I'll tell you a sore truth, little understood
It's harder to leave, than to be left:
To stay, to leave, both sting wrong.
A feel of warmth in this place.
In winter air, a scent of harvest.
No form of prayer is needed,
When by sudden grace attended.
There are days when
one should be able
to pluck off one's head
like a dented or worn
My love, while we talked
They removed the roof. Then
They started on the walls,
Panes of glass uprooting
Like dolmens round my childhood, the old people.
Jamie MacCrystal sang to himself,
A broken song without tune, without words;
He tipped me a penny every pension day,
Fed kindly crusts to winter birds.
When he died his cottage was robbed,
Mattress and money box torn and searched.
Only the corpse they didn't disturb.
Maggie Owens was surrounded by animals,
A mongrel bitch and shivering pups,
Even in her bedroom a she-goat cried.
She was a well of gossip defiled,
Fanged chronicler of a whole countryside:
Reputed a witch, all I could find
Was her lonely need to deride.
The Nialls lived along a mountain lane
Where heather bells bloomed, clumps of foxglove.
All were blind, with Blind Pension and Wireless,
Dead eyes serpent-flicked as one entered
To shelter from a downpour of mountain rain.
Crickets chirped under the rocking hearthstone
Until the muddy sun shone out again.
Mary Moore lived in a crumbling gatehouse,
Famous as Pisa for its leaning gable.
Bag-apron and boots, she tramped the fields
Driving lean cattle from a miry stable.
A by-word for fierceness, she fell asleep
Over love stories, Red Star and Red Circle,
Dreamed of gypsy love rites, by firelight sealed.
Wild Billy Eagleson married a Catholic servant girl
When all his Loyal family passed on:
We danced round him shouting 'To Hell with King Billy,'
And dodged from the arc of his flailing blackthorn.
Forsaken by both creeds, he showed little concern
Until the Orange drums banged past in the summer
And bowler and sash aggressively shone.
Curate and doctor trudged to attend them,
Through knee-deep snow, through summer heat,
From main road to lane to broken path,
Gulping the mountain air with painful breath.
Sometimes they were found by neighbours,
Silent keepers of a smokeless hearth,
Suddenly cast in the mould of death.
Ancient Ireland, indeed! I was reared by her bedside,
The rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head,
Fomorian fierceness of family and local feud.
Gaunt figures of fear and of friendliness,
For years they trespassed on my dreams,
Until once, in a standing circle of stones,
I felt their shadows pass
Into that dark permanence of ancient forms.
We had two gardens.
A real flower garden
overhanging the road
(our miniature Babylon).
Paths which I helped
to lay with Aunt Winifred,
riprapped with pebbles;
shards of painted delph;
an old potato boiler;
a blackened metal pot,
now bright with petals.
Hedges of laurel, palm.
A hovering scent of boxwood.
Crouched in the flowering
lilac, I could oversee
the main road, old Lynch
march to the wellspring
with his bucket, whistling,
his carrotty sons herding
in and out their milch cows:
a growing whine of cars.
Then, the vegetable garden
behind, rows of broad beans
plumping their cushions,
the furled freshness of
tight little lettuce heads,
slim green pea pods above
early flowering potatoes,
gross clumps of carrots,
parsnips, a frailty of parsley,
a cool fragrance of mint.
Sealed off by sweetpea
clambering up its wired fence,
the tarred goats' shack
which stank in summer,
in its fallow, stone-heaped corner.
With, on the grassy margin,
a well-wired chicken run,
cheeping balls of fluff
brought one by one into the sun
from their metallic mother
—the oil-fed incubator—
always in danger from
the marauding cat, or
the stealthy, hungry vixen:
I, their small guardian.
Two gardens, the front
for beauty, the back
for use. Sleepless now,
I wander through both
and it is summer again,
the long summers of youth
as I trace small paths
in a trance of growth:
flowers pluck at my coat
as I bend down to help,
or speak to my aunt,
whose calloused hands
caressing the plants
are tender as a girl's.
Poetry is a weapon, and should be used,
though not in the crudity of violence.
It is a prayer before an unknown altar,
a spell to bless the silence.
There is a music beyond all this,
beyond all forms of grievance,
where anger lays its muzzle down
into the lap of silence.
Or some butterfly script,
fathomed only by the other,
as supple fingers draw
a silent message from the tangible.
She wakes in a hand-painted cot,
chats and chortles to herself,
a healthy small being, a happy elf,
sister to the early train whistle,
the bubbling dawn chorus along
the wisteria of Grattan Hill.
No complaints as yet, enjoying
through curtains the warm sunlight,
until she manages to upend herself.
Then the whine starts. Is it anger
or lust for the bottle?
Lift her up, warm and close
or held at arm's length -
that smell, like a sheep pen,
a country hedge steaming after rain.
As the bottle warms, the decibels increase,
the scaldie's mouth gapes open;
head numb, coated tongue,
cotex ends squealing, no
thirsty drunk at a bar,
nursing a hangover, manages such concentration.
Daughter, dig in, with fists like ferns
unfurling, to basic happiness!
Little one, you are now
nothing but the long music of the gut,
a tug of life, with halts
for breathing, stomach swelling.
On your throne afterwards
bang your heels, examine your new
and truly wonderful hands,
try out, warm up, your
little runs of satisfaction.
Day be day, they also grow,
sound experiments in the laboratory
of the self, animal happiness,
the tonal colour of rage, cartoon
attempts to communicate, eyes beaming,
burbles rising. Best of all when
like any bird or beast waking,
you wail to yourself, with whoops,
finger stuffed gurgles, and my reward
for the morning, your speciality
(after the peristaltic hiccup)
when you smile and squeal with
sudden, sharp whistles -
O my human kettle!
for Barrie Cooke
Flat on the bank I parted
Rushes to ease my hands
In the water without a ripple
And tilt them slowly downstream
To where he lay, tendril-light,
In his fluid sensual dream.
Bodiless lord of creation,
I hung briefly above him
Savouring my own absence,
Senses expanding in the slow
Motion, the photographic calm
That grows before action.
As the curve of my hands
Swung under his body
He surged, with visible pleasure.
I was so preternaturally close
I could count every stipple
But still cast no shadow, until
The two palms crossed in a cage
Under the lightly pulsing gills.
Then (entering my own enlarged
Shape, which rode on the water)
I gripped. To this day I can
Taste his terror on my hands.
My daughter, Úna, wanders
off to play in the forest,
unafraid, her new rag doll
clutched under one arm:
a small fairy queen, trail-
ed by her elderly knight.
At the centre, I find her
beneath black hemlock, red cedar,
halted on a carpet, a compost
of fallen leaves, rusty haws
and snowberries, knobbly chestnuts:
decay's autumnal weft.
She has found a dead bird
which she holds up in her
other hand; eyes, bright beads,
but the long beak spiky, cold,
twig legs crisped inwards.
Why not fly? she demands
And as I kneel to explain
(taking the retted corpse away)
dead, she repeats, puzzled.
So we bury the scant body
under a mound of damp leaves,
a gnome's pyre, a short barrow:
Her first funeral ceremony.
Home now, I nudge gently,
past the slapping branches,
the shallow Pacific rain pools
she loves ploutering through
in her diminutive wellingtons.
Beyond the tall woods, lights
of Victoria are flickering on:
yellow flares of sodium
under dark coastal clouds
crossing Vancouver Island;
dream cattle swaying home.
How can one make an absence flower,
lure a desert to sudden bloom?
Taut with terror, I rehearse a time
when I was taken from a sick room:
as before from your flayed womb.
And given away to be fostered
wherever charity could afford.
I came back, lichened with sores,
from the care of still poorer
immigrants, new washed from the hold.
I bless their unrecorded names,
whose need was greater than mine,
wet nurses from tenement darkness
giving suck for a time,
because their milk was plentiful
Or their own children gone.
They were the first to succour
that still terrible thirst of mine,
a thirst for love and knowledge,
to learn something of that time
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.
I took the subway to the hospital
in darkest Brooklyn, to call
on the old nun who nursed you
through the travail of my birth
to come on another cold trail.
"Sister Virgilius, how strange!
She died, just before you came.
She was delirious, rambling of all
her old patients; she could well
have remembered your mother's name."
Around the bulk of St Catherine's
another wild, raunchier Brookyln:
as tough a territory as I've known,
strutting young Puerto Rican hoods,
flash of blade, of bicycle chain.
Mother, my birth was death
of your love life, the last man
to flutter near your tender womb:
a neonlit bar sign winks off & on
motherfucka, thass your name.
There is an absence, real as presence.
In the mornings I hear my daughter
chuckle, with runs of sudden joy.
Hurt, she rushes to her mother,
as I never could, a whining boy.
All 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.
Surely my father loved me,
teaching me to croon, Ragtime Cowboy
Joe, swaying in his saddle
as he sings, as he did, drunkenly
dropping in from the speakeasy.
So I found myself shipped back
to his home, in an older country,
transported to a previous century,
where his sisters restored me,
natural love flowering around me.
And the hurt ran briefly underground
to break out in a schoolroom
where I was taunted by a mistress
who hunted me publicly down
to near speechlessness.
"So this is our brightest infant?
Where did he get the outlandish accent?
What do you expect, with no parents,
sent back from some American slum:
none of you are to speak like him!"
Stammer, impediment, stutter:
she had found my lode of shame,
and soon I could no longer utter
those magical words I had begun
to love, to dolphin delight in.
And not for two stumbling decades
Would I manage to speak straight again.
Grounded for the second time
my tongue became a rusted hinge
until the sweet oils of poetry
eased it and grace flooded in
"Mother, mother," I whisper,
over the years we had won
to a sweet intimacy together.
She would come with me often
to Fintona's first picturehouse,
rigged out like a girlfriend
in her evening finery, snug
in the best seats, munching
soft centred chocolates. Naturally
we chose romances, Sir Laurence
stalking the cliffs in Rebecca,
Leslie Howard defending the South,
courteous through cannonsmoke,
and I thought I might bring her
to some sad story of Brookyln,
the bridge's white mirage shining
over broken lives like her own,
but she wept, and dabbed her eyes:
"I hate films about real life."
Melancholy destiny, indeed.
Young love, then long separation.
After our drive across Ireland,
my father stood in the kitchen,
surrounded by his grown sons
and the wife he had not seen
for almost two decades, spirit
glass in hand, singing ‘Slievenamon'
or Molly Bawn, why leave me pining,
his eyes straying in strangeness
to where she sat, with folded
hands, grey hair, aged face,
Alone, all alone by the wave
washed strand, still his Molly Bawn,
wrought by time to a mournful crone.
Six years later, he was gone,
to a fairer world than this,
and we sat in television darkness,
searching from channel to channel
while the badmen came riding in,
guns glinting in the prairie sun,
or the pretty nurse fell in love
with the subtle handed surgeon
as the emergency was wheeled in -
tho' lonely my life flows on -
and she laughed, reaching down
for the brandy by her side, or
excitedly darting snuff, dust
settling on her apron . . . .
John Montague is an Irish poet. He was born in New York and brought up in Tyrone. He has published a number of volumes of poetry, two collections of short stories and two volumes of memoir. He is one of the best known Irish contemporary poets. In 1998 he became the first occupant of the Ireland Chair of Poetry. Early Life John Montague was born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 28, 1929. His father, James Montague, an Ulster Catholic, from County Tyrone, had gone to America in 1925 to join his brother John. Both were sons of John Montague, who had been a Justice of the Peace, combining his legal duties with being a schoolmaster, farmer, postmaster and director of several firms. John continued as postmaster but James became involved in the turbulent Irish Republican scene in the years after 1916, particularly complicated in areas like Fermanagh and Tyrone, on the borders of the newly divided island. Molly (Carney) Montague joined her husband James in America in 1928, with their two elder sons. John was born on Bushwisk Avenue, St. Catherine’s Hospital, and spent his earliest years playing with his brothers in the streets of Brooklyn, putting nickels on the trolley lines, playing on a tenement roof, seeing early Mickey Mouse movies. Return to Garvaghey Although Uncle John ran a speakeasy, where he employed his brother, James Montague did not find life in New York easy during the Depression years. So the three boys were shipped back to Ireland in 1933, the two eldest to their maternal grandmother’s house in Fintona, Co. Tyrone, where they had been born, but John was sent to his father’s ancestral home at Garvaghey, then maintained by two spinster aunts, Brigid and Freda, who welcomed the boy of four. From New York to a farm on the edge of the Clogher Valley in County Tyrone was a significant step backwards in time. John did all the usual farming chores. He became a normal Ulster farm child, though haunted by the disparity between what the house in Garvaghey had been, in the days of his grandfather and namesake, and the reduced present. John went first to Garvaghey School and then to Glencull, three miles away, where he was coached by a young and ardent master. Scholarships brought him to St. Patrick's College, Armagh, the junior Diocesan Seminary and the place where his Jesuit uncle, Thomas Montague, had gone. Education The teacher he remembers most from Armagh was Sean O Boyle, one of the leading experts on Ulster folksong and Irish poetry. From him John imbibed, almost against his will, a strong sense of the long tradition of Irish poetry. John studied at University College Dublin in 1946. He found an extraordinary contrast between the Ulster of the War Years and post-war Dublin, where the atmosphere was introverted and melancholy. Stirred by the example of other student poets (including Thomas Kinsella) he began to publish his first poems in The Dublin Magazine, Envoy, and The Bell, edited by Peadar O’Donnell. But the atmosphere in Dublin was still constrained and Montague left for Yale on a Fullbright Fellowship in 1953. John had already met Saul Bellow at the Sazburg Seminar in American Studies and now he worked with Robert Penn Warren as well as auditing the classes of several Yale critics, like Rene Wellek and W. K. Wimsatt. He extended his sense of contemporary American literature, attending Indiana Summer School of Letters where he heard Richard Wilbur, Leslie Fiedler, and John Crowe Ransom, who like the Irish poet Austin Clarke, encouraged Montague, finding him a job at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1954-55. Life during the 50s and 60s From Iowa to Berkeley, a year of graduate school convinced Montague that he should return to Ireland. He sailed back to France that summer, to marry his first wife, Madeleine, whom he had met in Iowa, where she was also on a Fullbright; they settled in Herbert Street, Dublin, a few doors down from Brendan Behan. Working by day at the Irish Tourist Office, Montague at last gathered his first book of poems, Poisoned Lands (1961). That year he also moved to Paris, to a small studio a block away from Samuel Beckett, with whom he slowly became on good drinking terms. There, he also met another neighbour, the French poet Claude Esteban, with whom he became friends — Montague recently translated into English and published some of his poems. A regular rhythm of publication saw his first book of stories, Death of a Chieftain (1964) after which the musical group The Chieftains were named, his second book of poems, A Chosen Light (1967), Tides (1970), the latter both also published by Swallow in the U.S. All during the sixties, Montague continued to work on his long poem, The Rough Field, a task that coincided with the outbreak of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland. A Patriotic Suite appeared in 1966, Hymn to the New Omagh Road and The Bread God in 1968, and A New Siege, dedicated to Bernadette Devlin which he read outside Armagh Jail in 1970. In 1972, the long poem was finally published by Dolmen/Oxford and Montague returned to Ireland, to live and teach in University College Cork, at the request of his friend, the composer Seán Ó Riada, where he inspired an impressive field of young writers including Gregory O'Donoghue, Sean Dunne, Thomas McCarthy, William Wall, Maurice Riordan, Gerry Murphy, Greg Delanty and Theo Dorgan. In a birthday tribute for his 80th, William Wall wrote: "It would be impossible to overestimate his influence on the young writers who went to UCC (University College Cork) at that time." The Rough Field (1972) was slowly recognized as a major achievement. Since 1974 Settled in Cork with his second wife, Evelyn Robson, Montague published an anthology, The Faber Book of Irish Verse (1974) with a book of lyrics, A Slow Dance (1975). Recognition was now beginning to come, with the Award of the Irish American Cultural Institute in 1976, the first Marten Toonder Award in 1977, and in 1978, the Alice Hunt Bartlett Award for The Great Cloak, “the best book of poetry in two years” according to the Poetry Society of Great Britain. A Guggenheim in 1979-80 enabled Montague to complete his Selected Poems (1982) and his second long poem, The Dead Kingdom (1984) both co-published by Dolmen (Ireland), Oxford (England), Wake Forest University Press (U.S.) and Exile Editions (Canada). In 1987, Montague was awarded an honorary doctor of letters by the State University of New York at Buffalo. Governor Mario M. Cuomo presented Montague a citation in 1987 “for his outstanding literary achievements and his contributions to the people of New York.” Montague serves as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence for the New York State Writers Institute during each spring semester, teaching workshops in fiction and poetry and a class in the English Department, University at Albany. In 1995, Montague and his second wife, Evelyn, separated, and he formed a partnership with American student Elizabeth Wassell (later to be author of The Honey Plain (1996)). In 1998, Montague was named the first Irish Professor of Poetry, a three-year appointment to be divided among The Queen's University in Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, and University College Dublin. He held this title from 1998 to 2001, when he was succeeded by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. In 2000, Montague was awarded The Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize. In 2008 Montague published A Ball of Fire, a collection of all his fiction including the short novella The Lost Notebook. Style Montague's poems chart boyhood, schooldays, love and relationships. Family and personal history and Ireland's history are also prominent themes in his poetry. Montague is noted for his vowel harmonies, his use of assonance and echo, and his handling of the line and line break. Montague believes that a poem appears with its own rhythm and that rhythm and line lengths should be based on living speech. Awards John Montague was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Ulster, Coleraine on 29 June 2009.)
I'll tell you a sore truth, little understood
It's harder to leave, than to be left:
To stay, to leave, both sting wrong.
You will always have me to blame,
Can dream we might have sailed on;
From absence's rib, a warm fiction.
To tear up old love by the roots,
To trample on past affections:
There is no music for so harsh a song.