THIS IS A PERSONAL REVIEW OF SOME THEMES AND ISSUES WHICH FEATURE IN THE POETRY OF JOHN MONTAGUE. IT IS HOPED THAT IT WILL HELP THOSE STUDYING FOR LEAVING CERT HIGHER LEVEL (POSSIBLY A LEVEL ALSO).
YOU SHOULD CONSIDER THESE IDEAS, THEN RE-EXAMINE THE POEMS MENTIONED FOR EVIDENCE TO SUBSTANTIATE OR CONTRADICT THESE INTERPRETATIONS. IN OTHER WORDS MAKE YOUR OWN OF THESE NOTES, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.
THE FOLLOWING SELECTION OF POEMS IS SUGGESTED BECAUSE THEY DEAL WITH THE MAJOR THEMES AND STYLISTIC DEVICES WHICH RECUR IN MONTAGUE’S POETRY:
· The Locket (TL)
· The Cage (TC)
· Like Dolmens Round my Childhood the Old People (LDRMC)
· The Wild Dog Rose (TWDR)
· The Same Gesture (TSG)
· Windharp (WH)
· A Welcoming Party (AWP)
MONTAGUE SAID HIMSELF THAT WRITING POETRY WAS ‘LIKE THE DROPPING OF A ROSE PETAL INTO THE GRAND CANYON, A FUTILE ACT’. MAYBE, HOWEVER, YOUR VIEW OF LIFE HAS BEEN CHANGED BY READING HIS POETRY AND MAYBE THE GRAND CANYON IS SWEETER FOR THAT ROSE PETAL AND MAYBE THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE BECAUSE OF JOHN MONTAGUE’S POETRY!
YOUR AIM SHOULD BE TO PICK YOUR OWN FAVOURITES FROM THIS SELECTION AND GET TO KNOW THEM VERY WELL.
- John Montague was born in Brooklyn, New York early in 1929. He died in the Clinique Parc Impérial in his beloved Nice early on December 10th, 2016. He was 87.
- He was son of James Montague, an Ulster Catholic, from County Tyrone, who had immigrated to America in 1925 after involvement in republican activities.
- His mother was Molly Carney, but she played little part in his life after his birth. Yet she marred John’s life by her absence from it.
- James Montague had the typical exile’s optimistic hope of benefiting from the American Dream.
- But when his wife, Molly, arrived three years later with their two first sons, James could provide nothing better than the Brooklyn slums for their family home.
- Regarding his background, John Montague’s grandfather was a Justice of the Peace, schoolmaster, farmer, postmaster and director of several firms.
- John had a typical Brooklyn kid’s early childhood, playing with coins on tram- lines and seeing early Mickey Mouse movies.
- Because of the economic effects of the Depression era John Montague was shipped back in 1933 at the age of four to his family home at Garvaghey, in County Tyrone.
- John Montague’s mother rejected him after a painful birth. This rejection and marriage problems were contributory causes to the decision to send John to be fostered from the age of four by two aging unmarried aunts.
- Later, when his mother ended her marriage and returned to Ulster, she continued to ignore John, a fact which deeply hurt him and affected both his speech (he developed a stammer) and his ability to socialise with women.
- However, the switch from city kid to country-village boy in Ulster benefited John and proved to be a ‘healing’ as he called it in one of his poems.
- With the help of his imagination, he adopted to life on a farm that doubled as the local rural post-office. Because of this he got to know the local characters and gossips very well. We see this in ‘Like Dolmens’ and ‘The Wild Dog Rose’.
- He was first taught in Garvaghey National School.
- For secondary education John went to an austere boarding school run by strict priests in Armagh. There, against his will, John learned about the long tradition of Irish poetry from an influential teacher.
- While studying for his degree in Dublin after World War Two, John found Dublin to be a very old fashioned place, with the atmosphere over-controlled, especially by priests.
- Afterwards he went to work and complete his education in American Universities. He honed his poetic skills while in America.
- John Montague then got married and lived for a time in France where he continued to write poetry and to write short stories. There for a while he became a friend of the renowned Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett.
- He worked as Paris correspondent for The Irish Times for three years. He spent a total of twelve years living in France.
- After journalism, he began a long career as a university lecturer and poet. He has lectured at universities in France, Ireland, Canada, and the United States.
- He is the author of numerous collections of his own poems and editor of anthologies of works of other poets.
- He has received many awards, including the Irish-American Cultural Institute’s Award for Literature, the American Ireland Fund Literary Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
- In 1987, Montague was awarded an honorary doctorate by the State University of New York. The State Governor Mario M. Cuomo praised Montague for his outstanding literary achievements and his contributions to the people of New York.
- In 1998, he was named the first Irish Professor of Poetry. This is a position he held for three years, equally divided among The Queen’s University in Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, and University College Dublin.
- He now divides his time between West Cork and France.
- John Montague has a major international reputation as an Irish poet, the first major Northern Irish Catholic poet.
- He is a poet who describes private feelings as well as public themes.
- Much of his poetry centres on his personal family history and the culture and history of Catholics in Northern Ireland, including the twenty-five year long period of the Troubles.
- For example, his greatest poem ‘The Rough Field’ is set on the farm where he was reared from the age of four and was influenced by the people he grew up among.
- The Civil Rights Movement in 1960’s Northern Ireland also influenced John Montague. His did a public reading of his poem ‘New Siege’ outside Armagh Jail in 1970 to support a jailed civil rights protester, the nationalist Bernadette Devlin.
- As an adult he spent some time trying to recapture the American experience, a search reflected in some of his poems.
- Separation from his father all his life affected him emotionally as we read in his poem ‘The Cage’.
- The pain of rejection by his mother was even more traumatic for his personal development as we read in the poem ‘The Locket’.
- John Montague is renowned internationally as one of the major Irish poets of the twentieth century.
MAJOR THEMES IN MONTAGUE’S POETRY
Childhood: Like many poets, Montague is fascinated with the subject of childhood. ‘A Welcoming Party’ (AWP) describes the relative safety and comfort of a childhood in Ireland during World War Two. While the rest of Europe was plunged into destruction, Ireland remained safely on the ‘periphery of incident’. While young boys were fighting and dying all over Europe the young poet was free to ‘belt a football through the air’. Yet the ‘drama of unevent’ that constituted the war years in Ireland is briefly shattered for the poet when he encounters the newsreel of the death camps and discovers the grim reality of ‘total war’.
What might be described as a darker aspect of childhood is explored in ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood’ (LDRMC). There is a sense in this poem that the Ireland of Montague’s youth was a dark and haunted place, a land where ancient beliefs and superstitions still survived. We get a sense that during his childhood many people still believed in myths and magic, in ghosts, curses and supernatural demons; ‘Ancient Ireland, indeed! I was reared by her bedside, / The rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head/ Fomorian fierceness of family and local feud.’ For an imaginative child growing up in this society it was easy to believe that magic still existed, that ancient monsters such as the Fomorians still roamed the land, in the dark countryside just beyond the reach of the farmhouse lights.
A similar theme is evident in ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ (TWDR) where the poet describes his childhood terror of an old woman that lived in his locality. This poor and seemingly quite ugly old woman terrified the young poet with her ‘hooked nose’, her ragged clothes and the pack of dogs that always surrounded her. To him she seemed a kind of witch, a terrifying supernatural figure who ‘haunted my childhood’. Yet while Montague’s poetry described this ‘Ancient Ireland’ it also records it’s passing away. As the country became more modern and Europeanised the old legends and superstitions no longer exerted the same power. As he grows up he can see the old legends and superstitions for what they were. This is particularly evident in TWDR where he realises that the ‘cailleach’ that so terrified him in his youth is only human after all and he ends up chatting to her by the roadside, reminiscing and gossiping ‘in ease’ about the people of the parish.
Violence: Montague’s work is haunted by the threat and possibility of violence. This is particularly evident in ‘A Welcoming Party’ where the young speaker is left greatly troubled by his encounter with images of the holocaust. He pulls no punches in his depiction of the horrors of war. His description of the holocaust victims here has been described as disgusting, bizarre and disturbing. Their mouths are described as ‘burnt gloves’, their bodies are depicted as nests full of insect eggs and their hands are depicted as begging bowls.
‘The Wild Dog Rose’, meanwhile, presents violence in an Irish context. The depiction of the attempted rape of the old woman is almost as shocking as that of the holocaust victims. The drunken labourer invades the old woman’s home whirling his boots in an attempt to ‘crush the skulls’ of her dogs. There is something truly horrific about the image of him wrestling her to the ground and ‘rummaging’ in her ‘tasteless trunk’ of a body. Yet this violent scene serves an important symbolic function, representing the violence and misery that had been visited upon Ireland over the centuries. The violation of the old woman echoes many ancient Irish songs and poems in which a woman, representing the land of Ireland, is violated by some ruthless villain who represents the foreign oppressor.
The hidden side of human personalities: John Montague contemplates the vulnerable underside of people who may appear harsh on the surface, ‘Maggie Owens… all I could find was her lonely need to deride’ [LDRMC]; ‘Mary Moore… a by-word for fierceness… dreamed of gypsy love-rites’ [LDRMC]. Montague also senses how a human hurt can deform a life, ‘the cailleach, that terrible figure who haunted my childhood but no longer harsh, a human being merely, hurt by event’ [TWDR]. He reveals the real personality behind the public smiles of his father, ‘My father… extending his smile to all sides of the good (all white) neighbourhood… the least happy man I have known’ [TC]. Montague is aware of the duality of our gestures in different contexts. An everyday movement of the hand in public, in traffic, that is mechanical in effect, can be deeply intimate in effect in the privacy of lovemaking, ‘changing gears with the same gesture as eased your snowbound heart and flesh’ [TSG].
John Montague is able to forgive his mother for rejecting him because he sees her pain and senses the different personality she had before her life turned harsh, ‘my double blunder… poverty… yarning of your wild young days… the belle of your small town… landed up mournful and chill’ [TL].
The impact of family on his life: As we have discovered, Montague’s family situation was far from ideal. Like thousands of Irish people his parents were forced to emigrate to America where they struggled to survive in the face of extremely difficult circumstances. The consequences of this struggle are movingly portrayed in ‘The Cage’ (TC). The battle with poverty and the effort to make a home in a new society have clearly scarred the poet’s father who is described as ‘the least happy man I have known’. His deep unhappiness is evident in his alcoholism. Each night he is compelled to drink himself into oblivion, as if only this will numb the pain of his existence, ‘the only element he felt at home in any longer: brute oblivion’.
Yet the poet’s mother, it seems, suffered even more. He claims that the brutal circumstances of her life – emigration, poverty, a loveless marriage – damaged her in some fundamental way, leaving her ‘wound’ in a ‘cocoon of pain’. She is unable to bond with her son and eventually sends him back to Ireland – causing great psychological damage to both herself and her son, so much so that in ‘The Locket’ (TL), he refers to her as a ‘fertile source of guilt and pain’.
The harshness of life: John Montague portrays the suffering of lonesome, impoverished locals from the hills around Garvaghey (Garbh Fhaiche = rough field = Garvahey). ‘When he died his cottage was robbed… driving cattle from a miry stable… forsaken by both creeds… Fomorian fierceness of family and local feud’ [LDRMC]. He depicted the suffering of his father, a prisoner of poverty in New York, ‘ my father, the least happy man I have known…the lost years… released from his grille… drank neat whiskey until… brute oblivion’ [TC]. Montague spells out the extent of his mother’s physical pain and anguish, ‘ source of guilt and pain… the harsh logic of a forlorn woman’ [TL]. He portrays the life-long loneliness and the brutal rape of a seventy-year-old spinster, ‘the cailleach… hurt by event… loneliness, the monotonous voice in the skull that never stops… he rummages while she battles for life bony fingers reaching desperately to push against his bull neck…’ [TWDR]. Montague also portrays the horror of concentration camps, ‘From nests of bodies like hatching eggs flickered insectlike hands and legs’ [AWP].
A sense of place: Montague observes and draws the landscape of his childhood, ‘the cottage, circled by trees, weathered to admonitory shapes of desolation…where the dog rose shines in the hedge’ [TWDR]; ‘a bend in the road which still shelters primroses’ [TC]; ‘ a crumbling gatehouse. Famous as Pisa for its leaning gable’ [LDRMC]; ‘From main road to lane to broken path’ [LDRMC]. Montague pinpoints the essence of nature’s music as created by the wind in the Irish landscape, ‘seeping out of low bushes and grass, heatherbells and fern, wrinkling bog pools, scraping tree branches…’ [WH]. Montague evokes the horror of Auschwitz, ‘a welcoming party of almost shades… an ululation, terrible, shy’ [AWP]. He also neatly depicts the irrelevance of Ireland geo-politically in the 1960’s, ‘to be always at the periphery of incident’. He mentions what would strike an Irish visitor to New York, ‘listening to a subway shudder the earth’ [TC]. Montague sums up the essence of a Brooklyn neighbourhood, ‘(all-white) neighbourhood belled by St Theresa’s church’ [TC]. Montague evokes the intimacy of the marriage bedroom, ‘a secret room of golden light… healing light… gesture … eased your snowbound heart and flesh’ (TSG.).
Isolation and separation: Montague’s parents suffered separation and social isolation. ‘My father… brute oblivion’ [TC]. Like his father, his mother suffered from self-imposed oblivion, ‘the harsh logic of a forlorn woman resigned to being alone’ [TL]. Montague with great sympathy captures the reason for an odd old lady’s personality, ‘the only true madness is loneliness, the monotonous voice in the skull that never stops because never heard’ [TWDR]. Her isolation means that she seeks no redress from the authorities for rape. She suffers with a stoicism born of a folk version of religion, ‘she tells me a story so terrible I try to push it away… I remember the Holy Mother of God and all she suffered’ [TWDR]. Montague captures the isolation of his scattered elderly rural neighbours, ‘Jamie McCrystal sang to himself… Maggie Owens… even in her bedroom a she-goat cried… Billy Eagleson… forsaken by both creeds… ‘ [LDRMC].
Human love: Montague is quite famous within the literary world as a poet of love. Intense descriptions of erotic love, in particular, recur in many of his poems. We see this in ‘The Same Gesture’ (TSG) where the couple’s lovemaking is unashamedly celebrated: ‘It is what we always were- / most nakedly are’. Lovemaking is presented as something spiritual and holy. The couples’ hands moving on each other’s skin, we’re told, is like something from a religious ceremony: ‘the shifting of hands is a rite’. Love and sexual intimacy are depicted as having a powerful healing quality: ‘Such intimacy of hand / and mind is achieved / under its healing light’. Oneness is also celebrated, the notion that two lovers can somehow forget themselves and blend into one: ‘We barely know our / selves there.’
TSG, too, is intensely aware of the fragility of love. Emotional and sexual intimacy can be a spiritual and ‘healing’ thing. Yet a relationship can also become bitter and sour leading to hatred and even violence. The poem suggests that in this modern age love and intimacy are becoming more and more difficult to maintain. In this busy world where time and space are such a precious commodity it can be easy to lose sight of what matters. The pressures of ‘work, phone, drive through late traffic’ must not cause us to neglect our relationships. Love, the poem implies, requires private space, a ‘secret room’ if it is to flourish, if its ‘healing light’ is to shine. In the modern world, however, such space is increasingly difficult to come by.
Nature: As with other poets like Kavanagh and Frost, Montague’s work is regularly inspired by the natural world. This is very evident in ‘Windharp’ (WH), in particular where he lovingly describes the Irish landscape with its ‘heather bells and fern, / wrinkling bog pools’. In this phrase we see Montague’s powers of description at their best: we can easily imagine the ripples on a bog pool resembling wrinkles on a piece of cloth.
A love of the Irish landscape is also evident in LDRMC with its celebration of the folk who live among the mountains and glens of rural County Tyrone. TWDR, too, displays the poet’s love of nature with its meticulous description of the tender wild flowers with their ‘crumbling yellow cup / and pale bleeding lips’. Yet the harsher aspects of nature are also lovingly rendered, such as the old woman’s rough field with its ‘rank thistles’ and ‘leathery bracken’. He observes nature’s beauty in eloquent language, ‘Gulping the mountain air with painful breath’ [LDRMC] ‘weathered to admonitory shapes of desolation by the mountain winds’ [TWDR]
Montague personifies the effects of climate on the Irish landscape as ‘ a hand ceaselessly combing and stroking the landscape’ [WH]. He is also aware that not all that is beautiful is strong, ‘dog rose… at the tip of a slender, tangled, arching branch… weak flower, offering its crumbling yellow cup and pale bleeding lips fading to white’ [TWDR].
It is unsurprising, therefore, given Montague’s obvious love of the Irish landscape that he describes it as something ‘you never get away from’. Even when you leave the country, he claims, the sound of the wind through the Irish countryside, that ‘restless whispering’, will still somehow echo in your ears.
MAIN ELEMENTS OF MONTAGUE’S STYLE
Form John Montague is a lyric poet. He uses various stanza forms in the poems selected for the Leaving Certificate. He favours a poem of between four and seven stanzas with either six or seven lines per stanza. However he deviates from this at times. He doesn’t tend to follow a definite rhyming pattern. Many of his poems have rhyme, though he is not strict about this. You are as likely to see half-rhyme as rhyme. .
Speaker In most of Montague’s poems the speaker is the poet himself. Most of his material comes from his lived experience and direct observations. He is a poet of the self, a romantic poet in that sense. He uses poetry to arrive at perceptions about his parents, partners, memories and the impact on him of national and international events.
Tone Montague’s various tones range from pain to empathy, admiration and wonder. The word which applies to much of his poetry is compassionate. His tone is often one of intelligent detachment. At times he is capable of sarcasm. His tone can sometimes sound haunted, guilty even for the actions of others. He is capable of rueful and frustrated irony as illustrated in the final line of ‘A Welcoming Party’.
Language Montague’s language is personal and anecdotal. He addresses the reader in conversational English. The need for rhythm and a regular beat may lead to the omission of obvious words or the changing of word order or phrase order. His most striking feature is his use of adjectives, sometimes in a group of three. It is worth commenting on his adjectives and how they convey meaning, express tone and achieve mood. ‘Windharp’ is a very eloquent poem in which to investigate the effect of adjectives. The fourth stanza of ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ is a powerful example of Montague’s talent for selecting adjectives.
Montague’s choice of verb is often apt and evocative. The use of the verb ‘rummages’ in its context in ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ is both horrifying and touching in its graphic violence. A clear example of Montague’s ability to use a pithy phrase is found in ‘A Welcoming Party’ when he refers to Ireland’s remoteness from what matters in the world at large: ‘to be always at the periphery of incident’. He defines the ‘Irish dimension’ of his childhood as ‘drama of unevent’. Montague matches language to meaning.
Imagery As partly a narrative type of poet, many of Montague’s images are descriptions of actual memories, colourful pictures from his lived experience or the experience of others like Minnie Kearney narrated first to him and then to the reader as a third person account. A particular graphic example of the latter is found in ‘The Wild Dog Rose’. The poem contains an uncensored example of violence, a detail of which is the following: ‘the thin mongrels rushing out, but yelping as he whirls with his farm boots to crush their skulls’. The effect of the word ‘yelping’ on the reader is strong here. Consider the locket around his mother’s neck as a graphic image from his life.
Montague also chooses striking comparison images to convey his intelligent perceptions. The image of a cage for his father’s work booth is an example of Montague’s clear but intelligent metaphors. Likewise his simile of the dolmen is profound and carries many resonances. The detailed image of the dog rose from the third section of ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ is an illustration of Montague’s descriptive powers and of his ability to use an actual image as a symbol of human fragility.
Verbal music For Montague’s lyrical music you will find various sound repetitions, rhymes and half-rhymes, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, consonance and sibilance in all his poems. For assonance listen to the ‘u’ sounds in ‘A Welcome Party’ especially in lines seven to ten. This enhances the effect of a group wail or lamentation as suggested by the word ‘ululation’.
A useful example of onomatopoeia is found in line two of ‘Windharp’, where the words imitate the breezes in the bushes and grass: ‘ the restless whispering’. This is a case of assonance ‘e’ and sibilance combining to create a musical effect that reinforces meaning.
The main subjects of John Montague’s poetry are Ireland, his family, and love. He writes about people and places he knew growing up in County Tyrone, about sectarian strife in Ulster and its historical sources, and about relatives, especially his parents, seeking to understand them and his relationships with them. He has examined love from all angles: from outside and within, as desired and feared, found and lost, remembered in joy and pain.
Forms of Exile
If Ireland, family, and love are Montague’s main subjects, his main theme is loss, a theme clearly seen in his poems about exile, a topic he has explored thoroughly. The title of his first book of poems, Forms of Exile, points to this preoccupation. “Emigrants,” the shortest of its poems, confronts a major fact of Irish life since the 1840’s: economic exile. Its “sad faced” subjects could be Montague’s own parents, bound for Brooklyn.
“Soliloquy on a Southern Strand” looks at another sort of exile. After many years in Australia, an Irish priest reflects disconsolately on what has become of his life. He feels cut off from Ireland, alienated from the young people around him on the beach, discouraged about his vocation. In “A Footnote on Monasticism: Dingle Peninsula,” Montague thinks about “the hermits, lonely dispossessed ones,” who once lived on the peninsula. He feels a degree of kinship with these “people hurt into solitude/ By loss of love.” Dispossession, another form of exile, and “loss of love” appear in this early poem to be equivalent.
More than half the poems in Forms of Exile allude to religious belief and practice, a subject seldom mentioned in Montague’s later books. Clearly, despite his sympathy for the Irish priest in Australian exile and his qualified empathy with the Dingle hermits, Montague is distancing himself from the more parochial aspects of Irish Catholicism. “Rome, Anno Santo” looks unsympathetically at “the ignorant Irish on pilgrimage.” “Incantation in Time of Peace” expresses doubt whether prayer can prevent the coming of “a yet more ominous day” in Ireland.
“Cultural Center” (later retitled “Musée Imaginaire”) contemplates artworks from different cultures in a museum, each representing a civilization’s values. Among them, commanding the speaker’s attention and that of a nun in the museum, is a “minatory” Catalan crucifix. The “rigid figure” on the cross, its “sharp body twisted all awry,” bespeaks a religion harsh but undeniably real. At the nun’s waist swings a miniature crucifix: “a minute harmless god of silver plate,” as “inoffensive . . . and mild” as the nun herself. Given these “conflicting modes” of imaging Catholicism, clearly Montague prefers the strength and authenticity of the “lean, accusing Catalan crucifix”; yet his misgivings about the values it represents are obvious.
Although love would develop into one of Montague’s chief subjects, there is more fear than love in Forms of Exile. When love does appear, it is merely observed, not actually experienced: in “Irish Street Scene, with Lovers,” for example, and “Song of the Lonely Bachelor.”
“The Sean Bhean Vocht” introduces an old woman who, symbolically, is Ireland personified, a repository of “local history” and “racial memory.” “As a child I was frightened by her,” Montague says, but it is not entirely clear what has replaced fear: fascination, respect, perhaps a hint of affection. Montague’s ambiguity in this regard suggests that he has only begun to work through his feelings toward Ireland.
Poisoned Lands, and Other Poems
Poisoned Lands, and Other Poems overlaps with Forms of Exile: 40 percent of its poems appeared in the earlier book. In its new poems, Montague continues to write about Ireland, reflecting on his relation to it and its relation to the world. Several of these poems attempt to shape and understand childhood memories. “The Water Carrier” describes the chore of fetching water with precisely rendered details, then stops short. “Recovering the scene,” Montague says, “I had hoped to stylize it,/ Like the portrait of an Egyptian water-carrier:/ Yet halt, entranced by slight but memoried life.” Realizing that he cannot be that detached from memory, he concludes,
I sometimes come to take the water there,Not as return or refuge, but some pure thing,Some living source, half-imagined and half-realPulses in the fictive water that I feel.
Memory itself is that “fictive water,” a resource on which to draw.
“Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, the Old People” evokes the lives of country neighbors. As megalithic structures dot the Irish countryside, mysterious and yet matter-of-factly present, so these figures populate the landscape of the poet’s memory. “For years they trespassed on my dreams,” he says, “until once, in a standing circle of stones,/ I felt their shadow pass// Into that dark permanence of ancient forms.” He has commemorated the old people without sentimentality and made peace with their memories.
The outside world began to impinge on his local world when he was a schoolboy, as he recalls in “Auschwitz, Mon Amour” (later retitled “A Welcoming Party”). Newsreel images of concentration-camp survivors brought home to him the irrelevance of Ireland’s “parochial brand of innocence.” Having learned something about evil in the wider world, he has yet to comprehend what he has seen. For now, there is nothing to do but return to school and toss a football. The “Irish dimension” of his childhood, he says, came from being “always at the periphery of incident.”
In poems such as “Auschwitz, Mon Amour” and the sarcastic “Regionalism, or Portrait of the Artist as a Model Farmer,” Montague’s disaffection with Irish provincialism gives him an exile’s sensibility, in the tradition of one of his masters, James Joyce. “Prodigal Son” reflects on his annual visits to Ulster: It is a nice place to visit, but he would not want to live there. (Montague is well aware that the self-selected exile of the artist has little in common with exile imposed by economic circumstance, such as he alludes to in the opening poem of Poisoned Lands, and Other Poems, “Murphy in Manchester.”)
Within the new poems in this collection, the subject of religion all but disappears. Love is alluded to occasionally, mostly in passing; yet the volume does include Montague’s first full-fledged love poem, “Pastorals.” It is a dialogue between two lovers, a cynic who sees love as but the “movement of unlawful limbs/ In a marriage of two whims” and an idealist who views it as a sanctuary where “hearts long bruised . . . can trace/ Redeeming patterns of experience.”
A Chosen Light
The first section of A Chosen Light is a gathering of love poems. “Country Matters” and “Virgo Hibernica” recall love unspoken; the inhibiting shyness of adolescence. The latter acknowledges “the gravitational pull/ of love,” but the former concludes that “the word of love is/ Hardest to say.”
“All Legendary Obstacles” memorializes the reunion of separated lovers. A number of subsequent poems in the section draw on less ecstatic (less “legendary”) experiences, including the strains within a marriage. “Loving Reflections,” for example, moves in its three parts from tenderness to an angry argument to grim determination to hold on to the relationship.
Montague begins to explore family connections seriously in A Chosen Light, particularly in “The Country Fiddler” and “The Cage.” His uncle and godfather John Montague, for whom he was named, had been a country fiddler, but his “rural art [was] silenced in the discord of Brooklyn,” and he died in American exile. His nephew, born there, became his uncle’s “unexpected successor” when sent to Ireland at age four to live. Montague also sees his craft, poetry, as “succession” to his uncle’s “rural craft” of music.
In “The Cage,” Montague calls his father “the least happy/ man I have known,” who drank himself to “brute oblivion.” When he finally returned to Ireland in 1952, after twenty-seven years in Brooklyn, he and his son were briefly reunited; by then, however, the son was but an occasional visitor to Tyrone and would soon head for the United States himself. Mingled in the poem are Montague’s conflicting feelings toward his father: pity, revulsion, respect, affection.
“The Road’s End” grew out of one of Montague’s visits home. He retraces childhood steps, noting changes: overgrown thorns, a disused well, abandoned homes. “Like shards/ Of a lost culture,” he says, “the slopes/ Are strewn with cabins, emptied/ In my lifetime.” His sense of loss is strong.
In Tides, only two poems allude to Montague’s blood kin, “Last Journey” and “Omagh Hospital,” and both move from their specific subjects to the larger world of Northern Ireland. The former is subtitled “i.m. James Montague,” but salutes Ulster’s, as well as his father’s, memory, citing the “placenames that sigh/ like a pressed melodeon/ across this forgotten/ Northern landscape.” In “Omagh Hospital,” Montague’s dying Aunt Brigid pleads to be taken home, but he pictures her house, “shaken by traffic/ until a fault runs/ from roof to base.” The house that has become uninhabitable is not only the family home but also the whole province, rent by a grievous “fault.”
Tides has an increased proportion, and a stunning variety, of love poems. The first two of the book’s five sections concentrate on the darker side of love. “Premonition” and “The Pale Light” provide horrific, nightmare images. “Summer Storm” scales down to the more prosaic hell of a couple arguing, Montague returning here to his theme of love gone sour. “Special Delivery,” in which “the worm of delight/ . . . turns to/ feed upon itself,” reinforces this theme. The two poems in these sections that actually celebrate love are those that, at first glance, might seem least capable of doing so: “The Wild Dog Rose” and “The Hag of Beare.” “The Wild Dog Rose” focuses on a haggish woman who has lived a solitary life of few expectations and fewer pleasures. Her one encounter with a man was a terrifying attempted rape. However, love is not absent from this apparently loveless life: The poem ends with a glimpse of transcendent, absolutely selfless love. The poem elicits not pity for the old woman but admiration for her great heart. In “The Hag of Beare,” another crone comes to a higher love, at the end of a life utterly different from that briefly sketched in “The Wild Dog Rose.” Having known all fleshly pleasures, now denied by age and infirmity, the Hag of Beare expresses her willingness to welcome “the Son of Mary,” like so many men before, “under my roof-tree.”
The middle section of Tides introduces a frankly erotic note into Montague’s love poetry. “A Dream of July” celebrates “Ceres, corn goddess,” whose “abundant body is/ Compounded of honey/ & gold,” and similar imagery of honey and gold can be found in “The Same Gesture” and “Love, a Greeting” (as earlier it was found in “Virgo Hibernica”). Love here is primarily physical, exuberant, largely unassociated with responsibilities, and—as in the title poem, “Tracks”—without commitment.
The Rough Field
Poems in Montague’s first two books of poems are not randomly arranged, but a greater degree of order obtains in books three and four, which group poems into thematically related sections. Moreover, in Tides, the fourth book, sea imagery, often metaphorical, helps unify the volume as a whole. Montague’s fifth book, The Rough Field, is more highly organized still. Though it contains a number of individual poems capable of standing on their own (eight appeared in previous Montague books), in fact it is one long poem composed of many parts.
Montague began work on The Rough Field in the early 1960’s, concluding it a decade later, after a new outbreak of sectarian violence struck Ulster. Montague says that he began with “a kind of vision . . . of my home area, the unhappiness of its historical destiny.” Violent confrontations in Belfast and Derry gave added point...
(The entire section is 5217 words.)