Blue Poppy, copyright Ilona Martonfi 2009, Coracle Press, 72 pages
In Ilona Martonfi’s new book of poetry, the title offers us a riddle that we have to figure out for ourselves. The poppy is not red, it is some unknown shade of blue, and it is standing alone, as in a still life. Martonfi’s approach here is at times painterly, at times cinematographic, at times like a quilter, stitching together patches of her life with fragments of familiar torn fabric. The images she conjures are of a woman who loves to have her hands in the soil, her back to the sun, her eyes turned skyward. Her passion for her roses awakens her at 4 in the morning, just to see how they look. Trees and flowers are her sustenance (and witness), as are the roots winding back through the almost silent ground that connects her to her mother, her grandmother and her native land of Hungary – and the prayers carrying her forward, flowing through her to her four children and her grandchild. This is a woman who comes from a tradition that is frugal with words… a long line of women who, like her grandmother, “didn’t ask for anything”. A woman who tries to do no harm.
Martonfi didn’t ask for the terror of a violent husband, and yet that was what she lived with for almost a quarter of a century. She spares us much of that terror. She mutes the sound, tempers the smells, slows down the action. She uses prose to pin the wild poetic spaces down. She grounds us in visual details, letting her unflinching gaze fall briefly on her husband’s actions before turning the focus elsewhere. She takes us into survival mode. It is as if her witness self steps back and detachedly records the scene.
Blue Poppy is written in triptych form. In the first part entitled Night Wedding, Martonfi lays down, stroke by stroke, stitch by stitch, the foundations of the marriage that would lead her to put down roots in a walled garden. The Apple Tree initiates us, baring her not yet husband’s fine teeth:
“The apple tree in my front yard,
I bought it from Jasmin Garden Centre.
Had it delivered by truck
with purple burlap over its roots.
I prepared a three-foot deep hole: poured in
a pail of cold water. Unwrapped the roots.
That night we made love
in front of our neighbours,
the squirrels and the tulips.
My billowing white dress hitched up
to reveal a blue garter belt.
You lifted my skirt
to rip off the sash.
With your fine teeth,
you pulled off my virginity.
Later that night
around midnight we sat,
bleeding red tulips
fell from your jacket.
Today we are man and wife.
In the windows gleam
with yellow dandelions.”
She might nonetheless have escaped her fate of marrying her first lover had she not become pregnant. I Promessi Sposi is a devastating account of her carrying their unborn child while her fiancé asks if $200 is enough for an abortion, a nurse suggests putting the baby up for adoption, and his sister calls her a Hungarian whore. She tries to conceal the pregnancy from her co-workers and describes her own bridal shower as if it is for someone else. Her loyalty to her unborn child is vivid against the warp of shame.
In these early poems we find a young woman who takes her wedding vows seriously, a woman of heart and substance whose life is now entwined with an inane man who, to me, is like a “white paper narcissus” with a brutal twist. Nonchalant in his cruelty.
In the poem Oleandro, set much later on a visit to her husband’s family in Sicily, we discover that his violence is not the only problem in the marriage. Under “dark grey-green leaves of date palms,” her brother-in-law asks her what’s the matter with her. “I don’t answer: my husband has a mistress. He batters me. I want a divorce.” By then, her life is so enmeshed with his that the walls of the garden have grown barbed-wire tendrils.
The poems about their trips together are like macabre travel logs. Paris, Summer 1989 begins with:
“I’ll throw you down the elevator shaft if you divorce me!”
I stared at the iron grill. I could see inside the shaft: cables
dangled three floors down. The day before we left Paris, we
went sightseeing. Our children visited the Musée d’Orsay.
Her husband goes on to threaten her casually in the Père Lachaise cemetery, standing before:
“[…] an old open grave with the marble slab removed…
The grave was empty.
“No one would be found here,” he remarked. “The place is
too big.” Ivy-covered stone wall. Paris traffic. August in Paris.
“Are you hungry? Let’s go to that restaurant across the street.”
We had spaghetti and meatballs with fresh basil. A glass of red wine […]
At home, he sweet-talked me. “I like your tan,” he teased.
“Don’t believe him,” our children said. Every night after supper,
he left the house as before. I slept for five weeks on the putty-
coloured couch in the solarium. In October, I left.”
Her children were pivotal to her marriage, and pivotal to her escape.
Martonfi covers a lot of ground in this first part. Running into her husband with his girlfriend on Rue St-André. The birth of her first daughter, a blue baby. Her husband slapping her with a week-old baby in her arms, with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony playing on the radio. Slapping her three days before the birth of their fourth child. But she continues to wait for her husband to come home at night, continues to wait for something in the walled garden to give.
In the book’s second part, River Stones, the barbed wire tendrils can no longer keep her. In Take the Hand of a Child, Martonfi goes over what she has taught her children, willing it to be enough. She sends her kids to school “to normalize the abnormal.” In an article in National Geographic on wildlife reclaiming the abandoned land of Chernobyl, she takes hope. Pines are reclaiming the Red Forest, stunted and deformed, with unnaturally short or long needles. Her children protect her and help her leave. Their courage bolsters her resolve. It is her youngest, the boy, who musters his courage in the face of his father’s rage, and propels her to leave.
I, Myself, Fled into Exile
I went to sit on a bench in the walled garden.
I found our twelve year old son, who told me to leave.
I didn’t wash the supper dishes.
I didn’t water the fuchsia geraniums.
I didn’t call out: “Children, lock the door!”
It gets worse before it gets better. The chilling scenes in the shelter: a battered white-haired woman, a small girl whose pregnant mother goes out and never returns to the shelter. Martonfi’s children move their furniture out of their father’s house and their father calls the cops on them. He keeps trying to get Martonfi to come back, but can’t help using his old endearing tactics, like spitting rum in her face. Eventually, in Mount Royal Lookout, she achieves enough detachment to address him only as “You, the man across the river.”
The third part of the book, Acacia and Bones, fleshes out her family quilt, stitching in some of the unfinished patches of her life before and after her husband. She takes a more poetic, less prosaic approach here. Already the poems breathe easier, letting in more space. In Visiting the Ridge, she describes her knew vantage point, choosing not to fence in her sentences with capitals or periods:
“from this view I see it better
from this perpetual angle of scarred trees
in a soft, white crinoline skirt
I don’t know how to write the truth
the green fly on my hand
this is where home is”
In this final part, she shares the quiet intimacies of her family life. Her mother Magda “[…] used to wear a flowered dress in summer.
She used to laugh with father at night in bed.
Breastfeed my baby brother.
Go with us to the big circus.
She used to laugh with me:
laugh out loud in her cobalt coat.
Make a lot of noise with her wooden spoons.
My mama used to love me:
she used to give me a bath on Saturdays,
in an old tin tub, in the middle of the kitchen.
She used to comb my long black hair,
part it in the middle,
braid it with red polka dot ribbons.
My mother, Magda, was a love child.
Her tenderness toward her mother is poignantly vivid in the poems about trying to fend off her mother’s breast cancer and death. “I have a rucksack full of miracles.” “Mother is the blue sky… mother is the water washing her daughter’s hair… mother is the empty room…” “She was hidden, my mother, in my sock.”
Martonfi waits until the end of the book to reveal the most hidden pieces of the family quilt: the secret woundings that thread their way through the family lineage, passed down from mother to daughter, barely spoken, only now committed to paper. We see Martonfi’s fourth grade teacher fondling her pigtails, his body pressed against her blue flowered cotton dress in the last row while the class watches a movie. We learn about her mother’s suicide attempt after the war. About her father’s mistress before they came to Canada (“Why did mother slap me?”). But perhaps most painful of all, we get an inkling of her mother’s own brutal initiation into a shameful world of male violence when she was just a girl, in the poem Mariska’s Daughter. We see how the wounding gets handed down and preserved in silence and shame.
“Tightly drawn curtains in the windows of the house
made with brown ochre stone. Potted red geraniums.
The dirt roads are empty, strangely quiet. Magda’s
room is closed.
Her mother’s hand-embroidered muslin dress.
Eyelet petticoat, the colour purple. Sepia-hued
Photographs on a shelf. Cross-stitch tablecloth
A love child.
I stand at the gate of Mother’s childhood house in
Arad, Romania. The year is 1928. A photo of Magda
posing in a studio: dressed in black leather school
shoes. Pleated dark blue skirt. White long-sleeved
blouse. White leggings.
Bees in the kitchen garden. Peach trees and pear
trees. Fleshy red berries of shrubs. Thistle and
nettle. Thorny acacia with yellow flowers. Laundry
fluttering from a wash line. Mariska works as a cook.
After school, Magda is alone in the house.
Stepfather says: I’ll kill you, if you tell anyone!”
Puppetry is her favourite childhood pastime:
On a Sunday in early September,
there in the cold grey yard
entwined with wildflowers.
Meadow grass. River stones.”
Now we understand why Martonfi had to face her own nightmare of male toxicity incarnate with such thoroughness. To break the legacy of shame suffered by her grandmother and mother and untold foremothers, she had to find the words and courage to sever those long-buried barb-wire roots, not knowing whether the tree would survive, much less flourish.
Hats off to Martonfi. Blue Poppy is an admirable body of work.