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Clíona Ní Ríordáin reviews John Montague's newest poetry collection
Clíona Ní Ríordáin lives in Paris and teaches at the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle. She is editor of Four Irish Poets / Quatre Poetes Irlandais (Dedalus, 2011); and of Femmes d'Irlande en poésie 1973-2013 (Editions Caractères, Paris) forthcoming in June 2013.
(Gallery Press, 2012)
ISBN: 978 185235 538 8
Buy from Gallery
Readers of John Montague’s work are aware of his intimate association with prestigious publishing houses—his first publication in 1958 made him one of the original Dolmen poets. A glance at the bibliography of the poet drawn up by Thomas Dillon Redshaw for Well Dreams, the collection of essays devoted to John Montague for his 70th birthday, enumerates the variety of the enterprise—from All Legendary Obstacles in 1966, with its drawing by Barrie Cooke, to the slim volumes that were produced with such care under the imprint of The Golden Stone in Cork. As readers, we have a sense therefore that we may be guided and influenced by the composition and design of a Montague collection, an intimation that there is nothing within or on the bound boards that has not been placed there with great care.
In the 1995 Collected Poems the poet stands in the foreground of a black and white photograph, hemmed in on one side by gorse and brambles, the hills rising behind him in the misty distance. This cover is of a piece with the book itself. Its structure reveals a focus that deliberately eschews the chronological. The entry into the world of John Montague will be by The Rough Field (1972), The Great Cloak (1978), Dead Kingdom (1984), strong, unflinching stuff. The stout stanzas of 'Home Again', the interplay between epigraph and poem, the slight stanzas of 'Omagh Hospital' gazing steadily at the drift into old age and decline of Brigid Montague: all these editorial decisions are renewed and reaffirmed in New Collected Poems. Yet again, the readers make their way into the work via Tyrone and the townland of Garvaghey, before losing themselves in the erotic sweep of The Great Cloak and its acrid nostalgia, caught like the fish in 'Separation' (NCP 112) we are tugged back again and again to the beauty of the lines, to honesty of the sentiments. Translation, which has always been a concern of Montague’s, is used to effect in The Great Cloak, versions of French and Irish language poems appear dotted throughout, acting as a goad, a commentary, a counterpoint, as in 'The Hunt' inspired by André Frénaud :
Chased beast, exultant huntress,
The same flood of hair.
I gripped you, you seized me.
In the battle, our limbs tangle forever. (NCP, 98)
All these we delight in reading anew; we salute the innovation, the courage of the erotic charge rendered natural, in days when the dead hand of the censor was not long lifted.
And yet, as naturally curious readers, we are drawn to examine the shift in perception effected by the addition of the work published since 1995. The cover of the New Collected Poems is radically different to the austere grey and tamped down green of the 1995 Collected. The intense and warily cautious portrait photo of the poet has disappeared from the front cover, in keeping no doubt with editorial policy; he is found to be in a warm, smiling thumbnail photo on the back cover. In place of the photorealism, we are treated to Gestural Drawing 1, by Patrick Scott, with a beaten golden disk on the left and the traces of gestures, branches suggested to the right. It is as if poet and painter have both responded to the quotation from Hokusai placed as an epigram to The Drunken Sailor (2004):
At seventy-five I have understood better the structure of nature, of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes and insects. Consequently, at the age of eighty, I should have made more progress; at ninety, I should have reached a remarkable stage; and at one hundred and ten everything I do, every point and line, would be a living thing...
In the later collections distance and perspective alter the landscape, Roches Point and Roethke recur, ghost and landscape seen from a height, a temporal removal coats them with an eerie otherworldly element:
The sea checks its waves
from the rocks to watch.
The wind stills its breath
in the trees to catch
the echo of his clumsy steps
as he & his shadow turn,
a figure glowing on its own,
and ocean join
in a light bleached and
wild as scoured bone. (NCP 437)
There are many elegiac sequences for disappeared friends and family members, yet the characters are recalled joyfully: Todd Andrews drawn in a Daumier-like fashion, a hint of the cigar and the memory of the brandy (NCP 462). The warmth of the conversation with the poet’s brother in 'The Last Court Sequence', the depth of the affirmation:
I assert the right of love to choose,
From whatever race, or place. And of verse
To allay, to heal, our tribal curse, that narrowness. (NCP 466)
The final section, the magisterial Speech Lessons, brings us swirling back to the country of childhood again, to the preoccupation of the Brooklyn child glimpsed in Dead Kingdom, the burning question: “When will I learn to speak again?” and the shift from interrogation to concern, recalling the suffering of the newly arrived strange voiced child, losing hope: “Will I never, ever speak again?”(NCP 480). Childhood here is not viewed with nostalgia, and the book confronts the necessity of finding a voice through the vector of song, the ticking of 'My Grandfather’s Clock', the rhythm of the clicking train. The anger of The Lost Field has abated. Poetry’s function is re-anointed in a moving poem titled 'Silences', dedicated to Elizabeth: “It is a prayer before an unknown altar,/ a spell to bless the silence.” (NCP 489).
The value of a collected poems is that it can hold both the fury and the peace, the rasping voice and the sweet song. In 'Talking with Victor Hugo, in Old Age', the poet converses with the grand old man of French letters, but becomes distracted from talk of honours and “inestimables” as he spies the prestige Pléiade collection on the great man’s shelves: “ … I saw the Pléiade editions/ in their missal binding, burning on the shelves,/ so many noble volumes!” (NCP 398). Ireland has no equivalent of the Pléiade, the career crowning glory laid down on bible-paper bound between leather-tooled covers, yet here within the burnished gold covers of the New Collected Poems, heightened in their intensity by the claret coloured hues of the end papers and lettering, we have a volume that will glow on our shelves for generations to come.
©2013 Clíona Ní Ríordáin
Clíona Ní Ríordáin at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle
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