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!”

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“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
PhotoPIlona Martonfi, author of Salt Bride

Montreal poet recounts experience as war refugee

Recently, I interviewed Montreal poet Ilona Martonfi, an activist and arts organizer. I’ve known Ilona since I was an editor for Scrivener Creative Review, so it was a pleasure to interview her about her most recent collection, Salt Bride, for Cult Montreal.

As a young child towards the end of the Second World War, Martonfi fled Hungary with her family as a war refugee. Though no one talked about such things at the time, she has since since learned that the town in Bavaria where she went to school was filled with Nazis from Czechoslovakia. Her family endured the siege of Budapest and many other dangerous experiences during this time.

In Salt Bride, she recounts these personal events as a poet. In her witness poems, she puts herself in the shoes of the hibakusha (Japanese atomic bomb survivors) and people displaced by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as well. She presents these and other subjects through her haunting, staccato-lined imagist verses, such as in this poem about victims of the atomic bombs:

“I played a piano
in a wooden house

and then I saw
my brother Akio digging me out
carrying me outside on his back,

laying me down under a ginkgo tree

flies and maggots
crawling on my body.


Like you, I forget.


We were children
who will die once again.”

From “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts” in Salt Bride

“I don’t like to shout in my work,” says Martonfi. “I don’t shout about Nagasaki. I don’t shout about those iron shoes [a Holocaust memorial site]. I tell it like it is, but always with empathy. Because I found empathy to be the most important thing.”

Read the article here.

Ilona Martonfi, author of Salt Bride