Voices Unsilenced

My grandmother, Maria Kovacs – Photo by Ilona Martonfi


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



Ilona Martonfi is the author of three poetry books, Blue PoppyBlack Grass and The Snow Kimono, and artistic director for the Visual Arts Centre Reading Series and the Argo Bookshop Reading Series.