With the publication of Montague’s first collection of verse since The Dead Kingdom (1984), his readers catch the poet in a time of transition. Since he left Ireland, his native ground since the age of four, and returned—in 1988—to the United States, the land of his birth (in Brooklyn), both his life and his art reveal the discontinuity of cultural change. A prolific writer, Montague had centered the bulk of his previous poetry upon two major themes: introspection (often erotic) and Irish nationalism. Indeed, as an Irish poet, he had set claim to William Butler Yeats’s endeavor to establish a “national” poetry. Not only his verse but also his scholarship reveals a deep understanding of myth and history. The Rough Field (1972) includes a long sequence of poems on Ulster’s history; and parts of The Dead Kingdom fuse themes of the poet’s identity with that of Ireland. In 1974, he edited The Faber Book of Irish Verse; and the range of verse in Selected Poems (1982) shows his mastery of Irish past and present.
In addition to nationalistic concerns, Montague’s poetry had previously treated confessional subjects. The final two sections of The Dead Kingdom are essentially autobiographical; he writes of his parents’ struggles as emigrants to attain financial independence in the United States, of their failures, and of their dispirited return to Ireland. From that volume “A Flowering Absence” comes to grips with the poet’s memories of childhood trauma in a foster home, where his parents had been forced to place him. In earlier volumes, particularly Tides (1970) and The Great Cloak (1978), Montague’s introspections were often erotic.
Mount Eagle, for the most part, ranges over subjects other than Irish history or intimate confession. Some Irish poems persist, among them “Foreign Field,” “The Broken Doll,” and “Migrant Poet,” but they are anecdotal. Also Montague includes several erotic poems—mostly with a tone of nostalgic midlife amorousness rather than passion. Instead he breaks ground in two new directions: toward an understanding of his rediscovered America; and toward a deeper awareness of his life as a symbolic pattern of renewal.
Montague surprises his reader by the choice of setting and themes of his American poems. One might expect him to describe the altered situation of his recent experiences (he is now a Distinguished Professor in the Writing Institute at the State University of New York, Albany), or to pronounce, as a native who has returned “home” after long absence, his judgments upon American society, perhaps upon government or the media or the arts. Curiously, Montague sets his poems not in the sophisticated environs of urban upstate New York but in the wilderness; not in the contemporary United States so much as in an older, mythical land, the land of native Americans and of the open range and forests and mountains. And for his subjects he is drawn as much to wild creatures, especially birds, as to people—and these people are lovers or children, or uncomplicated boon companions, often tippling friends from the past. In his transition as a poet from themes of Irish myth and history, Montague is drawn to totemic American themes: the mystery of the land and of its teeming wildlife, the vision of “spirit of place” in remote or wild landscapes, the romantic quest for man in his simplest relationships with his fellows and with Nature.
In “Moving In” he reveals his connection to a mysterious, perhaps transcendent reality:
The world we see only shadows
(The entire section is 1516 words.)