Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1516
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 shadowswhat was there. So a dead manfables in your chair, or standsin the space your table now holds.Over your hearth the sea hissesand a storm wind harshly blows.
Like his master Yeats (indeed, master of all twentieth century Irish poets), Montague understands primitive life and the life of creatures as part of an ongoing flow in time, in which the past becomes the present. He concludes “Moving In” with lines that the author of “The Tower” might have written:
Before your eyes the red sandstoneof the wall crumbles, weed run wildwhere three generations agoa meadow climbed, above a citywhich now slowly multiplies,its gaunt silos, fuming millsstrange to the first inhabitantsas Atlantis to a fish’s eyes.
In “Pacific Legend,” Montague hails the salmon as totemic god, redeemer of humankind, soon to return to his proper kingdom:
So throw back these bones again:they will flex alive, grow fleshWhen the ruddy salmon returns,a lord to his underwater kingdom.
Montague’s language recalls that of D. H. Lawrence in “Snake.” Indeed, the poet can claim intellectual kinship with Lawrence as he does with Yeats in “Up So Dofin,” when he opens “underwater eyes” to perceive “the great lost world/ of the primordial drifts/ a living thicket of coral/ a darting swarm of fish.” Like the Lawrence of Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), Montague seems to become one with living creatures. Beyond empathy, he reaches a near-mystical state of identification with the Other:
how quiet it is down herewhere wandering minnows explorethe twin doors of my eyelidslip silently against my mouth
For Montague, the Other is really himself—his primordial self living within the flesh:
I had forgotten that we live betweengasps of, glimpses of miracle;once sailed through the air like birds,walked in the waters like fish.
In “The Leap,” Montague describes his transitional journey as a movement backward into the primordial consciousness, rather than forward into modern civilization:
This journey I have madea leap backwards in time,headstrong as a young man,against all warnings.
For a symbol of the journey, Montague chooses the Mount Eagle of the title poem. He identifies himself with that solitary, independent bird as a personal statement of his physical transition from his former Irish life of convivial ease to one of greater challenge:
Content was life in its easiest form;another was the sudden growling Stormwhich the brooding eagle preferred,bending his huge wings into the winds’wild buffeting
Like the fabulous bird, Montague views himself symbolically as one searching out dangers of the mountain: “But now he had to enter the mountain/ Why? Because a cliff had asked him?” His response is that
. . . the region needed a guardian—so the mountain had told him. Anda different destiny lay before him:to be the spirit of that mountain.
With this bardic task, the solitary poet-eagle looks backward with nostalgia at his earlier days:
When he lifted his wide foreheadbold with light, in the morning,they would all laugh and smile with him.It was a greater task than an eagle’saloofness, but sometimes, under his oilskinof coiled mist, he sighs for lost freedom.
Romantically grandiloquent, “Mount Eagle” strikes a false note (Montague, after all, is scarcely a bard whose pronouncements are awaited with awe by a suffering multitude): “Everyone would stand in awe of him./ When he was wrapped in the mist’s caul/ they would withdraw because of him,I peer from behind blind or curtain.” When the poet presumes to ascend the topmost crags of godlike sublimity, he sinks instead into bathos. If Montague intended to treat these lines as ironic, he might be excused for his bombast; but the poet is in earnest—and the results are ludicrous.
Nevertheless, as a heroic poet in the Romantic tradition, Montague stands indeed apart from his fellow writers. Against the current of postmodernism, with its muted, self-deprecating objectivism, he advances a Promethean defiance. In “The Hill of Silence” he writes:
This is the slope of loneliness.This is the hill of silence.This is the winds’ fortress.Our world’s polestar.A stony patience.
As a poet in transition, Montague has not yet attained his lofty objective—to identify his consciousness with that of sentient things, with birds and beasts and the primitive natural world, as Lawrence did. After all, Lawrence earned his animism through a lifetime of reflection. And Yeats’s visions were felt in the bone. Montague’s enthusiasms, however sincere, seem borrowed. He asserts, but often neglects to prove, his convictions. At his best, his recent work returns to the Romantic tradition in which the mystery of things vibrates in one’s imagination. In “Cassandra’s Answer” such lines are worthy of a great poet:
To step inside a childhood home,tattered rafters that the dawnleaks through, brings awarenessBleaker than any you have known.Whole albums of Births, Marriages,roomfuls of tears and loving confidencesGone as if the air has swallowed them;stairs which climb toward nothing,walls hosed down to flaking stone:you were born inside a skeleton.
Many other lines are resonant with mystery, but the collection as a whole is uneven. Several verses—”Above,” “Discord,” “Difference”—are self- indulgent, flat. “A Ballad for Berryman” disappoints, because the American poet—a friend of Montague—deserves an ampler tribute. A few poems seem trivial: “A Real Irishman,” “Foreign Field.” Still, Montague ought to be judged by his finest, most representative work, by such lines from “Migrant Poet”:
Listen, the brent goose wings across the sea,Salmon sleep in the clear, cold stream.Every bird seeks its winter quarters.I’ll not stir, till summer comes again.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13
Irish Literary Supplement. VIII, Fall, 1989, p.21.
University Press Book News. I, June, 1989, p.21.
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