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.

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.