Saturday 19 October 2019

What Lies Beneath: John Montague by Colin Davidson

John Montague by Colin Davidson, Oil on canvas, courtesy of the artist

John Montague by Colin Davidson
John Montague by Colin Davidson

Niall MacMonagle

Brooklyn-born to Irish parents, John Montague was sent, aged four, to Tyrone, to be brought up by two unmarried aunts.

It was a change Montague later described as one "from early 20th Century, from speakeasy and gangster to hay, to milk the cows".

Arriving in Ireland "in knickerbockers with an American accent was not a good move".

When his mother returned three years later, Montague remained with his aunts and "my stammer broke out for the first time".

He was 22 when he next saw his father. And the poetry John Montague wrote was often the poetry of hurt.

This powerful portrait brilliantly captures a life lived.

Montague's gravitas and wisdom, the hurt - and his genial mischievousness.

Davidson spent "about two hours with John, chatting about poetry, art, family, public speaking, living with a stammer.

"I made drawings, took some photos but a photograph can only hold and record a tiny fraction of the encounter and experience".

Fellow Ulsterman Davidson met Montague a few times.

"His nephew, Turlough, introduced us and I have always felt connected to John's poem A Grafted Tongue. I can connect intimately with this."

Davidson sees him as an outsider, something otherworldly, not hewn from mere flesh and bone.

"Carrying the weight of inner and hidden struggles. A stammer can propel you into other modes of communication, expression. His poetry reflects this."

Though Montague compared the making of poems to the dropping of rose petals into the Grand Canyon, a futile act, those very rose petals change the Grand Canyon, making it more interesting, more beautiful.

John Montague's All Legendary Obstacles is a great love poem, in Windharp he captures the sights and sounds of an Irish landscape; his major work The Rough Field mapped his native troubled, broken Ulster and what Montague calls "the unhappiness of its historical destiny".

On this day, December 10, last year John Montague died.

But as T.S. Eliot so rightly reminds us, there are no dead writers.

Sunday Independent

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