Flowers by the Refugee’s Road: A Review of Salt Bride by Ilona Martonfi

Cover of Salt Bride by Ilona Martonfi

In her latest poetry collection, Salt Bride (Inanna Publications, 2019), Ilona Martonfi reinvents herself by creating a narrative out of her past–one in which she has had to reinvent herself many times, as a child refugee, mother, battered wife, activist, and, finally, as a poet. Hers is a refugee’s experience down to the very form and content of her lines; the search for place and home inspires her poetry, sometimes in unexpected ways. In the furtive fragments of her free verse lines, one detects a longing for impressions to stick, for a sentence to settle. But Martonfi’s voice is productively restless. Danger forces the refugee on the road, but she can still appreciate the beauty in a field of flowers.

In addition to her own, personal past, Martonfi tells the histories of other people. Her opening poem describes the environmental devastation around Shinkolobwe, an abandoned Congolese village where the uranium for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was mined. An “official nonplace” (1), Shinkolobwe is a home that has been erased. Nagaski, in her second poem, “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts,” is another example. With haiku-like economy, she speaks from the voice of victim of the atomic bomb blast: “the ocean still, low winds. / 11:02 a.m. August 9, 1945 / was the day I died” (3–5). Her understatement is not a shout out against injustice but a quiet witnessing of the victim’s experience.

In her witness poems, she uses her sparse, imagistic style to pay witness to the Chernobyl disaster, the Babi Yar massacre, the bombing of Budapest, and the Birkenau concentration camp, among other topics. She marks the time-and-place specificity of each trauma to memorialize it; the litany of place names and times of day develop their own poetic rhythm, their own stark, metronymic effect. But she never forgets the beauty of the natural landscape, which seems at times to encode the idea of home, especially in places where all sense of home has been destroyed and remembering it has become more important than ever.

For example, “Srebrenica” tells the story of a man’s brother, a victim of the Bosnian genocide. It is told from survivor’s first-person viewpoint:

hands bound behind his back.

My brother is here

summer of 1995

in a mass grave in Bosnia

fourteen years old

|

Avdija buried without his head

|

gravedigger

sheep, goats

|

walnut trees

climbing roses

white skulls

of the mountain.

(6 –17)

In this description of a grave, a home for the dead, her staccato imagery has the spontaneous clarity of Japanese poetry. The natural world is never far from Martonfi’s awareness; the beauty that lies by the wayside of trauma recalls the value of the lives lost.

Eventually, Martonfi turns to her own past to write about her family’s experience as Hungarian refugees during and after the Second World War. In poems like “Easter Sunday,” she reconstructs her earliest childhood memories. Representing herself as a “pigtailed Magyar refugee girl” (22), she tempers a sense of her innocence and naivety with her adult awareness of the secrets that her family never discussed at the time (personal interview). Fields of flowers and a new dress to wear are at the centre of this ten-year-old child’s world, until she discovers the “unfound” body of her mother (17), who has attempted suicide. “All the time I carry with me / the odour of spring / the odour of funeral,” the speaker states (5–6).

Smell is supposed to be the sense most strongly tied to memory; but what occasionally concretizes the past for Martonfi is sound. Lines of dialogue bring back the past with immediacy. Dialogue can draw up a specific childhood memory, or a memory of a fateful conversation, as in “The Vigil on Puget Sound,” a lament for her late brother. Other exclamations hit. In “White Lilacs,” she quotes her assertive reprimand against her abusive husband:

Lined with row houses

1215 rue Saint-André

tight knots of violence

[…]

Your four children. His fists.

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“Shorty, I will divorce you!”

|

“I will divorce you,” you said.

(1–3, 38–40)

Martonfi renders the violence in the relationship explicit. Her oral assertion of agency reaches out from the poem like it does from the past; her promise to divorce is her response to her husband’s fists.

In examining her own life, Martonfi writes about her own children and what it was like to live with a batterer husband. Though equating a poet with her speaker is usually problematic, Martonfi states that these poems reflect her experiences completely and that standing up against domestic violence is her life’s calling (personal interview). This said, her poetry has been a vehicle for the reinvention and re-fashioning of her identity. In the prose poem “Casa dei Zetti,” she furnishes a villa with a catalogue of domestic details, describing how it is “a house for art” (3), despite the presence of the violence that puts her “arms on the ceiling. Head on the wall” (15). Art is a way to recover from abuse and, in the end, to master one’s past. “Every day, I reconstructed myself,” she says (14), highlighting the importance of art for her recovery.

Martonfi’s poetry is especially sympathetic to the plight of children. In “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts,” she speaks of the “children / who will die once again” (22–23). The children who continue to suffer due to society’s inability to learn from the past serve as indictments of that society. In “Girl in Dubrulle Wood,” she speaks of a girl who was “snatched in a playground / in front of her mother” (16–17). In “Small River,” an Inuk woman recalls her grandparents’ traditional way of life, before she was taken to a Residential School–another form of kidnapping. “I was just four when taken,” her speaker says (19). “Small River,” like “The Fourth Panel,” is respectful of the other’s voice, reporting the facts of their trauma and letting the reader supply emotion.

Martonfi’s own childhood as a refugee, as recalled in her poems, parallels the experiences of these children. In fact, “Funeral Prayer for Alan Kurdî” can be read as one child refugee’s prayer to another: from Martonfi younger self to a boy who never made it to safety. Alan Kurdî is the Syrian refugee boy who drowned en route to the island of Kos in the Aegean Sea and whose photograph became one of the pietàs of the Syrian refugee crisis. As a former child refugee, Martonfi expresses her wish for Alan, and for all children displaced by conflict: “O little boy, Alan. / O God, give him a home” (15–17).

Given this powerful subject matter, which manages to be both personal and historical, one could risk overlooking Martonfi’s less eventful, more form-based poems. But to do so would mean to overlook her experiments, which inform the aesthetics of the rest of her collection. The well-crafted word-strokes of her ekphrastic Van Gogh poems express her verbal impressionism. In addition, her Cézanne poems, contained in “Les Lauves,” are a series of haiku which paint an impression of Cézanne’s art studio in Aix-en-Provence: “red-tile roof stone house / chasing the ghosts of artists / mistral in blue pines” (7–9). Additionally, “Sea Urchin” echoes this form in a series of oceanic haiku with mythological overtones, hinting at the mysterious depths that lie beneath the haiku itself: a concept that can be summarized in the Japanese aesthetic of yūgen.

In short, these poems reiterate the aesthetic that defines the rest of the collection. Fusing the personal with the historical, and impressionism with yūgen, Salt Bride offers the reader history with personal depths.

Photo of Ilona Martonfi, author of Salt Bride
Photo Ilona Martonfi, author of Salt Bride

“Index”: an HTMElegy

CKUT 23 Dec 2015

On CKUT (McGill Campus Radio) this week on Monday and at the launch for the Veg magazine yesterday, I read some magical poems I composed recently. One was inspired by Gwendolyn MacEwen and John Dee, the other was an elimination of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and the last was a pantoum, a fabulously musical poetic form if there ever was one. I hope I did it justice.

I also told audiences about a certain poem called “Index” that has been published in the Veg. I wrote this poem in Notepad and tried to pun on and play with HTML format tags, in order to produce two texts in a single poem: one written directly by me, the other intended by me, but actually put together by a web browser. Click on the link below to view the .pdf:

“Index: an HTMElegy

The radio show aired at 11:00 am Monday 23 2015. If I’m not mistaken, you should be able to find my reading in the archives here.

By the way, here’s a quick bonus HTMElegy that was not published in the Veg:

“Andy”

HTMElegies 1, Andy HTMElegies 2, Andy

Poetry Launch at the Veg!

The semester is just about over and it’s time for some poetry! The Veg, one of McGill’s student literary magazines, is holding a launch later tonight at 8:00pm at Le Cagibi, where I will be reading a selection of poems including my haiku. I will be running a fuller post next week describing the event in detail, along with yesterday’s launch of Scrivener Creative Review’s Fall 2014 online edition.

In the meanwhile, for this week, I leave you with this session of the program Radio is Dead on CKUT 90.3 FM, a Montreal/McGill campus community radio station. I gave a reading on air and was interviewed by Clara Lagacé. Another interviewee, Julia Isler, is in my seminar on Canadian Modernism with Professor Brian Trehearne.

You can click here in order to download the show. Simply click the Monday November 24, 2014 airing of Radio is Dead. You can stream in online, or download it, if you have iTunes.

CKUT
The CKUT desk. (I’m on the right.)

 

 

For the Sun

Haiku is a simple form.
It combines two like images to create a third.
Ezra Pound's haiku was the result of several long, many-stanza drafts.
It was about a station in the Paris metro.
He paired his imagery down to three lines.
This poem is "For the Sun."
It will be published in The Veg.
It's about a magnolia tree growing over a driveway at the far end of my street.
The title is stolen from a poem by Irving Layton.
Enjoy.


Rose magnolias
fall on pavement, making tears
a silk red carpet.


Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke

WhylahFor Black History Month, I thought I’d share a Canadian poet whose lush, cadenced verse is like Nova Scotian blues. I’m talking about Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke.

I read it studying Can lit with Professor Robert Lecker in my last semester at McGill and we had fascinating discussions in class.

Some background: Whylah Falls describes a story set in Africadia, which is Clarke’s name for black Nova Scotia. Africadians are descendents of freed Loyalist slaves who fled the American colonies during the Revolution in 1783 and wound up in Nova Scotia, where they set down roots. Although I recognized “Africadia,” which sounds like “Africville,” from the headlines, I was unaware of how deep the roots of this Nova Scotian African-Canadian community really went. Clarke makes it his duty to represent Africadians, who were an illiterate people, in his expertly crafted verse.

The conflicts–internal and external to the poet–which Clarke tackles are one of the many things that are interesting about Whylah Falls (at least from an academic standpoint). But if you took it off the shelf and read it, you might be confused about what genre it is.

Sure, it is partly poetry–but it also has several prose pieces. The table of contents is divided into Cantos like the epic poems of old, under headings like “The Adoration of Shelley” and “The Trial of Saul.” The front matter also contains a dramatis personae list of main characters, in the style of the Renaissance drama folio. This makes no mention of the blurred, grainy photographs he includes throughout the volume.

Basically, Clarke has written a classical epic about Africadia, combining the “white” tradition of the “great poets” with the more intuitive cadences of blues jazz.

Is he crazy for attempting such a mixture of genres? Before you answer, you must consider that Clarke is such a master poet that he is well capable of answering this ambitious challenge.

His rhythm and style–which for him are inseparable–form a syncopated song that follows the cadence of jazz progressions. Although I am no music know-it-all, someone in class mentioned that the scansion of his lines match certain jazz rhythms. This achieves an unforgettable effect in his love poetry, which flows with allusions to the most romantic book in the Bible, the Song of Solomon. (Which even I borrowed from, last Valentine’s day)

Whylah Falls follows a man returning to his home after being educated abroad. The opening stanza of his first poem sets the mood for the book:

“At eighteen, I thought the Sixhiboux wept.

Five years younger, you were lush, beautiful

Mystery; your limbs–scrolls of deep water.

Before your home, lost in roses, I swooned,

Drunken in the village of Whylah Falls,

And brought you apple blossoms you refused,

Wanting Hank Snow woodsmoke blues and dried smelts,

Wanting some milljerk’s dumb, unlettered love.”

The way Clarke breaks each line and the diverse, evocative vocabulary are testament to his mastery of language. As you might have guessed, his book is not only filled with love poetry dedicated to people, but to the place of Whylah Falls itself and the river that runs through it.

Whylah Fall‘s characters are also brilliantly inspiring, the salt of the earth, so to speak. Who could forget the following description of Cora in the kitchen?

Cooking is faith. Cora opens her antique  cookbook, a private bible, enumerating Imperial measures, English orders,–pinches, pecks, cups, teaspoons, of this or that–and intones, “I create not food but love. The table is community. Plates are round rooves; glasses, iced trees; cutlery, silver streams.”

This alchemy of cooking is only possible in Whylah Falls. Even if you do not think you are likely to pick up a book about an African-Canadian minority group in Nova Scotia, you can still see that the imagery in its vital power can awaken the soul.

The story of Whylah Falls eventually centers around the shooting death of Othello Clemence, whose murderer is acquitted on self-defense. The fake newspaper clippings Clarke includes are brilliant and funny, showing a more humorous face to our poet. But his poems about the murder’s effect on the community blend beauty with violence to produce an elegiac effect:

“His breath went emergency in his lungs,

His felled heart grasped impossibly at light;

A thrown bouquet, he dropped softly to earth.

Torn from sweet oxygen, O wilted fast.”

Ranging from the mournful to the humorous, the sassy to the extravagant, and the sensual to the religious, Whylah Falls has something for every reader this Black History Month. If you read it on Valentine’s Day, you have the added benefit of reading some of this luscious verse to your beloved. Just remember that “the language we swill with loneliness is liquor, is love, a turmoil in the bones.”

Excerpts are from: “The River Pilgrim: a letter,” “How to Live in a Garden,” “Eulogy,” and “I Love You/More than Words.”

P.S. Check out this stimulating interview about Africadian identity.

George Elliott Clarke, author of Whylah Falls
George Elliott Clarke, author of Whylah Falls

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Photo Credits:

Cover: http://www.buriedinprint.com/?p=3706

George Elliott Clarke: http://www.playwrightscanada.com/index.php/authors/a-d/george-elliott-clarke.html

Beyond this Dark House by Guy Gavriel Kay

beyondYou may know Guy Gavriel Kay as a historical fantasy novelist, author of River of Stars, a book that continues to be nominated for various awards. But did you know that he is also a poet?

Beyond this Dark House is that obscure volume of poetry you might have remembered seeing just before the title page of River of Stars. It should actually come of no surprise that Kay has tried his hand at poetry, given the intense lyricism and beautiful descriptions in his novel. Take the following line from Chapter 1 of River of Stars, for example, a few lines that perfectly set the tone for the whole novel:

The boy was alone in the bamboo grove on a morning swaddled with fog, a wan, weak hint of sun pushing between leaves: light trying to declare itself, not quite there.

Kay’s poems are a departure from the grand quasi-historical narratives that define his novels, but only a small one. In his introduction to the collection, Don Coles quotes a line of Kay’s verse where he claims “I have / a mild facility / that lets me turn such phrases.” Whether in prose or poetry, Coles writes that Kay has an ease with crafting words.

I would have to agree. His opening poem “Night Drive: Elegy” allows us a glimpse into Kay’s interior world as he writes about visiting the Winnipeg neighborhood where he grew up and remembering his dead father. I am unsure of the degree to which Kay tells us things that actually happened to him, but if this is Kay speaking about himself, readers of his novels will enjoy reading this intimate and nostalgic poetry.

The collection often turn towards Classical mythology, which should be unsurprising for readers familiar with Kay’s novels. “Being Orpheus” and “Psyche” in particular are well-crafted love lyrics, sensual and resonant. He also treats Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in “Malvolio” and Biblical myth in “Cain: the Stones.”

Many hidden treasures lie in wait for truly dedicated fans of Kay who do not mind reading poetry. He toasts Tennyson in his short lyric “Shallott” and nods towards his relationship with J. R. R. Tolkien in “If I Should Fly Across the Sea Again,” to whom the poem is dedicated. Kay, who helped Christopher Tolkien edit The Silmarillion, has been close to the Tolkien family and here fantasizes about returning to an old tree in rural England and experiencing some old memories .

guinvevere
Guinevere.

A few poems deal with Arthurian legends, which is the closest link I can find to Kay’s novels; it can be read as a loose tie-in to The Fionavar Tapestry. In “Guinevere at Almesbury,” Kay invites us into the monastery where Lady Guinevere resides after the fall of Camelot while she lives out the rest of her days , remembering Lancelot and Arthur–the two men she loved. “Avalon” also treats of the theme of the love triangle, a lyric that is one of my favourites. It opens with the line of dialogue that in 7 words summarizes both the conflict and the intimacy in Guinevere’s relationship to Lancelot: “But we both knew this long ago.”

On a less sublime level, Kay is capable of adopting more colloquial, twenty-first century styles. For instance “Night Call” opens with a lover’s anxiety that she is being “too literal” on the phone. Yet it ends with this beautiful line: “We have so far to go into what there is of light.” Another poem “Power Failure” is a series of small stanzas with lines only two or three syllables long, lending you a sense of encroaching darkness as you read it. The theme of light and dark is constant through the book.

“Beyond this Dark House” is a long poem about two lovers in the Prairies who walk together at night as the world around them acquires touches of the strange and mythic. Two stanzas in particular ought to resonate with any reader of Kay. They are also a fine example of the sort of poetry you can expect.  Here they are:

“You’ve walked beside me,

never knowing,

for six years now.

We’ve been together

in so many places

as I traveled, under skies

with doubled moons.

.

“Beyond this dark house

a train is running away

into the night plain.

We’ve all had

dreams break,

fantasies we shaped.”

Double moons: a reference to the night sky in Tigana perhaps? Whether or not you get the reference, these are a sweet two stanzas, and a true mark of a mature poet. There seems to be some desire for fantasy in these lines, for escape–an escape to a land not unlike the ones which Kay has written about in his novels. What is truly touching about this poem is that two moons are no cheap allusion to his novels, but a suggestion–very slight–that the second moon is the speaker’s beloved. At least that is my interpretation.

I could talk more about this poetry collection, but I will leave the rest for you to read. If you fell in love with River of Stars‘ lyricism as much as its plot and its characters, then you must take a chance with Kay’s poetry. It will reward you.

GGK

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Image Credits:

Kay: http://profunduslibrum.blogspot.ca/2012/10/guy-gavriel-kay-ysabel.html

Cover:http://fyreflybooks.wordpress.com/2009/02/28/guy-gavriel-kay-beyond-this-dark-house/

Guinevere: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guinevere

Witness by Patrick Lane

WitnessOn the cover of Patrick Lane’s Witness, a poetry collection of his most powerful verse, there is a picture of a barn owl staring at you with those wide-set eyes that are so effective at seeing in the dark. This owl is the perfect metaphor for a poet who does just that. Despite the darkness of mortality, alcoholism, and a brutal family history, Lane’s speakers perceive the beauty that underlies violence and the unspeakable.

Lane’s father was an alcoholic who was murdered seemingly at random by a man pointing a rifle through a store window. His brother, another poet of the notorious Lane family, committed suicide. He was also divorced–all this over a few years in the 1970s. As a result, Patrick Lane fell deeper into his own dependence of alcohol. Finally, after marrying his wife Lorna Crozier, he found his healing through the act of gardening, adopting his body to the cyclical rhythm of nature.

Lane’s poetry reflects his alcoholic past and the ultimately redemptive power of nature. His poems shock you with their violence, to “leave you not just shaken, but shaking,” as the Vancouver Sun remarks. From the first poem “For Ten Years,” we encounter dead birds, the merciless season of winter, and the pain of divorce. Though it may be tempting to say that birds are a symbol of beauty and innocence in Lane’s poetry, it would be almost immoral to ascribe the term “symbol” to the sudden violence of a bird hitting a window and perishing, “his beak … a crust of ice / that melted as you breathed.” Lane’s poetic breath can do nothing to prevent this bird’s death. His  is an anti-academic philosophy that resists complicated interpretations:  his poems just are. They breathe and then they die.

wolf snowInvoking Canadian landscape and wildlife in almost every poem, Lane feeds off natural imagery. But he also includes heart-rending reflections on his relationship with his father in “The Killer” and “Fathers and Sons.” When I studied Lane at McGill, my professor Robert Lecker told us how his last class had cried upon reading the latter poem. Other poems such as “The Changing Room” and “The War” express the implicit codes of silence the govern relationships between men, while others like “The Happy Little Towns” describe gaping, bloody wounds and the attempt to suture them and heal.

Lane speaking at a convocation ceremony at the University of Victoria, where he summarized his lifelong search for beauty in a story in which he attempts to preserve a blue butterfly that freezes to death in northern Ontario.
Lane speaking at a convocation ceremony at the University of Victoria, where he summarized his lifelong search for beauty in a story in which he attempts to preserve a blue butterfly that freezes to death in northern Ontario.

Given the sobering power of his verse, I thought Witness could provide a fine introduction to poetry book reviews on my blog. Though it is not the normal fare of fantasy novels up for review, I wish to remind my readers of my abiding interest in Canadian literature.

Since each poem in Witness resists attempts at interpretation, I thought Lane would be a fine poet to introduce yourselves to, if you are not the sort to read poetry.  It will likely change how you think of poetry and beauty itself. I would only advise a quick word of caution that some of the poems contain violence and perverse sexuality. Of course, the violence if part of the deal with Lane: how he causes you to see the beauty in violence. Not in a Quentin Tarantino way, but in a way that accepts that violence resists style, yet strives to demonstrate the more bitter, complex beauty behind brutality. If this understanding of beauty shakes your values, then be prepared to be “shaking.”

Patrick Lane
Patrick Lane, author of Witness.

An albino pheasant display set up by a taxidermist. Often, Lane's seeking beauty in dead birds  through his poetry conjures up images of the taxidermist's trade. "Albino Pheasants" is a famous Lane poem that you can read in Witness.
An albino pheasant display. Lane’s seeking beauty in dead birds through his poetry conjures up images of the taxidermist’s trade. “Albino Pheasants” is a famous Lane poem that you can read in Witness.

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Image Credits:

Albino Pheasant: http://www.fishingbuddy.com/albino_pheasant_2

wolf snow:http://christophermartinphotography.com/tag/snow/

Lane at Convocation: http://www.factsandopinions.com/tag/patrick-lane/

Patrick Lane: http://www.abcbookworld.com/view_author.php?id=190

Cover: http://www.amazon.ca/Witness-Selected-1962-2010-Patrick-Lane/dp/1550175084