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.


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.

The Great Mother

A thunderstorm tore through New York City yesterday – the sky got that yellow, dirty glass color. On my back porch I resisted the urge to record it with a phone camera, so I could show you all. I knew others were probably on that assignment, and they were, but what does it say that we no longer experience something so elemental as a thunderstorm without reaching for our iPhones like a smoker relieved to be out of a meeting.

“It’s rainin’ it’s pourin’/ The old man is snorin'” I said, and it occurred to me for the first time in my life that the old man in that rhyme may be The Old Man. God snoring, that’s what thunder is. Kids in Catholic school in the late ’70s used to say it was angels bowling.

So I called my friend Mark in Connecticut, a potter who blogs at Offers to Raven, and who’s always ready for a mythic or poetic question. He agreed that even though the old man soon after “went to bed and bumped his head/ and couldn’t get up in the mornin'” that the snoring did imply thunder.

At this point I was sitting under a steel awning with an electrical device in my hand and lightning crashing nearby, so we said good-bye and I traded the phone for a collection of one of the great poets, Wislawa Szymborska.


From 6,000 BC in Iraq, now at The Louvre.

I’ve memorized her poem “A Paleolithic Fertility Fetish” in the past. Though it fades and comes back in pieces the way memorized-then-forgotten poems become circular loop-de-loops, I often go back to it. “The Great Mother has no face,” it starts. “Why would the Great Mother need a face?”

I always assumed this poem refers to a statuette of a woman from pre-history, Szymborska finding reassurance and peace from the incompleteness and abstraction of the holy object. It ends:

“The Great Mother barely has a pair of arms,
two tiny limbs lie lazing on her breass.
Why would they want to bless life,
give gifts to what has enough and more!
Their only obligation is to endure as long as earth and sky just in case
of some mishap that never comes.
To form a zigzag over essence.
The ornament’s last laugh.”

Goddess forbid, if I get hit by lightning and die, one of you please read that poem before you lower me into a grave with nothing except possibly a sheet between the earth and me. You can read the complete poem if you scroll down here.

Where Poetry Lives

“Where do poems live?” is a harder question than “Why is the sky blue?” “It depends”  may be the most accurate answer, but a live reading never did a poem any harm, and many are only alive when read aloud.

I know where screenplays live. They live on the screen – where the film is. The script itself is a demo version of what the film might be, and screenwriters have to be able to value a script as a script. Novelists published and unpublished have the pleasure of calling a work complete. Of course they’d love to see a stack of hard covers at a bookstore, but a PDF on an iPad is the same kind of experience as a student reading a used copy of Hard Times the night before her European History 102 exam, or at least the distinction is tiny compared with the ways we experience poetry.

The novel, I guess, created a planet full of people with rich psychological lives, the place where most literary thought lives being the interaction of page and eyeballs. My father would have turned 83 yesterday, and he rarely read books but could spend hours reading newspapers cover to cover with the same solitary exploration. I wonder at his thoughts on the civil war in Liberia, just like I wonder what my wife thinks of the row of George R.R. Martin novels on my bookshelf at home. He rarely talked about issues, but if asked could give you an informed opinion, inflected by his own experience growing up with “the war.”

There’s a famous story about Augustine of Hippo meeting Archbishop Ambrose of Milan. Neither one of them were saints yet – Augustine wasn’t even a Christian yet – and he was awed by the fact that Ambrose could read without moving his lips! To Augustine, who was no dummy, it was revolutionary that literature could live in the eyeball-page axis. To him and presumably most people, the written word was just shorthand for where literature really lived, spoken aloud.

bridge poem

The Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis is better known as the John Ashberry Bridge for the poem along its span.

It made Ambrose and his weird new faith alluring, to have a psyche and a conscience so private. This was the year 400, and already we were on that slippery slope to virtual reality helmets.

Poetry lives a double life, on the page and in the spoken word. Poems live on monuments, and some get domesticated for service at weddings and eulogies, but mostly they live being read aloud in small groups. Some friends of mine get together every once in a while just to have some drinks and read poems…at home, where we can control the audio. It’s slightly gauche in this setting to read your own work, at least before you’ve introduced some other published, contemporary poetry or dropped a few classics on the group.

Hearing poems made me write poems, and from this I got drafted to read with a group called the Verbal Supply Company, which hosts quarterly readings, usually at a bar called Halyards, not far from my house in Brooklyn. This Monday we’re moving to the Upper West Side for an evening. The group is celebrating its fourth year, so we’re all just doing extra short sets, and this time around many of the writers will be doing excerpts from memoirs and longer-form fiction. I’ll be doing some poems.


A previous Verbal Supply Company reading being called to order (photo by Brad Hamilton).


“Where do poems live?” is above all a practical question, to the person reading his or her poems. An article from 2014, by a poet named Rich Smith in Seattle, exhorting poets to stop using “the poet voice” keeps getting recycled online. It’s a reason people avoid readings: the dullness of readers, most of whom aren’t in fact performers, emphasizing the cadence and clarity of their work at the expense of any “Shazam!”

I try to be sensitive to that and give it some spoken-English life, but I can also relate to poets trying to honor their poems as literature, to insist on it having some life on the page the way a chapter of a novel does. We can’t help adding a dose of Saint Ambrose.

In its four years, the Verbal Supply Company has insisted that its readers come to a “rehearsal,” and guess what? The readers are more focussed, and the excerpts or poetry more thoughtfully read, a step closer to a theater showcase than an open mic night. When deciding, “Where does this piece live” at least a writer makes a conscious choice.

Past readings are archived online on the VSC website. So you can open a beer and listen at home. Tip your bartender. The third from the top, “Not Yet Fully Monetized” from last summer, is a good one to start with. (If you’re partial to morehastohappen, you can skip to my few poems at the very end, at 1 hour and 8 minutes.)

O Canada!

May 7, 2016. How did I get a Bachelor of Arts from an accredited university, and spend years calling myself a writer, and today is the first time I’ve ever read Whitman’s Song of the Broad-Axe?

I turned to it, because of some photos I saw of the fires in Alberta.


“Muscle and pluck forever!
What invigorates life, invigorates death,
And the dead advance as much as the living advance,
And the future is no more uncertain than the present,
And the roughness of the earth and of man encloses as much as the delicatesse of the earth and of man,
And nothing endures but personal qualities.
What do you think endures?
Do you think the great city endures?
Or a teeming manufacturing state? or a prepared constitution? or the best-built steamships?
Or hotels of granite and iron? or any chef-d’oeuvres of engineering, forts, armaments?

“Away! These are not to be cherish’d for themselves;
They fill their hour, the dancers dance, the musicians play for them;
The show passes, all does well enough of course,
All does very well till one flash of defiance.”

Soon, friends, I’ll finish a long post about Gordon Lightfoot, the builder of the Erie Canal, and environmentalism. (I know you DeWitt Clinton fans are on the edge of your seats.) I get up to write it today, and what do I see in the news? A whole Canadian region whose economy is extracting oil from tar, going up in flames. It takes a Whitman to stay positive in times like these, and I don’t mean a box of chocolates.

Fort mac.jpg


April 15, Lincoln’s Yahrzeit

Today, a friend reminded me, is Abraham Lincoln’s yahrzeit. Being a gentile, I didn’t know this word, but knew what she meant. It’s the day commemorating the anniversary of his death. Although I’m told that a yahrzeit is is mostly observed for one’s parents, Lincoln is a father of sorts to all of us Americans, so it fits.

I think of this every year, in fact, whenever I see or smell a lilac, on account of the Whitman poem that taught me to love poetry, the one that starts:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

There will be a lot more about poetry, and not just screenwriting and story-telling, here soon, and this was the poem that first got me, especially the later verses written just weeks after Lincoln was shot, verses like this one:

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

His cadence and his open-endedness (I’m sparing you those verses; the whole poem is online here.) became standard, what American poetry is, but this poem, free-wheeling as it is, is bound together with such purpose, it’s what my friend Sean Sutherland co-founder of the Verbal Supply Company, likes to call a complete poetic thought, without being too bound to a single metaphor.

This poem gave me a habit, when faced with loss and impending loss, to look at the grander scale, without cheapening the depth of mourning. “In the scheme of things,” I’ll think, “I should be happy.”


It looks like it’s been a few years since Greg Trupiano of the Walt Whitman Project gave a walking tour, but I’m sure other literary tours of Brooklyn Heights and downtown hit some of Whitman’s sites, but no matter. Every year we have a yahrzeit for one of our fathers every time we see a lilac, like this young one poised to bloom (for the first time) in my dooryard:

Time and Narrative

As summer ends, in the social if not the geo-physical sense, I’m thinking back on the great films I saw and scripts I read, and nothing moves me to go back for a second visit like this episode of On Being, the radio show hosted by Krista Tippett. She interviews the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, in a conversation she titles “The Inner Landscape of Beauty.” It was one of his last interviews before he died.

O’Donohue was by this time a former Catholic priest who loved talking about his spiritual forefather, the 14th Century mystic Meister Eckhart von Hochheim, and about the Celtic mind. I suppose his idea that it’s uplifting to connect with natural beauty – that “landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence where you can truly receive time.” – resonated after I’d walked inside a farmhouse after a long hike through this kind of landscape…

…and been practically forced to listen to this episode by my friends.

“Philosophically,” O’Donohue says, “stress is a perverted relationship to time, so that rather than being a subject of your own time, you become its target, its victim.” Isn’t that why we go to the mountains or the beach, to places with what he calls “an ancient conversation between the ocean and the stone,” to reshuffle the cards in the great gin rummy game we play with time, and deal out a new hand?

On a deeper level, and more relevant to the general content of this blog, one of O’Donohue’s refelctions on the American mind, as opposed to the Celtic, is the following: “It often seems to me here that a person believes that if they tell you their story, then that’s who they are….that there’s a reduction of identity to biography.” In other words, we get so fixated on our stories – we screenwriters, especially those of us who’ve made forays into public relations, preaching the art of story-telling as a way of putting a face on for the world – we sometimes obscure as much as we illuminate.

With so much to ponder about the relationships narrative has with identity – be it script to film, screenwriting to direction, or institutional history to present-day action – I need a reminder now and then about the questions that are deeper still. What the hell am I doing today? Or even, who am I? By coercing me to listen to this, my friends opened a portal to new ways of understanding this – in O’Donohue’s book Anam Cara, and his hero Meister Eckhart, two must-reads. A good place to start, it seems, is rethinking time.

Coincidentally, my wife and I attended a wedding here in Brooklyn yesterday, at which Whitman was read by the father of the bride. There was Whitman at our wedding, but also a poem called “The Time Wars,” by the American poet Tony Hoagland. It ends,

“We ourselves aren’t thinking about the future anymore.
What we want is to calm time down, to get time in a good mood,
to make time feel wanted.
We just want to give time many homemade gifts,
covered with fingerprints and kisses.”

It’s the last day of summer, but it is still summer. The sun is beating, and the afternoon dew on my back is as real as it would be if it were the first hot day of June.

Good Plants, Bad Plants, and “Bad Plants”

Seeing that it’s futile to grow grass in my tiny back yard in Brooklyn, I’ve decided to break it up into autonomous zones for various weeds. I slowly made the decision over the summer, and finalized it yesterday by printing labels for the most common ones, giving the tactical retreat an “I meant to do that” patina.

Labels say, "I meant to do that."

Labels say, “I meant to do that.”


If God intended to endow all humans with “certain inalienable Rights,” as the saying goes, then He certainly intended for every patch of dirt on the western tip of Long Island to be covered in dandelions, broadleaf plantain, clover, and lady’s thumbs, and who am I to resist His holy intentions?

It started in the neglected, odd places that aren’t quite “garden” and aren’t quite “lawn” in the American use of those words. The “taint” in a brand new sense. When I saw how hardy and goofily pretty the lady’s thumbs growing by the compost pile were, I privileged these “weeds” with a few patches, and within weeks they became a border around most of our garden. Meanwhile I was waging war against the plantain, which killed any grass I tried planting in the dirt patches. Back-to-nature sorts kept telling me the plantains were edible, but if you saw how many batteries and shards of glass I find in this soil you wouldn’t eat anything that grows in it either.

My inspiration was Stephen Dunn’s poem “Bad Plants,” one of a handful I’ve been memorizing while gardening this year. “Bad Plants” questions the absoluteness of the distinction gardeners make between good plants and invasive species, comparing them to human relationships, with “the beautiful and the dangerous/ in one package.” After talking knowledgably about a few of them, Dunn lays out his case:

“All of them are inclined

to choke out what’s native.

Bad plants? Nature of course would say, Careful now,

watch your language, let’s just see

what survives.”

A Native Species Preserve, or a tactical retreat?

A Native Species Preserve, or a tactical retreat?


Dunn ultimately concludes that, despite his soft spot for them, you can’t really afford to give them a foothold in your garden. “Never make a deal,/
 I’d say, with kudzu,/ or become purple loosestrife’s Neville Chamberlain.”

So I guess it’s against the master’s greater judgment, but I’m giving broadleaf plantain its autonomous zone, common moss its homeland, and clover its nation-state. Let’s just see what survives. I can always soak them and rip them out in the spring.

Labor Day and Seamus Heaney

It’s Labor Day in the U.S., that holiday the Congress and president offered to American labor just when the international movement was starting to celebrate May Day to commemorate the Haymarket martyrs. Call it a coincidence, but in the solar year May Day comes at the peak of creation, when wanderlust is in our hearts, and the landscape and life seem full of possibility. Labor Day is the end of summer. A last dance with the sun.

You could argue it’s a harvest holiday – and I will be boiling corn and slicing raw tomatoes today, of course – but we already have a famous harvest holiday. If symbols matter, and they do, then maybe that’s why we work longer hours with fewer benefits than the rest of the developed world: We associate Labor Day with crying ourselves to sleep the night before school starts.

I could go on about the light in September, the insects, the squishing of rotten figs in one’s toes, and the landscapes with the color of every wildflower jacked up to eleven. I could, but I’m not a poet. The poets I know get up and write it every morning, and I don’t.

This morning was Seamus Heaney’s funeral in Ireland. A part of me, naturally, is jealous of a nation whose leaders can speak knowledgeably about a poet in their midst: If Philip Levine died last week, would Obama, John Boehner, and Bruce Springsteen all have cleared their schedules for today, on a par with the showing in Dublin? And how hard would it have been to find anyone at Coachella who could speak with as much feeling about him as The Irish Times found at Ireland’s Electric Picnic?

But Heaney, whose work was the gateway drug that got me and many people like me hooked on poetry, demanded honesty. His poems such as “A Dream of Jealousy” taught me how direct and raw – not bomb-throwing raw, “I-am-flawed” raw – poetry ought to be. There are fewer people in Ireland than in New York City, across a country the size of South Carolina. It’s easier to know “everyone” there, and so of course a Nobel laureate who writes about common people crossed paths with many of them.

Heaney owned up to the title “the great Irish poet” decades ago, and yet, when reading him,  you often feel you are reading about something other than national identity. When you read Orhan Pamuk, for example, only once in a while when you squint your eyes do you see some engagement with any material other than the great quandary of the Turkish intellectual.  His books are like trophies you keep on your shelf to show how serious you are.  Heaney’s books, full of farming stories and obituaries, and quips about sad grandparents, are for camping trips and nightstands, ones you want to re-read.

Years ago, before my friend Jay Leeming published his books, before I ever read Levine or Tony Hoagland, I sat and memorized “Bogland” one day and can still sit and type it from memory, give or take a bit of punctuation. The Great Irish Elk is his country, but it is also ourselves: the deeper and deeper we look inside, the more we realize there is nothing there. This junk on the outside, and the peripheral details about us – our grandmothers’ accents, our worn-out tools, our symbols – that’s the whole show.

BOGLAND by Seamus Heaney

for T.P. Flanagan

We have no prairies

To slice a big sun at evening –

Everywhere the eye concedes

To encroaching horizon,


Is wooed into the Cyclops’ eye

Of a tarn. Our unfenced country

Is bog that keeps crusting

Between the sights of the sun.


They’ve taken the skeleton

Of the Great Irish Elk

out of the peat, set it up

An astounding crate full of air.


Butter sunk under

More than a hundred years

Was recovered salty and white.

The ground itself is kind, black butter


Melting and opening underfoot

Missing its last definition

By millions of years.

They’ll never dig coal here,


Only the waterlogged trunks

Of great firs, soft as pulp.

Our pioneers keep striking

Inwards and downwards,


Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

The bog holes might be Atlantic seepage.

The wet centre is bottomless.

A Poem

Last Sunday I gave a poetry reading for the first time in possibly 20 years. As odd as it sounds to say “in 20 years” it sounds almost as strange to say “I gave” one.” A writer “gives” a reading the way we “give” testimony or an explanation, I suppose, but really I accepted an invitation to read on a bill with a handful of writers. A few of them had heard and read some of my original work at retreats and parties. I knew they were very good at this themselves. I don’t consider myself serious at it, so what did I have to give?

Wait, back up. Yes, sometimes, at parties I attend, poetry readings break out! Usually between the coffee and bourbon. It can be a real drag if you’re not in the mood, like when someone shows up with a guitar. But magic too. Like being kissed when you didn’t ask for it, it can be the wrong thing, or the absolutely right thing.

What are we really doing when we attend our friends’ readings? Lending emotional support? Trying to size up their literary pedigree and substance? Shopping for books?! Or just trying to scramble the running narrative in our heads for an hour by tuning in to a few different voices?

“All of the above” works just fine as an answer, but I hereby give everyone I know permission to blow off every reading I ever give, if they are contemplating attending just to show their support. Life is short, and nice guys are plentiful. I’ll cut to the point:

My rules for what makes a good a reading: One, more than one person on the bill, unless it’s Seamus Heaney himself. Two, some sauce to loosen people up, but it must be early enough in the evening that the real corkers aren’t drunk yet. Three and most importantly, an escape plan for those who’d rather tune it out.

This last rule also applies to musical venues, the best of which all have a room where there is no music, where you can have a conversation without being rude.   If you don’t like the performance, no hard feelings, there’s a bar right over there.

I can see getting hooked on the immediacy of the poetic fix. It gets written, and as soon as that day you either read it or hear it. No giving notes, no  waiting for someone to re-read it before they get back to you about it, no speculation about what changes would persuade a big fish to pass it along to a bigger fish. Just metaphor, simplicity, clarity.


I can see now from my low perch, on

the last remaining orange seat, the

impossibly black, shoeshine black, vinyl

L.P.-colored black hair, above

the wrinkled face of the Chinese man

who followed me onto the D train

that passes through two out of three

of this city’s Chinatowns.

Your shoes, old man, tell me that

your toes bump the bottom edge of

a retail display case all day. Each time

you walk sideways to fetch a sample of

pork chops or necklaces or wrist watches

the stainless steel corner grazes

the leather on your feet, and

you let the cowskin absorb the hard

indifference of a city looted by mobs

with twenty dollar bills for sticks,

and Visa cards for pitchforks.

You’re only twenty years older than me.

Your wife, or your seamstress, if she stood

this close, would speak up in her way, her

resigned grimace at not finding a seat

would turn my way when my hips jerk to signal

that I am ready to stand any time,

and she would have my seat before the doors close.

So sensitive, though, is men’s vanity,

so shameful to admit that it even

exists, our eyes flit. Mosquitoes

in fear of resting in one place,

they glance from shoes to newspapers

to black, black hair. You proudly stand

for twenty more minutes you could

have sat rattling your bunion-

bejeweled feet, like a tambourine.