Ode to Helen Martins


-by Helena Doe Kingwill

Helen points to the East

So I found the caustic soda –

In the bottom of your wardrobe

amongst folds of soft lace and cotton.

The dress you always wore was torn.

The death powder in the chipped cup got onto my fingers.

I sniffed it, and it seared through my brain –

sharp granules, like ground glass.

I staggered out into the yard.

The glass shone blindingly, like snow.

A shining pathway leading through the mirror-

through the infinite mirror land.

You led me to the cup.

I followed a path of pictures:

sepia women in strong, self assured poses.

Loving self, you are your own husband.

Standing, I practiced:

Feet together. Head up and back straight.

Hands fall into a curve, to hold each other in front.

She wears only a transparent veil.

I stood and stared into your rooms,

You stood and stared.

Lost your-self in these rooms too.

I became you for a moonlit moment,

I understand the loneliness, and the love.

Yes, you were being yourself, unrestrained.

Immersing yourself in your dreams and visions,

making them concrete in concrete forms.

owlhouse 5

Filling up the empty spaces, passionately telling of the vision.

The prophets and the prophesies seen in your dreams

 under the great silent desert sky.

Channelling the knowledge of the ancient ones,

 wisdom of Owl, and wise men three.

All religions encompassed in a pilgrimage

into the light.

Higher purpose told in the still expression of the prophet.

A vision, deeply seen, shines in his dark, glass eyes.

His firm gesture pointing to the East.

owlhouse 2

This world, you have created around you,

Yet nobody seems to understand.

Out there, you are vulnerable.

Other people persecute you with their reality.

But the circle is vicious, because it is getting dark

and you are getting weak and frail.

owlhouse 4

Now the loneliness hurts.

You need someone to care for you.

How you long for strong arms, and a warm heart.

How you yearn for someone to share this beauty with.

This creation.  This vision.  This self.

How you dream, wrap yourself in delicious fantasies.

How you call him.

But still the wind blows, and batters the roof,

And the owl hoots his lonely, plaintive call.

And the moon rises once again.

And the shadow that falls on that sharp, cold earth.

The shadow of your little naked body

between the crowd of frozen figures, is seen only by you.

For still you are alone,

with so much inside your head.

owlhouse 1

And still you sing the song of your visions

and hear its echo as you dance alone.

For you are a flower blossoming

in the farthest reaches of the desert.

Brightening the corner of the most distant dune.

But you are afraid to show this self to anyone.

They are cruel and unconscious.

You cannot trust them with such a fragile thing.

So you hide.

Let them call you names.

You withdraw to the safety of your enchanted womb.

You will cover it with sharp shards of brittle glass

to frighten them away.

You will answer the door to no one.

How dare they pester you so,

with their judgements and sympathy?

Them with their safely sorted, practical lives,

and tennis balls, and teas.

What do they know of your world?

So you will go all the way, over the top.

Gargoyle Owls, as watch- dogs to look out.

You will choose your own label:

“The Owl House”

For that is what it is,

A house of watchfulness in the night,

A house of bright, glaring eyes, and shining light,

And you will hide within.

owlhouse owls

But now the wind and the moons passing tides,

Have made you old and tired.

And the glass has bitten into you

Deeper than any invader,

You are crippled with aches and pains,

and when the morning sun comes,

and the emptiness of the day gasps and yawns ahead,

you are filled with despair.

You burrow deeper down into your cave.

Dare they extract you from it, you will die.

The intruders are coming closer,

Threatening, threatening.

Black doom beats its drum harder and harder.

Now your beautiful womb becomes your tomb.

It closes in and waits for you to die.


No mercy.  Only scorn.

Your isolation is your torture.

So you have built this world,

And fate conspires to take it away.

It is vanishing into the darkness.

You made these colours and light reflections

For the sake of happiness

And now like that bright bird,

They too have become old, dim, and dusty.

Suddenly you are pursued by a thousand predators.

They are penetrating its porous walls and calling you.

Like wolves, they prowl perilously at your feet.

You grow desperate.

It is time for the great escape.

No longer can you wait.

How long have you courted Death?

“Not Death, but Love” –

An angel to take you away.

So one August in ‘76,

When the wind was blowing its seasonal gale force dust

against the panes of your window,

 the agitation grew to manic proportions.

The love you had for that sensual body

had long turned to cruel neglect of the physical.

You needed something potent, fatal. Forever.

You had to resort to what you could find.

And you stood in front of this same mirror,

Lit all the candles, and sipped the cup,

Like in Omar Khayyam’s poem.

And once you embarked on that journey,

Nothing could break the terrible spell,

once the potion was taken.

And because you were ashamed, you hid the cup

in the bottom of the wardrobe.

The poison held you for two days

In terrible torture,

Before it released you

    Like a bird

       Into the light.

You suffered, but you stopped time.

And so the world you made

  Has remained intact.

    Never again,

Can anyone live in this house.

It is tied down with ropes.

Gasping visitors, oogle and gush

As they wander through,

Blowing their brains,

Or simply saying, “the right thing”

for they could never conceive of the pain.

A lot of fuss has been made now,


A play and a movie,

A couple of books, and articles a-plenty.

Now this house of yours is creating

An economy for the entire town,

It has gone into the world

like your infinite mirror patterns,

Alive, regenerating.

Creating new creativity.

Its beauty for you was in the process.

Not the product.

   For nothing,

  Is for nothing.


All photographs taken on film by Helena Kingwill.  Copyright.

Painting by Helena Kingwill.  Portrait of Helen Martins with veldt fire and pray mantis.

2 thoughts on “Ode to Helen Martins

  1. Hi, I am currently writing a synopsis on my visit to Nieu Bethesda and the Owl House on my blog, and came across your articles about Helen Martins. She was a fascinating woman who probably lived a difficult, tumultuous life. Anyway, thanks for sharing your insight as someone who is quite familiar with the place. I also want to say that I definitely felt something weird while I was at the Owl House. I don’t necessarily believe in spirits, but something about the place was equal parts sad, eerie and beautiful. How wonderful that Helen decided to leave her house a museum, what a gift to the world.

    1. Hi Kate, thanks for your response to my poem. I would like to mention that Helena Martins did not think of leaving the place as a museum. I don’t think she had the self-confidence to do that. After her death, no will was found. However this is very controversial as she had asked her worker, Koos Malgas to deliver a letter to the local Dominee (Dutch Reformed church minister.) Koos was illiterate and respectfully did he investigate what it said. He faithfully delivered it. The dominee never revealed the contents of the letter, although permission was granted for Koos to have her radio. So nobody will ever know- (although Koos’s grandchildren have since come to the conclusion that the letter may possibly have given rights to Koos for the property and one of his grandsons once protested this by breaking in and damaging a sculpture. However nothing could be proved and under the group areas act, of the apartheid years, it is unlikely they would have been able to claim the property even if she had left it to them.) The extremely conservative sentiment of the local council was that the place was bewitched and evil and they considered bulldozing it. However, luckily there were some educated and worldly people who managed to make a good case for saving the place. It fell naturally into government property without the will. After much rallying it was declared a museum and a national monument. The Owl House has now ironically put Nieu Bethesda on the map and brings tourists and a source of income to the town. Koos Malgas’s grandchildren have done well out of reproducing sculptures to sell to tourists. They had the best knowledge of how to do this, although others have learned too. I would like to mention though, that Koos himself once told me that Helen had asked him to promise never to make reproductions of the sculptures outside of the owlhouse.

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