States of Irish Poetry
New Collected Poems by John Montague (Gallery Press €15 / £20)
Waiting for Saint Brendan and Other Poems by David McLoghlin (Salmon Poetry, €12 / £10)
Though the popular idea of modern Irish poetry may seem to be dominated by Seamus Heaney, other poets who emerged in the 1960s, such as Thomas Kinsella, Derek Mahon, and John Montague, have always been admired too for their very different, but quite distinctive styles.
Montague’s collected later poems are now to hand, reminding us in detail of a great talent first admired in the pages of The Irish Times in a fugitive way.
An Ulster man—not for nothing is an earlier collection entitled Poisoned Lands—his meditations on that province’s bloody past, and still troubled present, appeared first in The Rough Field, a title taken from Garvaghy, the rough field in question.
“Like Dolmens round my youth, the old people” that haunting line from one of Montague’s early poems still echoes in this volume, when he an older man himself he retuns to explore familiar rooms, ancestral homes, native places. The tone is by turns elegiac and fierce.
This is a magisterial volume indeed. It is to be expected that, as with his late friend Robert Graves, Montague’s collected poems will go on growing with the winnowed additions of his future work.
John Montague belongs to a generation of Irish writers for whom the cross roads of the world is where the Boul’ Mich meets St Germain. But over his life the main focus of Irish life culture has moved from Europe to North America.
The first collection of a young Irish poet exemplifies this. Montague was born in Brooklyn, New York. David McLoghlin has moved there.
In his poems, however, affected by different kinds of poetry, evoked in Whitman and Lorca, the pain of past emotions is consoled and shaped, and made into art.
On the other hand, man of McLoghlin’s poems are ecliptic and controlled in a very controlled manner. McLoghlin might learn from Montague to run with a looser rein at times. The incidents of his poems, such as those about abusive relationships, in other hands might be far angrier.
His images draw on the legend of St Brendan, but his glimpse of Judas bound to his mid-ocean rock from the voyage of Brendan, suggests an imagination, which like the navigator, is trying an Atlantic crossing, have travelled into many parts of Europe, but is haunted perhaps by a sense of betraying somewhere else.
Indeed travel and displacement seems to be a dominant theme in this book. For McLoghlin perhaps the south tip of Manhattan carries the same emotional response that the corner of rue Saint Benoit might for Montague. He exhibits a creative tension between cultures which promises still richer poetry in future.
It remains to be seen whether like Brendan, he has found an earthly paradise on the ocean’s far side.
It is always interesting to see poets searching for their themes among the images of scattered lives. Human frailties over the decades break up the movement forward.
Yet in these encounters, these losses, are awakened hopes that give the poetry of both John Montague and David McLoghlin their distinctive thone. Both demonstrate that the various states of Irish poetry, at home or overseas, are flourishing, providing varied riches to explore.
David McLoghlin’s new book begins with “how easy it is to lose a place” (“Dun Chaoin”), and the book takes the reader on a search for what is lost, traveling from Madrid’s metro to a Belfast train compartment, from Lawrence, Kansas, to the Paradise of Birds. There is a great cohesion to the poems in this collection; their power accrues the deeper into the book a reader goes. Focusing on memory, place, dislocation, and identity, these central concerns shift, revise, and alter just as memories do themselves, where not only the speaker but a whole “country had slipped its moorings/ and was navigating into a different time zone” (“Climbing Mount Eagle”). Searching, the speaker says in the title poem “Waiting for Saint Brendan,” “In the playground,/ I was the boy who is not seen:/ silent, as he learns he is without a people.” This journey to locate the self in people and a place shifts and narrows near the end of the book as in the poem “Beal Ban: Nocturne,” when the speaker says, “I bent to the page, learning to write more than I/ and you entered my poems.” There is a settling of the journey here. The speaker seems to have finally located himself, “And I’m here,/ listening to you breathe beside me/ in the night light:/ I’m here, looking at you” (“Beginning of Trust”). In the end, both speaker and reader cover much ground in this fine first collection.
David’s poems have such a breadth of material to draw from, one wonders how he ever settles on a poem's locality—but that’s part of the point. What we have here is an unsettled poet, a rerouted and repotted writer with all the implied tenacity and adaptability. And, fittingly, the unsettling elements, the hardly-navigable, are his forte. “All I trust is the forward horizon,” he tells us, a benediction against the maledictions with which his poems are fraught. But also: “in my country / the male witches rule always / the under-territories of silence.” So we take his work as a manual for the voiceless, those snuffed or stunted in childhood, at times rising to invective against the various and inescapable cruelties: children betraying children, predatory authority, ritual as hiding-place. Listen for the pitch of the language, the way he inflects English with its neighbors, or with the awful rigor of a grimoire. The truth emerges “dripping, / armoured, ancient with feelers;” eyes are “the longship, / […] unself-pitying.” In a way, these particulars grant location, so that one poem acts as a device to preserve intercourse between two or three luminous nodes in his memory. It’s part consolation, part recompense, and it hearkens back to a time before the written word and all its attendant wrongdoing.