A poet for all seasons

Smashing the Piano. By John Montague. Gallery Press. 84pp. £13.95 hardback, £7.95 paperback

Smashing the Piano. By John Montague. Gallery Press. 84pp. £13.95 hardback, £7.95 paperback

Carnac. By Guillevic. Translated by John Montague, with an introduction by Stephen Romer. Bloodaxe: Contemporary French Poets 9. 145pp. £8.95 in UK.

On the back of Smashing the Piano we are told this is John Montague's first book of poems since the handsome Collected Poems from Gallery in 1995. Of equal significance is the fact that it is the first since Montague became the initial occupant of the Ireland Chair of Poetry in 1998. His inaugural lecture in Belfast is a good introduction to the two books under review here. There, Montague stressed the obligation on the writer to "find your own voice" and "to write out of your wellsprings". He tells us that it was in response to such local and lyrical imperatives that he turned to poems such as "Carnac" by Guillevic, a Breton socialist born beside the Celtic monumental stones, the menhirs, which correspond to the Irish dolmens.

Montague's place in the canon of Irish poetry is secure, not least because of one totally successful poem which the Guillevic connection recalls, "Like Dolmens round my childhood, the old people", and because of his great early collection The Rough Field, which the Collected Poems showed clearly to be the centre of his oeuvre. All Montague's subsequent poems are eloquent additions to its themes and fidelities. The Collected ended with "Border SickCall", a moving sequence which is a kind of medical Winterreise, describing the poet's travels with his doctor-brother in a series of calls to patients on the Donegal-Fermanagh border. This sequence is faithful to Montague's twin imperatives of the domestic and the public, ending with an inspirational question, like the awakening from a dream of reality: "But in what country have we been?" - a question whose superficial political sense is surpassed by the sustained and lyrical humanity of the poems it concludes.


Smashing the Piano carries on from there. Montague's lyrical descriptive powers have never been stronger, and line after line stays in the reader's head: "The wayside flowers/ are furred with dust"; the sick bird whose "claws were crisp as winter twigs"; the non-native Irish speaker Sean O Riordain, who became a great poet in Irish, is the "Hermit crab of/a receding language". There are wonderful poems of family piety, especially the hauntingly beautiful 14-line "Still Life, with Aunt Brigid" and the desolating "Time Off", the first of "Kindertotenlieder", about the over-willing child who collapses and dies in a cornfield. There are the stones and water, noted by Montague as his native images in the inaugural lecture, as well as aeroplanes and gardens, the last wonderfully described in "Paths", the opening poem, which commemorates with total fidelity the two senses of "garden" in pre-1960s Ireland. A recurrent emphasis is on the origins of art, especially in the Lascaux cave-paintings. The bison features twice, bringing together the US, Lascaux and Irish cattle. Literary allusions are touched with great grace and lightness: one of Montague's most personal and moving themes - speech impediments - gets a Goldsmith twist in "Poor Noll", and the aisling ghost of Austin Clarke appears at the end of the tribute to Sean O Riada:

Along that lonely country road beneath Mount Brandon.

The rarest of all Montague's technical gifts is the capacity to write humorous poems which can be taken seriously and don't sound arch. A classic of the kind here is "Fairy Fort for Ben Simmons", which describes the experience of the child coming downstairs to find the adults as giants slumbering

So long that their beards have grown into the wood of their big dining table.

There is room, too, within this book's psychic range for an enraged "Response to Omagh", and a side-swipe at Margaret Thatcher in the sequence "Civil Wars". Another of the most beautiful items here is the series "Flower, Stone, Sea", which starts with a loose translation of a piece of Guillevic's "Carnac", which is a marvellously evocative smell of the shore ("the iodine, the bones . . . the dead seashells, the grasses, the slurry, the saxifrage . . . the stillwet linen, the tar of boats").

Guillevic was Montague's neighbour in Montparnasse, by a happy chance, since the Breton secular mystic, poet of sea and sun and Celtic standing-stones, was so much on Montague's wavelength. The full poem, with a very enlightening theoretical introduction by the French-based English poet Stephen Romer, is translated with miraculous clarity and accuracy by Montague. These books could be called an Indian summer, if that phrase did not imply a preceding autumn; Montague has never been better or more verbally alert.

Bernard O'Donoghue is a poet and critic.