View of Chernobyl taken from Pripyat – Photo by Jason Minshull via Wikimedia Commons


Chernobyl II

Revelation 8:10-11 “… the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.”

We are the Chernobyl babushkas wearing black kerchiefs. We are the ones with radiation sickness. We are the firefighters interred in two coffins, one zinc, the other wood. We are the digger claws, we collect the seeds, maize, and rye, and zinnias, the log houses, and bury them in the earth. We are the white storks nesting on clay chimneys. We are the Geiger counters. We are the grey wolves of the irradiated lairs.


Kaszás Andor, Stolperstein (Budapest-13, Pannónia utca 50) – Photo by Dudva via Wikimedia Commons


Stumbling Stones

It was a house set into the invisible,
copper and zinc, brass
recalling the sun, the Budapest avenues,
each acacia leaf and Stolperstein.

It was the doorways with a yellow star

it was the wind in the lilac trees
on Gellért hill, the Chain Bridge
that spanned the Danube River.
Fascist Arrow Cross militiamen
order you to march from Népszínház
Street 16 to Kerepesi út 2-4

it was the bundles, the
Keleti Station, the cattle wagons.

Your shorn hair and tattooed
serial numbers on your arm
at Birkenau the SS guards,
the dogs, the beatings,
your mother’s coat, her shoes
the gas chambers, the crematoria.

It was the stumbling stone.
The cement, the sand, the water.

It was a house. Yours alone.


Zinnia, Plumchen – Photo by Reinhard Latzke via Wikimedia Commons



deep in the mountains
walking through scrub forest
a masked shrike calls out
ah, when I hear its schgra-a-a shriek
“the plague is come”

in the meadow marshes
a vole gnawing rhizomes
come and see, come see
the river mud-washed
for the hills, these verses

these flat needles of
the fir from the Old English fyrh
tied with a thick elastic
some of us rinse the cyanotypes
causing the stories to fade

I, my hands full of dirt
rake and haul deadfall
a year whose days are long
I read your letter
in the moonlight



Favela Jaqueline (Vila Sônia), via Wikimedia Commons


The Lundu

This is the age of surrealism,
ordinary oil on ordinary canvas:

all those losing the noisy ghosts of slavery
all those who are scraping off wet paint
and those palm trees in the gardens
all Galerias de Arte in São Paulo.

They say: we are poor.
Some say: we are squatters.

There is the head of a man
and the eyes have no iris.
There is the male I and the
female I superimposed,
your rhythms on guitars, the bass drums,
your castanets.

You dance the Lundu.
You want to stay
when your favela is razed.

What are you going to do
with all this river water?
Your tin-roof shack on stilts?


Lundu – Brazilian traditional dance


The Orangery

After I buried the umbilical cords, the placentas,
the cauls; after I moved in with the lemon trees and
zinnias; after I escaped his fists, I slept in the orangery
on the putty-coloured couch; after I saw the waning
gibbous moon setting in the morning sky; after the
warble of swallows, a Sicilian folk song on a boombox:
“Ciuri, Ciuri”; after I mopped ceramic floor tiles with
water and vinegar, painted cerulean the rush chairs;
after the red brick house was separated by glass doors,
the concrete of a bunker kitchen, steep staircases: after
all that, I would take this verse and write sradicare,
uproot the wild roses, raspberry rhizomes, grasses.
And you’d ask: Why do you write about fetuses
and swallows, “Ciuri, Ciuri”? Flowers, Flowers.


Sicilian folk song, Ciuri, Ciuri







Blueberries in Eastern Siberia from Wikimedia Commons


Wild Blueberries

You’ll ask: And where are the wild blueberries?
and the shrill octave C flute notes?
And the Sunday afternoon lessons
words by these dragonflies: Leave! Get out!

I’ll tell you the story.

It was the beginning of autumn,
a scalpelling of white bone lichen
and bones full of mud the colour of damp irises

all these surrealist collages
glued to canvas, newspaper clippings.
Crizzled azure sea glass.
Then one day fleeing his fists,

these streets, carrying these bags.

One day this was the city of the unspoken
all those stone houses as they watched as I
bore the moon’s night side. And those
who swaddled it in a yellow sickle caul.
Look at all those who dwelled there.

Look at my buried placentas.

And you’ll ask why ekphrasis
speaks as one of fracture.
A stilled world, living in frames?

In the long galleries
etch in aquatint a madder red.

Wild blueberry rhizomes that
resembled old coffins. The barrens.


Great Bittern at Minsmere via Wikimedia (flickr user putneymark) 



Sometimes, can you explain to a bittern what war is? Now it gets closer as if it has a secret to tell. Clucks and booms: Huu bwong. Unk-er-lunk. Huu huu huu huu. Sometimes, for a while you feel free. Then you hear teacher’s voice: “Ilka, come and sit back here on this bench!” These bog lands you can’t understand. These watercolour paintings of Pirka Wood. Walled nunnery orchard. Rye fields. Marshes and reed grasses. Heather moorlands. The cotton rag paper, wrinkled from water, as if the surface was the skin. The goat hair brushes. Over the years, you withdraw. You get smaller, you lose fairy tales. Sometimes, can you explain to a bittern what a song is? Why you play marbles. Pig-tailed nine year old. Sometimes, you can’t understand why fourth grade teacher is touching you. Why blue horses come in your dreams. That snort and nicker and goad the rains. Wet poplar leaves in a bomb crater. A waning sickle moon. The creek. Why you are afraid to tell your mother. The thin paper.


School photograph of Ilona in Schwabelweiss, Bavaria, 1949,
photographer unknown – Photo from the family archives


Edgar Ende’s Cloth With Swallow (1946)


A long-lost myth, half-remembered

animal motif and architectonic fragment
these images of darkroom sketches
these epochs of distortion.
Dream-like visions

fighting it out in the ooze.

You pour gesso and let it fall across.


Skittering off every canvas

past the dogs, past the boars,
the foxes, the lizards

past giant sculptures

biomorphic shapes
you call yourself a surrealist.
A flat plane devoid of texture

death themes, clumsy, naïve.

The figurative alienated.


This swallow voice.
Small misshapen swallow.


This is the barbed wire of the ghetto
all those killed by war
all those tortured
flanked by high brick walls

these painters

their degenerate art.


They say: Burn it!

You say: Auction them!


There is the rustle of the river reed
there is the evening sun.
There is the village,

your barren fruit trees.




Horses in Chernobyl, Ukraine (Wikimedia Commons)


Summernote V

Call her goddess of heath and yellow gorse. Tell her you have left the moon unlit. Snuggled into its folds. Swamp-fed forest creeks. Grafted to fen carr, sedge grasses. Dwarf blackberries. See if she believes you. You can neglect wood bluebells, red-purple milkweed, these rimes, flowerings begging for time. Paper birch trees that chafe refrains, disjunctions, oxygen for photosynthesis. How a butterfly pupa fastens its body to a green leaf before eclosing. Tell her it’s the Earth here. Tell her escape won’t work, this far into the scrub habitat. How over there in flattened boxes sits Pirka Ort, clawed wheat fields knotted in dirt. Excavating a nunnery manor. Cherry trees. Plum. Stripping away punctuation. Tell her that you are out here all alone. Tell her. You have summoned the wind. Swallows flying low. Smell of petrichor after rain falls. The blood of the stone. See if she believes you.



miniature gas masks
an empty glass milk bottle
atomic sunflowers

rodents in the ground
live plutonium-packed prey
wind in pine forest

Ferris wheel in Pripyat
radioactive boars

a camera drone
woodland around Chernobyl
song of marsh warbler

thatched roof log houses
carvings around window frames
Rosa’s potato patch



I will go now, learn the language of the
woods, and go to the huts, where the flautists
are practising, the sky violet. I will
learn the trees. Gneiss hillocks of mosses.
I shall weave and knot jute ropes around grey
bark and branches. Lime-green wings and
furry white body. Obits for those whose cairns are
missing, those who are numbers. Pupa of the
Luna moth eclosing, I will journey through
the Totenwald, a boggy, stygian fen.
Blueberries and wild roses standing in the sphagnum,
knots and ropes, using ropes as lines, an ode I use
to knot each piece, cocoon wrapped in leaves as home.
I will go now where river birch grows. Hold a
wake among rhodora, red osier dogwood withy.
I hear a small blackwater stream
quarrelling with metaphor. Acid rain in understory.
Wetness the shape of water on skin.
The bodies we speak of inhabiting.

Papery white moonflowers. A bittern calls.




My grandmother, Maria Kovacs – Photo by Ilona Martonfi


Seven Mountains
For my maternal grandmother


That moment when you see spring on your windowsill
you have lost your sister,

ceramic pot yellow daffodils, nodding buds. Wilted petals.
Ruffled trumpet. Shriveled and fading

that moment when news comes from your village Kisjenö
about the death of Katarina,

red clay of the Fehér-Körös River, Kingdom of Hungary
the land beyond the forest. Slate roof

timber hut. Omens of sickness
and misfortune. Evil spirits on full moon nights

that moment you remember the year great-grandfather,
Kovács György, abandoned his family. 1897. The year
you were born, a girl named Mária,

great-grandmother Viktória farmed out

never to live again with her brothers and sister

never to sew an embroidered silk
wedding dress. Never to bless the bread
at your nuptials. Carry a painted chest
with tulips and roses to your home.

That moment you remember the crowing of a black hen,
in the kitchen a pine wood coffin,
keening women singing songs of lament

your sister Katarina who dies in childbirth.
White shroud and veil fastened with silver pins.


La Folle

Here it is then, found in the teeth of a chisel
clutter, dried-out clay,

sepia-hued loops
barricaded shut.
Nowhere familiar. “La folle!”

Clutching monochrome negatives.
4e arrondissement of Paris
ma soeur Camille

destroying much of her oeuvre
silence back to silence

tearing all sketches.

In 1892, after an abortion

drawing us into a plum moon
half-remembered fables
set amid a wild overgrown garden

and we become spectral:



wrapped in a long maroon coat
recluse in her studio
at 19 Quai Bourbon
l’île Saint-Louis

committed at Montdevergues Asylum
never touched clay, ever again.



You’ve come to the island north on the reef

waking up with the half moon
the air tasting of salt
knotted grass fishing nets

name it wind, or cloud
the sixth extinction

splashed pink by a mad painter

zooxanthellae, symbiotic algae
leaving a bare skeleton

overheated seawater placed
in clam shells you’ve offered

umbilical cord to the ocean.

Take a word such as children
or hunger, take a word such as stars.
Tell a story

some story.

Mud huts painted yellow or blue
created in the Dreamtime

eucalyptus and acacia and mangroves

rephotographing through long exposure,
geckos, skinks, snake.

Factories and cars and deforestation.



Unstretched cloth canvas. The many weeks I lived in here, in Terezin Ghetto.

A family group here, and another there. Memories trapped in erasure. Scraping through oils and ink. We are not safe, says one character. Scratching, sculpting away with palette knife. Grey ink running with the black ink. The painted people call to us. Shadow us. Possess us. I put down abstract marks. Look at my ancestors. Concerts in cellars and attics. Percussion, a cello, double bass. Lilac hills of Prague.

Sibilant hissing sounds. Windowless cattle wagons. Czech Nazi camp filled with bumblebees.

Such, such yellow sun. When I stood at the gate. Vanished house left unlatched. Not rifles. Not screams. Land of bluebells. Swamp milkweed. Tracing in figures. Until the lost lovers, parents, brother, and sisters, stand upon this wood easel. Children’s fairy tale opera called Brundibár. Kocour, the Cat. A dog and a sparrow.

“Bialystok children” by Otto Ungar






Under a cobalt blue sky

a field of stones unstitched
it is an old, old sound
trekking north
scavenger vultures. Grey coyote.
Cholla cactus, saguaro
standing high behind the stage
illegal migrants

houses built of adobe
corrugated tin roofs
made a note

ochre hills and arroyos
four unrhymed quatrains

oracle for our times

eighteen-foot rusty steel fences
trekking north
a new poetic photo book
are edges lost?
Crossing the Sonoran Desert
one unbroken waste, mesquite
ironwood trees,
rattlesnakes, tarantula, scorpions

a page or half a page.

White wooden crosses.



Wretched Strangers

Paperless migrants
class of non-citizens
trying to cross into UK
stowaways on Chunnel trains

seeking asylum rights

at Nord-Pas-de-Calais
scabrous echo chambers
peel back into wars
dangerous sea crossings
loops of razor wire fences

minors, families
squatters at a landfill site
forest shanty town.
Serving one hot meal
formless queues
bordering a motorway
cafés, small grocery stores
wooden huts, tarp tents
makeshift mosques

cold water taps, cell phones.
Do you spend the days with them?

Autumn rains
barren scrublands
shapes of home

stuck into pages.



Dog Roses

Found portraits, maimed and rebuilt. Cyanotypes. Plum black shadows. Toned with oolong tea. Dot and circle. Gravel cul-de-sac.

Dailiness of the 1950s, filled with scrapbooks, birthday cakes and the etiquette of hats and gloves. Posting collage poetry, saddle shoes, crinolines. Rock’n’roll hits on the radio. “Blueberry Hill” belongs to which room of the repossessed house. A single, unknowable thing. A mother and a father, five children. Father’s whisky. War paranoia. Grandmother Mariska’s töltött káposzta, cabbage rolls. Poppy seed beigli. Reach towards longing. Other times, it is a process of looking: milkweed, ladybug, scent of blue pine. Out of focus. Sainte-Thérèse-De Blainville. Laurentides foothills. Sound at this hour. Wait for dawn. Turquoise. Shapeless taupe. Mille Îles River marshes. Mudflats.

where the dog rose blooms
dance of long-legged grey cranes
muttering, whuffling






Woman in the dream of the pink house


I listen to you tell, Éloïse. Years before this dream. Perhaps it is taboo because it is ugly. We are stripping corn and talking. I stare at your bruised face. Speaking the unspeakable. Why?

Putty coloured monochrome. You, and sycamore roots, clumps of clay. Under that, the Saint Lawrence River. Mice in kitchen pipes. Un mur mitoyen — semi-detached triplex sharing a common wall. Built in 1932. You, and back alley coal sheds covered with sheet metal. Milk in glass bottles. Laundry flapping on clotheslines. Everydayness. Your children in school. Or have they moved out to live on their own? How many times do you return and speak with him? Squatter in the ground floor loft. 700 square feet. Cold and grey. Shuttered Hochelaga typewriter store: rue Sainte-Catherine Est, corner rue Davidson. So begins a Saturday night. From street to street. Far from that woman with her reed baskets. Farm table and six mismatched jute cord chairs. Apple trees you planted, Éloïse. Raspberries.

This triplex, a first property, you say. You, and red brick with ochre mortar. Flat weave kilim rugs, unvarnished oak floors, catching a full moon. Sleeping in a brass bed with a lilac duvet. Leaving it rumpled. “I must lock the door,” you say.

Years before this dream. Orangerie winter garden. Purple roses, Éloïse. Old pattern coming back to the dance. No longer lied to.


Rocking horse

Rocking horse


Mártonfi József  1948 – 2015


When my brother was dying
I remembered the rocking horse
he received for Christmas
I wanted his gift
he was only six months old
and I was a faster rider


red, blue, and gold mane
wooden eyes
leather bridle, harness
sitting under a tall pine tree
lit with red wax candles.
What can I say to him?
“Öcsi,” father called him. “Junior.”
A first son after four daughters.


“Silent Night, holy Night”
war refugees from Budapest
old Hütte — timber hut
in the Bavarian Forest foothills
a father and a mother
Grandmother, Kisanyuka


would I want that rocking horse
now that he was dying
in his sixty-seventh year
metastasized liver cancer.


What happens to the dead? I ask.


Living on a houseboat
Puget Sound, Washington
wetlands tidal marshes
the last outpost of the coast
carry his flight from the law
highschool dropout
he didn’t answer letters
call long-distance
he married, twice


the rocking horse
I would give it back


to see my brother again
in that childhood Hütte.