- Dreams of Clay Drops of Dew: Selected Poems, and: Athina and Her Daughters: A Memoir of Two Worlds, and: Expatriates: Contemporary Australian Tales, and: Sydney Journals: Reflections 1970-2000, and: Southern Sun, Aegean Light: Poetry of Second-Generation Greek-Australians
Three times removed from her homeland—Braila (Romania), via Athens, New Zealand, to Sydney—the poet and prose writer Antigone Kefala was the first Greek-Australian poet to achieve national recognition. Her first collection of poems, The Alien, was published in 1973, and was followed by two short novellas, published together as The First Journey. The publication of Thirsty Weather established her reputation as a poet of incurable nostalgia, a Seferis of the antipodes, full of sadness for each of the worlds she had inhabited and lost, but surprisingly sure-footed in her third language, English. Emblematic of the poems in that collection is "Wayfarers," set in the camp at Lavrion, outside Athens, where refugees were housed after World War II:
Was this our home?This orphanage overlooking the seawhite marble pillaged by the warleft barren, the grounds wastedbird drippings on the mosaics . . .
That word "drippings," not the "droppings" one expects, is what marks Kefala's work not as that of a non-native speaker, but one whose use of language is surprising without being contrived. In the long poem "Return to the Green Country," we are brought up short by the lines "the land watched morose/stubbornly grazing the soft rain," until we re-imagine the green hills as a herd of sad beasts "brooding below/the grey fermenting clouds." In the poem "Promised Land," Kefala observes Australian war veterans in what seems to be a home for the aged: [End Page 137]
At the tablesthe plastic flowers marked by fliesand the cutlery limpthey were serving our marrowwith the boiled peaschewing it patiently with their denturesand singing—for he's a jolly good fellow—
The unexpected savagery of that possessive slipped between the limp cutlery and the boiled peas cuts to the quick. It is this quality of sharp surprise that sets Kefala apart, and has given her a singular place in the Australian literary canon. Her Sydney Journals: Reflections 1970-2000 are interesting not only to admirers of her poetry and prose, but also as a commentary on the cultural world of Sydney during those decades when the house in Annandale that she shared with her mother until her death became the center of a circle of writers, musicians, and visual artists. One of them, the Cypriot painter Nikos Kypraios, like Kefala herself, became a major figure in the Australian art world. Others were immigrant and non-immigrant Australians, all distinguished by their passionate interest in the arts, and all attracted to the beautiful Romanian Greek woman with the melodious and surprisingly deep voice. The Journals begin during the Greek dictatorship, yet there is very little about what is happening there. In those years Kefala was working for the Australia Council during the brief honeymoon when the Labour government of Gough Whitlam poured money into both the Arts and "multiculturalism." For a short time, Antigone and I were colleagues (I had been commissioned to write a report for the Council on funding for ethnic arts). Both of us were disillusioned with the lip-service paid to the large ethnic communities by self-congratulatory government bureaucrats and soon found we had friends in common. Two of our gay mutual friends, only one of whom survived the AIDS epidemic, appear in the Journals, which are, amongst other things, a who's who of Sydney's...