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Gerald Schwartz reviews

Drunken Sailor
by John Montague

Wake Forest University Press. 78 pages

This review is 1,000 words
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Double vision

Natives of Ireland tell us they can tell each other’s identities — Protestant or Catholic — by a combination of accent, vocabulary, clothes, bearing, and gesture. That said, certainly the interpretations of a county Tyrone poet, born some seventy-five years ago in Brooklyn, New York, and who has roamed the world ever since, would be quite telling. And if that same poet had a connection to Samuel Beckett’s Paris, to the San Francisco of Robert Duncan, of Thomas Parkinson, of Allen Ginsberg, and Thom Gunn and to the middle America of Sylvia Plath and John Berryman, and especially if that poet is as vigorous and as creative as ever, then his poems will speak to us across many plains of a life caught whole.

Montague writes a mid-Atlantic strength that yields both accessible and esoteric insights of the double vision of Irish Diaspora. Like a wise Virgil in his native context, Montague also presides over a domestic Irish-at-home divide, as he acts as a seer in the generation changes that have occurred since his start as a writer in the late-forties. The body of his own poetry (he has also authored several volumes of translations, primarily of Gaelic and French poets) is situated in the mid-point between the defined semi-nationalist tribe and the island’s current detribalization following on the arrival of refined global capitalism, the breakdown of church authority, and the new shamrock secularism.

His new book Drunken Sailor is the correspondent in verse par excellence. To put it in a critical nutshell — as this collection opens at the mouth of Roche’s Point, Cork harbor, then transverses the country to the West before embracing matters of his Northern past, he draws on the dignity of the aristocratic O’Neill Chieftains, waning sectarian Ulster, and he backs it up with his intimacy with the dark, sodden side of the Irish character exemplified in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night”.

Filling dialogues along the way with of many recent and the many long dead — Ted Roethke, Kathleen Raines, Rene Hague — Montague takes the time to make these meditations on the ways of mortality and the powers of our many myths.

All these themes noted, the essence of the poems in Drunken Sailor is song. I wish I could think of a better, less freighted word. The lyrical sequences and snaking lines re ostensibly derived from the rhythms of a deep music, as in “Roethke’s Ghost at Roche’s Point”, where: “The sea checks its waves/ from the rocks to watch.” More than an expression about the dead poet’s ghost, “a figure glowing on its own,/ where sky and ocean join… ,” it becomes a place to penetrate the mystery of things, with its rush of awe and its quietude and its reverence.

In “Sea-Bed”, Montague approaches his matter with a child-like spirit and simplicity which belie the theme — a natural arcadia dubbed by blank verse. With “the coral reef” read as a “marine statement”, he summarizes the sense of separateness often felt by visitors to another world. With its glints, tides and creatures, here is a compendium of that world — all written with the cloisonné style of Gauguin.

Many of the poems of Drunken Sailor questions concepts like “home’ (“The Hag’s Cove”, “The Absent Limb”, and “Letter Valley”), “nation” (“Head or Harp”, “Demolition Ireland”) and the spiritual as stationed before eternity in “The Holy Show”. Dedicated to poet Kathleen Raine, Montague writes: “So the soul will sail/ when its time has come,” into “the galaxy a holy show,” encompassing a vision of Neo-Platonists such as John Scotus (b.800- d.830) back to the cave before Plato, and reading it you’re given a sense of the inevitable patterns, a sense of an unworldly culmination in old age. In his willingness to “lift that non-existent freight of Western thought/ a simple echo of what the creator’s of the stone circles felt,” he makes evocatively personal the Mysterium Tremens, the anguish and the wonder of going beyond.

On his way through the book to a glimpse of Ben Bulben later in the ambitious longer poem, “The Plain of Blood”, Montague lays some wreaths (for Rene Hague, translator of de Chardin), old civil war veterans, “garrulous John Berryman”, poet David Jones), chooses a final resting place “on a ghostly mound, my abiding/ symbol, a weathered standing stone,” and casts in “Last Court”, a tribute to his late brother, Turlough Montague.

“Last Court” turns on many braided themes: trepidation, worth, siblings, tribes, exogamy and the aching thirst for resolution. The occasion of the dying and death of Montague’s older lawyer brother presents for each man the opportunity to sum up one another’s strengths, failings and weaknesses, and moreover, it makes the poet mount a lone challenge to the demons of his past. With striking candor he delves into the nuances of guilt and responsibility — “of choosing a wife/ from the wider world outside.” And here, his brother for making this “mistake” twice. He also faces his brother’s fury for his book “The Dead Kingdom”, which brought out many unvarnished recollections of a boyhood Montague, who recounts how when the family went bust, he was shipped back to Ireland from America. Through his conversations with his brother alive — and later as ghost — authentic pathos is injected, as well as providing himself — and the reader — the back-story of his moral law (“of love”) within.

The forth section of the book contains exclusively “The Plain of Blood”, which finds the poet on the road, trying to hunt down Crom Cruach, the most ancient and venerated god of all the various tribes of Ireland. Rooting through the landscape for the constructions of a country, the poem addresses the gut and viscera from which urge driving, irrational ambitions and great achievements. And as Montague literally drives into the past — its paganism, its “genuflections” to Christianity, its folklore — he ranges over its five sections of narrative verse with sensual anecdotes of time and its landscapes: (“tracing a fort/ inside the hilltop grove, and tracks/ of twelve stones, in the weeds about”), finally culminating in a truth of where paths lead to. The panoramic sweep of each of the poem’s movements, written with sharp figurative insight, ends with a question. There is no resolution. All of us, like Montague, drunken sailor, are caught up moment by moment in experience. For the uncompromising poet, the only way to go is the shapeliness and stillness of art — until every point and line becomes as a living thing.

April 2006  |  Jacket 29  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |
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