" sounds brings out even the concealed, almost weightless presence of this consonant in words like "palm" and "almond" where it is largely unvoiced. You could say that the language here displays the recognition and familiarity that the place does not. For those who know, the setting is Greece--but it is clearly not home. "The Place" is, in fact, a camp for the displaced. The landscape is imbued with that composite quality of exhaustion and magic characteristic of staging-posts in long journeys. The refugees themselves seem part of the larger patterns of forced migration and incarceration characteristic of the whole century:
We waited there two summers.
Tall birds with upturned beaks
picked us like grain.
We moved in herds
waited with patience to be fed
drank at the water places
between the walls our necks grew longer
stretching for the night.
"The Place" and "The Promised Land," another important poem included in this selection, form a kind of diptych: "The Place" tells of the first stage of migration, from Romania to Greece, a "return" which is not a return to a mythical place of origin; "The Promised Land," as its title ironically suggests, portrays the eventual destination, New Zealand, in which Kefala and her family settled before coming to Australia. Both poems are crucial to the depiction of the migrant experience in Australian literature (I cannot speak for their place in the literature of New Zealand) and would have to be key documents in the depiction of the Greek diaspora. This is because they speak eloquently of the losses incurred through migration and the sense of alienation that accompanies settlement in the new land. But the qualities they share with Kefala's other poems, not specifically...