Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1929, he was raised in County Tyrone, and educated at University College Dublin, and Yale University and the University of California at Berkeley. He co-founded Claddagh Records, and became president of Poetry Ireland in 1979. He has taught at UCD, University College Cork, the Sorbonne, and at several American universities. His poetry includes Forms of Exile (1958); Poisoned Lands (1961); A Chosen Light (1967); Tides (1970); The Rough Field (1972), which was performed with music by the Chieftans at the Peacock Theatre; A Slow Dance (1975); The Great Cloak (1978); The Dead Kingdom (1984); Mount Eagle (1988); The Love Poems (1992); Time in Armagh (1993); Collected Poems (1995); Smashing the Piano (1999), Carnac, a translation of work by the French poet Guillevic (1999), Selected Poems (2000) and Drunken Sailor (2004).
John Montague passed away in France, in December 2016.
Herbert Street Revisted (Click to view)
A light is burning late
in this Georgian Dublin street:
someone is leading our old lives!
And our black cat scampers again
through the wet grass of the convent garden
upon his masculine errands.
The pubs shut: a released bull,
Behan shoulders up the street,
topples into our basement, roaring ‘John!’
A pony and donkey cropped flank
by flank under the trees opposite;
short neck up, long neck down,
as Nurse Mullen knelt by her bedside
to pray for her lost Mayo hills,
the bruised bodies of Easter Volunteers.
Animals, neighbours, treading the pattern
of one time and place into history,
like our early marriage, while
tall windows looked down upon us
from walls flushed light pink or salmon
watching and enduring succession.
As I leave, you whisper,
‘Don’t betray our truth,’
and like a ghost dancer,
invoking a lost tribal strength,
I halt in tree-fed darkness
to summon back our past,
and celebrate a love that eased
so kindly, the dying bone,
enabling the spirit to sing
of old happiness, when alone.
So put the leaves back on the tree,
put the tree back in the ground,
let Brendan trundle his corpse down
the street singing, like Molly Malone.
Let the black cat, tiny emissary
of our happiness, streak again
through the darkness, to fall soft
clawed into a landlord’s dustbin.
Let Nurse Mullen take the last
train to Westport, and die upright
in her chair, facing a window
warm with the blue slopes of Nephin.
And let the poney and donkey come –
look, someone has left the gate open –
like hobbyhorses linked in
the slow motion of a dream
parading side by side, down
the length of Herbert Street,
rising and falling, lifting
their hooves through the moonlight.
Mount Eagle (Click to view)
The eagle looked at this changing world;
sighed and disappeared into the mountain.
Before he left he had a last reconnoitre:
the multi-coloured boats in the harbour
nodded their masts and a sandy white
crescent of strand smiled back at him.
How he liked the slight, drunk lurch
of the fishing fleet, the tide hoist-
ing them a little, at their ropes’ end.
Beyond, wrack, and the jutting rocks
emerging, slowly, monsters stained
and slimed with strands of seaweed.
Ashore, beached boats and lobster-
pots, settled as hens in the sand.
Content was life in its easiest form;
another was the sudden growling storm
which the brooding eagle preferred,
bending his huge wings into the winds’
wild buffeting, or thrusting down along
the wide sky, at an angle, slideways
to survey the boats, scurrying homewards,
tacking against the now contrary winds,
all of whom he knew by their names.
To be angry in the morning, calmed
by midday, but brooding again in
the evening was all in a day’s quirk
with lengthy intervals for silence,
gliding along, like a blessing, while
the fleet toiled on earnestly beneath
him, bulging with a fine day’s catch.
But now he had to enter the mountain.
Why? Because a cliff had asked him?
The whole world was changing, with one
language dying; and another encroaching,
bright with buckets, cries of children.
There seemed to be no end to them,
and the region needed a gaurdian –
so the mountain had told him. And
a different destiny lay before him:
to be the spirit of that mountain.
Everyone would stand in awe of him.
When he was wrapped in the mist’s caul
they would withdraw because of him,
peer from behind blind or curtain.
When he lifted his wide forehead
bold with light, in the morning,
they would all laugh and smile with him.
It was a greater task than an eagle’s
aloofness, but sometimes, under his oilskin
of coiled mist, he sighs for lost freedom.
A Flowering Absence (Click to view)
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 Brooklyn:
as tough a territory as I’ve known,
strutting young Puerto Rican hoods,
flash of blade, of bicycle chain.
Mother, my birth was the 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 our brightest infant?
Where did he get that 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.