This poem by Judith Wilkinson about her visit to the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda was published in the Poetry Salzburg Review. (Autumn 2017, No. 31) The poem is reprinted as a guest post with her permission below:
Visiting the Owl House, Karoo Desert
Descending the mountain road
after a long day’s drive through dust lands,
we found Nieu-Bethesda
as sleepy as we’d imagined it,
its whitewashed church – the one she never visited –
still dominating the village.
An avenue of cypress trees leads us to the house,
where cement owls with spellbound eyes
guard the veranda.
Here Helen Martins grew old and arthritic,
here she started it and ended it
before her Mecca was complete.
2 Inside the House
We hardly know where to rest our eyes
in this kaleidoscope of clutter,
every room a different colour,
every wall gleaming with crushed glass,
every nick-nack-ridden cranny
quirky as a Miró painting.
This is a trickster’s house, full of mirrors, candles, paraffin lamps,
the light bouncing from mirror to mirror,
as we step through a maze of reflections.
It’s as if the house wants to keep us in,
hoping to store up comfort
against the cold desert nights,
making us party to its claustrophobia.
For every guest who never came it has a sculpted chair,
a Honeymoon Room full of craving, fine furnishings and toiletries,
a kitchen with a wide-eyed sun leaping from the ceiling
and a Lion’s Den and Bluebeard’s Closet
to complete the fairy tale.
If the desert had erased all images of dailiness
and left her nothing concrete,
nothing more literal than isolation;
if Helen Martins lacked a context,
then all she had was symbol and raw archetype –
unembedded in the world of Nieu-Bethesda –
and a burning desire.
3 The Camel Yard
While the neighbours organised tea parties and card games,
adorned their yards with gnomes to ward off the desert,
she aspired to Mecca, her own version of it,
constructed out of beer bottles trapping the light.
She colonised her garden with throngs of wise men,
Buddhas, magi, Hindu sages,
acrobatic sun worshippers, arcing backwards to face the light,
and a flock of camels and a forest of legless giraffes
and mermaids and sphinxes and birds and babies
and a Cock Man in the Debauchery Corner
and Dutch ladies with bottle-tiered skirts,
carrying trays of beverages:
all were crammed around her wishing well,
her Pool of Healing.
After forty-seven years of drought
she’d opened the entire
cupboard of her imagination
and spilled it into the desert.
4 The work
There was always work to be done.
Labouring by her side was Koos, her African helper, friend.
His listening ear
interpreted the pressure of her dreams.
He understood the art of twisting the wire,
the delicate process of mounting the cement,
while she foraged for anything usable:
bottle tops, glass, postcards from exotic destinations.
She sketched, discussed, but didn’t touch too much,
as if the gap between conception and creation
was too big for her.
Koos helped bridge it,
gave the lions wire whiskers, headlamp eyes,
clothed each archetype in skin of stone,
coaxed it to where the impassive desert
was open to interpretation,
coaxed it towards being a thing of its time,
because he was a man of his time
and didn’t deal in fantasy alone.
A cement Mona Lisa with uneven breasts
fades into the patio wall;
weary as a mourner,
without the will to escape,
her glass-encrusted sleeves rest idly in her lap.
Her maker must have known depression,
sat with it, studied it, respecting her sculpture,
allowing it to be frailer than its namesake,
cross-referencing each part of it with pain,
to get to the core of it.
A larger Mona Lisa
sits broad-shouldered, breasts exposed,
her arms serenely folded round her world.
Her eyes have no irises, no pupils, no outward gaze.
Perhaps its sculptor found some closure in the quiet of this piece.
Carved above a sun we see a phoenix,
risen from the ashes of the desert.
It looks too weighty for transcendence:
its fiery red legs, hefty wings and arrow-straight body
are headed somewhere definite.
And everywhere are owls, each one
lifted from an old blueprint in her head
and thrust into a story
with so many ramifications that we feel a little lost here,
in this garden,
close to the Gates of Paradise.
Perhaps she never reached her Mecca,
although her head was full of roadmaps,
perhaps the loneliness eroded her,
although she had a lover, whose brain was lightning-scarred,
perhaps she delved too deep into old almanacs of dreams,
although she had an instinct for modernity,
perhaps fear got the better of her,
although she lit battalions of candles against it,
perhaps she took refuge in whimsy on bad days,
although she put her faith in the fierceness of art,
rose every merciless morning
for its sake.
Her last wish wasn’t granted:
they didn’t mix her ashes
with the precious, red, ground glass
from a bottle on the larder shelf
and glue it to her favourite owl, Oswald;
they didn’t let her
become part of his plumage.
Rebirth is difficult at the best of times.
along the lane of cypress trees
and up the mountain road,
the middle of nowhere.
Her own, chosen exit
is perhaps beside the point.
She found more than one way out.
Footnote: ‘The Owl House’ is a museum in South Africa’s Karoo desert. Its owner, Helen Martins (1897 – 1976), began to sculpt when she was 47 years old and transformed her house and yard into a visionary environment, elaborately decorated and containing more than 300 statues.