In the summer of 1954, 25-year-old John Montague bussed tables at an Indiana University restaurant. He’d spent the previous year on a Fulbright scholarship at Yale but “had no money left.” The Indiana heat was “a surprise to an Irish skin,” although Montague was in good company at the School of Letters: William Empson, R. P. Blackmur, and John Crowe Ransom — who recommended the young poet to Paul Engle at Iowa. That fall, Montague joined the Iowa Writers Workshop, where a visiting William Carlos Williams read one of his poems and said, “This is good, but it is not written in the American line.” Williams apologized when Montague read the poem aloud, colored by his Irish tongue. And it all began with the seemingly impossible dreams of a small boy in a little town on the Illinois prairie who grew up to lead an epic American life.
After he finished the Iowa program, Montague held an assistantship at Berkeley, where he wrote the poem “Soliloquy on a Southern Strand,” the thoughts of a priest about his Irish childhood. “No martyrdom, no wonder, no patent loss: / Is it for this mild ending that I / Have carried, all this way, my cross?” It is an appropriate verse for a poet such as Montague: an Irishman born in America but bred in the homeland of his father. A poet who reached for grandeur, was buoyed by ego, and carried the soul of lament: for his country, his family, and himself. A Spell to Bless the Silence includes selections from 13 books, spanning 1961 to 2017. The poems from Poisoned Lands and Other Poems, his first book, are suffused with pastoral work. Although born in Brooklyn, Montague was raised in County Tyrone, on a farm owned by his two aunts (his father had lost his job). In “The Water Carrier,” he describes his “twice daily” chore, “balanced as a fulcrum between two buckets.” His description of place is hypnotically palpable: “A bramble-rough path ran to the river / Where you stepped carefully across slime-toped stones / With corners abraded as bleakly white as bones.”
His work from the 1960s remained steeped in that place. It includes “The Trout,” one of his most celebrated poems. A man “flat on the bank” eases his hands into a stream, where a trout appears mid-reverie. He reaches for the fish, “so preternaturally close / I could count every stipple.” He snatches the trout, “two palms crossed in a cage / Under the lightly pulsing gills.” The poem ends: “To this day I can / Taste his terror on my hands.”
Montague’s short poems carry an emotional charge similar to those of his countryman Seamus Heaney. “One could say that the only real fruit of the northern pain has been its poetry,” Montague claimed.
With Tides (1970), his work became more sensual, more concerned with bodies. He saw his writing of visceral love poems as a way of “going behind Queen Victoria, . . . going behind the famine even, going back to the old Ireland and trying to find the true current of feeling.” That Yeatsian sense of an ancient Ireland, governed by its own, peculiar myths, pervades his works — though his is a curious mixture of Yeats’s mystical, idiosyncratic vision of Christianity and Heaney’s strained, nostalgic Catholic vein.
Montague envied his father’s sincere belief in God, once saying, “I think that the question of whether Christ was the son of God is the most important historical question that you can ask.” In a poem written about his aunt Brigid, he recalls: “Nightly she climbs / the narrow length of the stairs / to kneel in her cold room / as if she would storm / heaven with her prayers.” He thinks of those prayers and how “instead of a worn rosary, / I tell these metal keys.” After she dies, “I crossed myself / from rusty habit / before I realised / why I had done it.”
He often writes of the past’s flailing against the present. In “A Grafted Tongue”: “An Irish / child weeps at school / repeating its English.” “To slur and stumble // In shame / the altered syllables / of your own name.” His lines are terse, powerful. “To grow / a second tongue, as / harsh a humiliation / as twice to be born.”
Poems such as “A Grafted Tongue” and “Hymn to the New Omagh Road” are worthy of archiving; they are testaments to a lost Ireland. In a section titled “Balance Sheet,” we learn of what is lost — the “shearing away” of an old barn “where pigeons moan,” streams choked dry, “the removal of all hillocks / and humps, superstition styled fairy forts” — all to construct a road in order to make Ulster “more competitive in the international market.” When Montague writes of the old world, his verse is supple, elegiac.
Age can often breathe open a poet’s syntax. Montague’s later poems are more expansive. There is still the old worry, as in “Demolition Ireland” (2004): “Observe the giant machines trundle over / this craggy land, crushing old contours.” Here “river banks, so slowly, lushly formed, / haunt of the otter and waterhen,” are “bulldozed into a stern, straight line.” We can hear the poet’s resignation. “Once mysteries coiled in the tangled clefts / of weed and whin, land left to itself.”
Ireland was Montague’s first and final subject because it was his bloodline, his place of formation — and perhaps his burden. “The sounds of Ireland,” he writes, “that restless whispering / you never get away / from.” Montague was correct when he once said poetry is “partly a redemptive process. It tries to explain and to extract something of beauty from horror.” Poetry can bring you home again — although such a return is not always a comfort.