John Greening, review of Drunken Soldier by John Montague, in Times Literary Supplement (21 Jan. 2005)

Details: John Greening, ‘The Glitter of Decay’, review of John Montague, Drunken Soldier, in Times Literary Supplement (21 Jan. 2005), p.9.

While not exactly a household name, John Montague has never lacked enthusiastic readers or willing publishers: his early Dolmen Press editions opened the way for books from MacGibbon and Kee, OUP, Penguin, Bloodaxe and the Gallery Press collections of recent years. He has had several Selected Poems and in 1995 what seemed to be a crowning Collected Poems. But abundance in old age is a trait of Irish poets, and in the subsequent years, Montague has produced the prose memoir, Company, translations of (amongst other things) Guillevic’s Carnac, the 1999 collection, Smashing the Piano, and now this fine late harvest, Drunken Sailor. He rejoices in the “seething frenzy” of his own fecundity in the imagery of the opening poem, “White Water”, which offers not merely that famous Montague trout of the 1960s (“in his fluid sensual dream”), but a fishing “currach” that bobs him into the new century, glimmering with fresh catches - more, perhaps, than the tickler-turned-fisherman has time to deal with.

Montague’s interest in “place wisdom” is again evident here, not least in his poem (one of several from the Irish) based on Gearóid Ó Crualaoich’s Dinnscheanchas, “ Heart Land”:

Would you like to  
  hide in
halt in
quarrel in
tumble into
stride upon
listen on
the thicket of gold?
the hill of foxes?
the fortress of shouting?
the place of curses?
the moor of the hawk?
the ridge of the seagull

At the same time, Montague’s increasing restlessness, something that the “old man’s frenzy” of the opening poem hints at, is beginning to give his landscapes a fractured look. In “First Landscape, First Death”, he is a “displaced / child, wandering these lanes, break- / ing a stick from these hedges”; elsewhere he writes of “the hectic glitter of decay”. The very layout of “ Heart Land” (and the centre-aligmnent, the split-word enjambment, in other poems) suggests fragmentation, even decomposition, and while not an entirely new feature - “Balance Sheet” from The Rough Field (1972) does as much - this sense of “Demolition Ireland” is made more potent by the poet’s consciousness of his own mortality.

The book contains several elegies, notably “ Last Court”, a tribute to Montague’s lawyer brother quite as moving as the earlier tribute to his doctor brother, “Border Sick Call”. Yet Drunken Sailor is anything but a bleak volume, the poet finding consolation in those moments “when this landscape has been / absorbed into the mind / taken up into the dream” and turning to what endures - even returning (in the third section) to the permanence of his own canon, by reprinting the much-anthologized lyric “King & Queen”. And of course, the drunken sailor cannot help but sing as he laments, with crooning assonance (“the mountains drowse I around us”). Montague conjures more “dolmens” from his troubled childhood, invokes the atmosphere of the ‘Tamily Rosary”, takes us to a ghostly literary gathering (“Garrulous Berryman”, “strict Marianne”), shares some etymological finds (“Prodigal Son”), fragments of urban myth (“Pilgrims”), tales of the indomitable Irishry and glimpses of the occult “which now shudders behind us / beyond the circle of our tiny torch” (“Legerdemain”). Yes, there is rhythmical slackness, there are clichés (“cargo of pain”), and some of the poems simply move from event to event (“the speedometer / trembling on / passing sixty”) without the necessary flash of singularity. Yet this becomes a strength in the concluding narrative, “The Plain of Blood”, a pilgrimage to seek out “Crom Cruach or Dubh, / the crooked or dark one: I our most fearsome legend”. “The Route of the Táin” by Thomas Kinsella and Heaney’s “Station Island” come to mind, but another poet has been present throughout this volume: Yeats, who boasted, to Bertrand Russell that he could summon the scent of roses just by rubbing his hands together, who steps out of the shadows before the latter-day “horseman” can pass by, and who resembles for a moment that final question mark:

Wandering back, our journey done,
we wheel the car windows down
and smell new-cut grass, fern,
that coconut spice of whin,
and an unexpected scent, like roses,
everywhere. At the last turn,
the humped shape of Ben Bulben,
brooding over Sligo town.
But that is a myth from an older pen,
and all this never happened,
or was told by a doting man?


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