John Montague: three years on, his words still speak to us

An emigrant writer reflects on the loss enshrined in the words of a great poet


It’s been three years since poet John Montague died. To mark the anniversary, Gallery Press has brought out a new collection of his work (Selected Poems 1961-2017), edited as always by his close associate, Peter Fallon. The themes in this snapshot of Montague’s life’s work will be familiar to his readers and admirers alike, covering rural life, love, friendship, emigration, loss and grief.

Like all good poets, Montague sought refuge and inspiration in the great classics and used them to good effect to better understand himself and the world around him, as can be seen in The Cage, a poem about his father, and the personal toll of emigration necessitated by the family’s impoverished circumstances. He saw himself as a young Telemachus, coming of age in the presence of his weary father, Odysseus, who had returned home from an enforced exile in Brooklyn. As they walk the fields in Garavaghey that were familiar to both of them, the younger Montague knows his time has come to go out in the world and chart his own course.

"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…

When he came back
We walked together
across fields of Garavaghey
to see hawthorn on the summer
hedges, as though
he had never left;
a bend of the road

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which still sheltered
primroses. But we
did not smile in
the shared complicity
of a dream, for when
weary Odysseus returns
Telemachus should leave."

Nestled in the middle of this collection are five poems from Montague’s The Dead Kingdom (1984). Three of them (The Silver Flask, A Flowering Absence, and The Locket) evoke raw emotion in the poet and reader alike.

In The Silver Flask, we find the Montague “family circle briefly restored nearly twenty lonely years after that last Christmas in Brooklyn” on their way to midnight Mass. Again, the lonely figure of his father is laid bare as we see him singing Christmas carols while sharing a warm drink on a cold, snowy December night.

"Chorus after chorus of the 'Adoremus'
to shorten the road before us,
till we see amidst the winter's snows
the festive lights of the small town
and from the choirloft an organ booms
angels we have heard on high, with

my father joining warmly in,
his broken tenor soaring, faltering,
a legend in dim bars of Brooklyn
(that sacramental moment of stillness
among exiled, disgruntled men)
now raised vehemently once again…"

Turn the page and we find Montague (Telemachus) in faraway Brooklyn seeking answers in A Flowering Absence to his own hidden pain brought about by an excruciating family separation that has left an indelible mark.

"Of confusion, poverty, absence.
Year by year I track it down
intent for a hint of evidence,
seeking to manage the pain –
how a mother gave away her son…

All the roads wind backwards to it
An unwanted child, a primal hurt.
I caught fever on the big boat
that brought us away from America –
away from my lost parents."

Poems are written to move us. Good poets write poems and give them away to us readers to do with them what we will. Montague gave us a precious gift – his words. They move us and we relate to them as we project our own experiences on to them and give them new life and meaning.

No matter how many times I read The Locket, I am stopped dead in my tracks when I read the line: “Then you gave me away.” The words become blurry and my eyes sting as tears flow down my face and drip from my nose to stain the page. I blink and wipe them away. I find myself stroking the page, grieving for and wanting to console the young boy in the grown man who still feels the pain of being separated from his mother at such a young and tender age.

Or am I grieving my young self who experienced a similar separation? One memory evokes another. His experience is my experience. His pain is my pain. The scars run deep. They are part of who we are but they don’t define us. Although the pain of separation is seared in his memory, in his consciousness, Montague finds solace in the written word and in the knowledge that although he was separated from his mother and sent to live with extended family in Northern Ireland, she loved him and kept him close to her heart.

"And still, mysterious blessing,
I never knew, until you were gone,
you wore an oval locket
with an old picture in it
of a child in Brooklyn."

This is the power of poetry. This is why we read poems – to seek refuge and find inspiration.
Emmanuel Touhey is a journalist. He lives and works in Washington, DC