Montague's still on fire
Published 29/03/2009 | 00:00
Poet and writer John Montague has been married three times and enjoyed the sexual freedoms of the hippie era but a string of women in his life could never make up for being abandoned by his mother. And yet it is this theme that has shaped his poems and a new book of short stories, writes Ciara Dwyer
'I'm a year younger than Mickey Mouse," says John Montague.The 80-year-old poet is in playful mood. There's a glint in his green eyes. When the photographer asks him to sit with his hand under his chin, Montague says that this pose reminds him of Rodin's sculpture, Le Penseur (The Thinker).
"I always thought that he wasn't sitting there thinking but that he was on the toilet. He has that look about him," he says.
In his stockinged feet, he walks jauntily around Stauntons on the Green, the hotel where he and his wife, the American novelist Elizabeth Wassell, have taken up residence for the week. He is a tall, rangy man with a beaky nose. He reminds me of a stork.
A window in this rambling house looks out on to the Iveagh Gardens.
"I used to court girls there," he says. His eyes twinkle at the memory.
Does he feel his age?
"It depends on the day," he says, "There are days that I feel like a kitten and then I discover that I can't play with the ball of wool. But I accept it. I'm a bit surprised.
"I think now that I've managed to get this far, I'll set my sights on lasting a little while longer, ideally, a centenarian, that's what my wife would like. I've still a lot more to do."
Montague is a prolific poet who has the unusual distinction of also being a fine short story writer. (His collected stories have been gathered in a new book, A Ball of Fire). As poetry is language distilled, his stories are particularly powerful because they are so tightly written. He didn't choose to be a poet but in the end he succumbed.
"It took me over," he says.
John Montague was born in Brooklyn in 1929, "as the banks began tumbling. "I suppose my infant ears could hear the sound of people committing suicide from Wall St. So I'm back where I came in, except now it's worldwide."
His father had gone to America because, as a patriotic Northern Catholic, he was rudderless in Tyrone after 1922. He worked in his brother's speakeasy but Prohibition meant the speakeasy closed. John's uncle hit the bottle and died, so John's father was jobless and the children had to be sent home. John was the youngest.
How much does he remember of his time in Brooklyn?
"All of us were sent off to the cinema. Matinees worked as a babysitter. And of course it was the beginnings of the Walt Disney world. In 1933, I was four and suddenly we seemed to be on a boat. I had the measles. Then we came to Derry and we were all met. I have some memory of the children being shared out. I was given to two spinster aunts."
These were his father's sisters. John was separated from his siblings and his parents.
"I was extraordinarily lucky because they were two lonely women in a biggish house which had been a successful farm." Their townland, he explains, had a post office and a branch of Tyrone County library, "So I was smothered in love immediately. That's not bad.
He speaks of the family sundering quite calmly. "I'd lost my mother, but then she'd been sick since my birth anyway. But still, I have good memories of her. In Brooklyn we really were grappling near bottom. I think we were reared for a while by the St Vincent de Paul."
The plan was that the parents would follow. John doesn't remember saying goodbye to them in Brooklyn."That's what I blanked out. It was the only way I could survive, I imagine." It was years before his parents returned to the North.
As a boy, John read American comics. A neighbour heard him cry in the middle of the night and went over, afraid that the aunts were beating him. "That was impossible. Two fine ladies like that, they wouldn't be into beatings. But they said I'd been reading the American funnies and they could be very violent. There'd be things like Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy, a detective with a blunt nose."
One day, his aunts called him in from the fields."There was this woman dressed in black sitting there and then my aunts said, 'That's your mother'. I wasn't told she was coming and I think the aunts were scared to lose me. I was seven. They bought me a puppy. I wasn't going to move unless the dog moved with me. I think my mother came to judge the situation."
On seeing that John was happy, she left him where he was. His father stayed on in Brooklyn. "His kind of Ulster Catholic didn't have much place in the North of Ireland. He was an extreme patriot."
Over the years, he would write to John; these letters would start nicely and end up with bigoted stuff against blacks. In turn, John would reply telling him about the local football matches. He had been a fine reader in school but a teacher made him read a strange passage which unnerved him. The teacher devoured him. He faltered and started to stammer. It is something that has stayed with him to this day.
"She plucked me apart. But also I think she uncovered my hurt, about my lost mother."
Although separated from his mother, John used to cycle up to see her. He writes of these times very movingly in a poem called The Locket. Also, he thinks his adult love of women and his need for so many of them is related to his being deserted by his mother.
In 1952, John's father came home because his son, John's second brother, wrote to him telling him that he was going to get married and there was nobody to look after their mother. After 18 years apart,they were reunited.
"It was very strange. There were all these things in Irish families, especially from any part of Ireland that was broken. After the Treaty in 1922, the Ulster Catholics were in a strange situation, in a state they didn't acknowledge."
On finishing school, Montague went to Armagh College to train as a priest but he didn't see it through. Instead, it was off to UCD and later Yale and Berkeley. Eventually, he went on to teach at Berkeley. He has always been busy in both his professional and private life.
Montague has been married three times and has two children. He tells me that the two words which his mother couldn't bear to hear were "cancer" and "divorce": "I'm glad she didn't live on to see me with my two divorces."
His first marriage was to a Frenchwoman called Madeleine, whom he met in Iowa. They lived in Dublin, Paris and America. She went out to work so that he could stay home to write. He says that she was great -- very direct and fearless. Later, in the States when he was a lecturer, they lived in different cities because of where the work was. This chosen life resulted in their growing apart. In the end, he says that his Northern Catholic psyche was too conservative to accept any French-style marriage -- the understanding that there could be discreet affairs.But he didn't remain untouched by other women.
When he lectured at Berkeley, California, he tells me that it was "wild", full of flower power nymphs who floated around the campus putting flowers on his doorknob.
"Girls in their absence of clothes," he says wistfully. He recalls the time he went to bed with a belly-dancer who brought her dancing skills to the bedroom. At first, he appreciated this delightful sight but when she would lean over the bed, flicking the pages of the Kama Sutra to find another elaborate position, he pleaded, "Can we not just make love?" After a week of lecturing, he was too worn out for bedroom Olympics.
In the end, he left Berkeley as he thought that this free-love lotus-eater land would rot his soul. Instead, he worked at saving his marriage to Madeleine but they had drifted too far apart. Also, she was not able to have children and although they had cats as surrogate children, the absence of offspring was something which they both felt deeply. Montague divorced Madeleine and went on to marry another Frenchwoman -- Evelyn, a student leader he met in Paris. They moved to Cork, where he lectured at UCC and had two daughters -- Sybil and Oonagh.
After nearly two decades together, they grew apart. Now he lives between Nice and West Cork with his third wife, an American -- Elizabeth Wassell. They met in 1992 when he was giving a poetry reading in New York. She had no idea who he was and had no great interest in Irish poetry but the minute he walked into the room she knew he was the man for her.
"It was very romantic and more or less instantaneous," she tells me. He tells me that he enjoys a deep companionship with Elizabeth. She is a sweet, smiling woman who radiated happiness and humanity, when I met her briefly. "We have so much in common," he says. "We seem to babble together the whole time."
I tell him that he strikes me as unusual in that he did not adopt the typical Irish approach of making his bed and lying on it. When his marriages weren't working out, he got divorced but wasn't afraid to go on and live a new act in his life. He responds by telling me what Picasso said to one of his wives, Francoise Gilot.
"There's a famous story when he's falling in love with her. He explains that a relationship is a living thing. It has a beginning and you explore each other, you learn about each other and see what you can do together. Then, it has the middle and it may also have an end. Even though you don't want to know that it might have an end, you should follow the curve of the relationship. And that is what I have done."
Nowadays writing consumes Montague's life. He often exchanges poems with his pal and fellow poet Seamus Heaney who will guide Montague and tell him if a particular word is weak. It is a two-way thing. At the moment he is trying to write about his childhood memories to see how they affected him.
"The urge to comprehend is so deep," he says. "It would make little sense to live a life if you didn't understand what you had done. Then you try to make a shape out of it, in a poem or a story. Also, it's a kind of judgement, you sit on yourself -- the things that I've done that I can't stand over and can stand over -- accepting it all. You're trying to emulate the divine vision."
Being judge and jury on himself is not easy, but then Montague always took that less travelled road; following the curve of his life made all the difference.
A Ball of Fire: Collected Stories by John Montague is published by Liberties Press €25. The Pear is Ripe: A Memoir by John Montague, published by Liberties Press €25