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.)