John Montague, Poet from the Land of Poets

The Irish poet John Montague died last weekend, with hardly a peep around here in the place where he was born, Brooklyn. It was Montague and Seamus Heaney, specifically their selections in The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, that kept the poetic flame alive inside me during a long period of estrangement.

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Glass and video have replaced “the cage” on the Clark Street 2 & 3 Train stop, formerly the I.R.T., in Brooklyn Heights, where John Montague’s father worked.

His Irish Times obituary hinted, not surprisingly, that he regarded Heaney, the more successful, Nobel Laureate face of Irish poetry, as his rival. It added, also not surprisingly, that in his final years his jealousy lifted and he quoted Heaney’s poetry with fondness.

Among his works I revisit through the years are “The Trout” (Super homoerotic! I was surprised to learn he wasn’t gay.) and “The Cage.” Though born in Brooklyn, his mother got sick when he was young, and he was raised by relatives in Northern Ireland, while his father stayed here to work.

 

The Cage

My father, the least happy

man I have known. His face

retained the pallor

of those who work underground:

the lost years in Brooklyn

listening to a subway

shudder the earth.

 

But a traditional Irishman

who (released from his grille

in the Clark St. I.R.T)

drank neat whiskey until

he reached the only element

he felt at home in

any longer: brute oblivion.

 

And he picked himself

up, most mornings,

to march down the street

extending his smile

to all sides of the good

(non-negro) neighbourhood

belled by Teresa’s church.

 

When he came back

we walked together

across fields of Garvaghey

to see hawthorn on the summer

hedges, as though

he had never left;

a bend of the road

 

which still sheltered

primroses. But we

did not smile in

the shared complicity

of a dream, for when

weary Odysseus returns

Telemachus must leave.

 

Often as I descended

into subway or underground

I see his bald head behind

the bars of the small booth;

the mark of an old car

accident beating on his

ghostly forehead.

 

I confess to ruining the mood at a dinner party one night a few years ago, when the subject of poems about fathers came up and I broke this one out and read it. I’d remembered it as a sad story of a man who’d sacrificed his happiness for a job in a literal cage. The afterthought phrase “non-negro,” to me, testified to Montague’s great love for his father, whom he accepted faults and all, with no indication that his da’ didn’t share his neighborhood’s racism. The real-life “negroes” present at this particular get-together seemed a bit like a jab to the belly had been delivered, like they might have preferred a little warning for so hurtful a subject to come up, or at least a reprieve till dessert was finished.

My own love for Irish America is complicated by this very issue, our complicity in covering up the original sin of our country. It’s very American, really, that Montague appends this phrase to his poem at all, rendered in parentheses no less, as if he needs us to know where these people stood on the epoch-making issues of their day, and to discreetly take a position himself. (He and Seamus Heaney both lived in the U.S. for decades and became celebrities here, or at least paid the bills.)

This Christmas with my family, when the beer and wine are flowing, I plan to break out another of Montague’s poems, “The Silver Flask,” a country idyll about a family passing a flask of whiskey around the car. It begins:

“Sweet, though short, our

hours as a family together.

Driving across dark mountains

to Midnight Mass in Fivemiletown,

lights coming up in the valleys

as in the days of Carleton.

 

Tussocks of heather brown

in the headlights; our mother

stowed in the back, a tartan

rug wrapped around her knees,

patiently listening as father sang,

and the silver flask went round…”

Not exactly Christmas with The Waltons, neither my family nor Montague’s. He was a poet from the land of poets. I can understand young writers feeling like Montague and Heaney are both losing their relevance, their Irish heritage a kind of thesaurus of evocative images. They’re still special to me, though, and it goes beyond their Irish-ness. Even when they’re trading in nostalgia, they keep our eyes on sad details, then hint at some universal experience, then go back to the images to let them have the final word, and that, to me is what poetry is.

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