A thirst for love and knowledge
POETRY: HARRY CLIFTONreviews New Collected Poems By John Montague Gallery Press, 539pp. €25
‘IN THE early ’60s,” John Montague wrote in his preface to The Rough Field, “I went to Belfast to receive a small poetry prize.” As it happens, I myself was on hand exactly 50 years later in the same city, when Montague presented, in 2011, “a small poetry prize” to a new, younger poet. A wheel had turned, a cycle completed itself. A baton, in the eternal Olympiad, was being handed on.
“One explores an inheritance,” he wrote in the same preface, “to free oneself and others.” Some days after receiving his prize, and journeying west by bus from Belfast to his homeland in Co Tyrone, that exploration seems to have begun in earnest. A beginning and an end to what became, 10 years later, The Rough Field, were sketched out, and the rest, a little like Rilke’s Duino Elegies, wrote itself by fits and starts in between. Thirty years of living, from his birth in Brooklyn in 1929 and fosterage back in Ireland with aunts in Fintona, through time in Armagh and the acquisition of a style in cities from Dublin to San Francisco and Paris, had laid down an unconscious stratum the digging and exhuming of which was to continue for 50 years to the present.
So it is no accident that New Collected Poems leads off with The Rough Field, in which are showcased not only the themes – exile and return to a personally and politically traumatised postpartition home ground – but also the strategies for dealing with them, acquired as much from France and the United States as from Ireland. The verbal collage that is The Bread God, out of Ezra Pound. The flat, careful line (evident too in the later The Dead Kingdom) of landscape writing, out of Kenneth Rexroth, “father of the Beats”. Most powerfully perhaps, the incantatory, unpunctuated line of A New Siege, in which the Derry street battles of the late 1960s are seen and presented as a “rough field of energy” in contexts the poet has experienced elsewhere.
streets of Berlin
a faulty world
That widening of context, against the grain of what became, in Northern Irish poetry of the 1970s and 1980s, something of a self-preoccupation, may be what validates his work in the 21st century – less as an Ulster precursor and more, like Samuel Beckett, as an Irish universalist.
“All my life,” Beckett wrote in Molloy, “I had been bent on settling this matter between my mother and myself.” Such words could stand as an epigraph to much in this New Collected Poems – the circlings and returnings, in word and act, to Ireland as “the unresolved republic of pain”, to maternal absence, against a Tyrone landscape endlessly invoked, like Beckett’s Dublin hinterland. This thread, deliberately explored in The Dead Kingdom, leads back to abandonment as a Brooklyn infant, and some of the most harrowing, naked poems in the whole oeuvre.
Mother, my birth was the death
Of your love life, the last man
To flutter near your tender womb:
A neon bar sign winks off and on,
motherfucka, thass your name.
The American ghost here is Iowa mentor and Dublin boon companion John Berryman, whose writing, like the more intimate side of Montague, lives on its nerves, and who was similarly driven by and back to bad beginnings: in his case the grave of a father who died by suicide.
I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave
Who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn
Berryman, a recurrent presence in this volume, shares with Montague an anatomising, in every sense, of marital and love affairs – though edged with hysteria, even violence, where Montague, in this delicate area, is a borrower from chivalric amour courtois traditions, albeit with the street noise of modern Paris in the background. Well-known poems such as All Legendary Obstacles and The Same Gesture form part of this third major strand in the New Collected Poems, but it is in lesser-known pieces that the jangling discords and reconciliations enact themselves most obviously, in the light of that “thirst for love and knowledge” spoken of in The Dead Kingdom.
A last embrace at the door,
Your lovely face made ugly
By a sudden flush of tears
Which tell me more than any phrase,
Tell me what I most need to hear,
Wash away and cleanse my fears:
You have never ceased to love me.
By 1988, however, when that poem appeared in Mount Eagle, a mellowing has become apparent. The big agendas, of history, return, marital change, have been worked through, and the poems become, in the best sense, more miscellaneous. Brisk professional brothers, previously left out of the narrative, are allowed to question, sometimes humorously, the poet’s myth of self and origins. Children enter the picture, and the stabilising presence – another circle returning upon itself – of an American wife.
Traffic borne, lotus on a stream,
Planes lofting, hovering, descending,
Kites without strings, as I race homewards
Towards you, beside whom I now belong,
Age iam, meorum finis amorum,
My late, but final anchoring.
Most importantly perhaps, Nature – that “creeping, healing” otherworld of the American poet Ted Roethke, and an abiding, if background, presence in Montague since earlier classics such as The Water Carrier and Well Dreams – repossesses the centre ground. Roethke’s greenhouse spinsters, Frau Baumann and Frau Schmidt (“Like witches they flew along rows / Keeping creation at ease”), reappear as the fostering aunts Brigid and Winifred at work in their Garden of Eden as a little boy looks on. Salmon out of Ted Hughes swim in the sea, and mountains to be climbed resolve themselves into The Hill of Silence:
Let us also lay ourselves
Down in this silence
Let us also be healed
Wounds closed, senses cleansed
While from clump and tuft,
Cranny and cleft, soft-footed
Curious, the animals gather round.
The wounded physician, whether Montague or Roethke, is also a healer. And the special heroism of New Collected Poems, the humanly identifiable element for what should be its many readers, is its refusal to hide its insecurities, but to journey instead through life as through those highways and byways from Belfast to Fintona 50 years ago, still wearing its heart on its sleeve.
Harry Clifton is Ireland professor of poetry. His latest collection, The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass, is published by Bloodaxe Books and Wake Forest