For the Hillmother

by John Montague

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435

When “For the Hillmother” appeared in A Slow Dance, it was the sixth of seven poems in the opening section of that book. A number of images and themes in the poem are repeated, and sometimes clarified, elsewhere in the section. The opening lines of the first poem (“Back”)—“Darkness, cave/ drip, earth womb/ we move slowly/ back to our origins”—introduce darkness and wetness (which recur in “For the Hillmother”) and evoke both primordial and prenatal shelter (prehistoric in two senses). Most important, these lines begin the motion “back to our origins” which is characteristic of Montague’s work in general.

The third poem in the section (a prose poem, “The Dance”) concludes with a sentence in which wetness and darkness are again associated and in which the human figure, the dancer, has grown as close to the earth as a deeply-rooted tree: “In wet and darkness you are reborn, the rain falling on your face as it would on a mossy tree trunk, wet hair clinging to your skull like bark, your breath mingling with the exhalations of the earth, that eternal smell of humus and mould.”

“For the Hillmother” celebrates the “pull/ of the earth,” embraces the “move . . ./ back to our origins”; in doing so, it links up with what is probably the major theme in Montague’s poetry: exile and return. For reasons traceable to disruptions in Ireland and in his own life (born in Brooklyn, New York; sent at age four to County Tyrone, Ireland; reared apart from his parents and brothers), he has written often about displacement, dispossession, and separation—but also about coming back, circling back, and going home. Exile and return, or at least the desire to return, define the dynamic of Montague’s poetry.

In “For the Hillmother,” the desire to return is couched in terms, not of geography or politics or society, but of local landscape (in an introduction to A Slow Dance, Montague recalls “the wet lushness which excited me so much when I returned to Ireland, after a decade in exile”)—and landscape is metaphor for anatomy. Montague has said that the first impetus for the poem came from viewing an exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s graphically sexual engravings, an homage to female genitalia. Montague’s later, much earthier, poem, “Sheela na Gig” (Mount Eagle, 1988), sees birth as “banishment” from “the first home” and “our whole life” as an effort “to return to that first darkness.” “For the Hillmother” transposes that effort and the (male) desire for return to “the first home” into images of nature and the general shape of the litany.

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