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Speech Lessons by John Montague (review)

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 2, Samhreadh/Summer 2013
pp. 158-160 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0028

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One of the enduring questions of human existence is how to reconcile our past and present selves, how to account for the mysterious fact that, as Joyce put it in the Telemachus chapter of Ulysses, "I am another now and yet the same." It is this conundrum that preoccupies John Montague throughout his new collection, Speech Lessons.

It seems fitting that Speech Lessons opens with an hommage to Joyce, as the poem "One Bright Sunday" describes an early version of the now-familiar Bloomsday pilgrimage: in this case, a day trip taken by the young Montague along with Maurice O'Connell and Eoin "the Pope" O'Mahony, "spying on the ghost of the young Joyce" as they trace his steps backward from Nighttown to Clongowes, ending with a splash in the Liffey as evidence "that grown-ups of some importance / may still frolic like infants." Here, as in other poems, Montague subverts and plays with the boundaries falsely imposed by age, marveling—as did Yeats before him—at the strangeness of growing older while retaining youthful fascinations and desires.

In the title poem, which originally appeared in the anthology Love Poet, Carpenter (2009) in honor of Michael Longley's seventieth birthday, Montague recalls his adolescent journeys along the railway line for speech therapy sessions with "An ardent young Englishwoman / speaking of War and Poetry" in her rooms near Belfast City Hall. On the train, "A cluster of convent girls" tease him by tossing him a flower as they disembark. Later, Montague describes the journey home to Beragh, County Tyrone on the Derry evening train, "the long pull on his bicycle / through the hay-scented countryside / to the turf-heavy hearth at home," and "the shock of that flower" alive in his memory. Even now, he confesses, "I can still smell her perfume."

Speech Lessons gathers poems from multiple areas of the poet's life, but most are focused on the backward glance, on childhood memories and experiences. In Part II of the book, "In My Grandfather's Mansion," Montague recalls his "exodus" as a young boy from his birthplace, "Depression Brooklyn / a raw raucous place," to his family's farm in County Tyrone. In these poems, Montague reappraises his relationships to various family members, most prominently his deceased grandfather and his aunt Winifred, who, along with her sister Brigid, brought Montague up from the age of four years old.

Ghosts are everywhere in this collection: Joyce, the poet's grandfather, the "friendly shades" of his Tyrone neighbors after the October devotions he served as an altar boy with "New World knickerbockers" under his surplice. Montague speaks to the ghosts, and they speak back, upbraiding the poet for his childish impudence and reminding him of his familial obligations as the grandson and namesake of John Montague, an anomaly in nineteenth-century Ulster as a Catholic justice of the peace: "Though Catholic, I served the Queen / as postmaster and lay magistrate: / a bleak land, after the Famine."

The procession of masculinity is interrupted and challenged by the presence of female ghosts as well: the poet's grandmother, who protests his "sharing of family secrets" and who, although she was "the robust one of several sisters / afflicted with consumption," died giving birth to a child conceived in the same iron bed upon which the young Montague lies as he imagines hearing her voice; and his maiden aunt Winifred, whose "Disappointments" illuminate a poignant poem about thwarted hopes and expectations. One of her favorite sayings provides the title for the book's third section, "Patience and Time," and Montague's poem by the same name describes the contrast between Winifred's farming duties, milking cows and mucking out the byre, and her prior life as "a bright convent girl / summoned all the way / from college quad to farmyard / when Ireland divided / and her brothers slid into bankruptcy."

Speech Lessons is a beautiful book, artfully arranged. The cover illustration—a detail of the painting Adam by the sixteenth-century German artist Hans Baldung-Grien—speaks to the juxtaposition of such poems as "Adam's Apple" and "A Memory of Nuala," both focused on Edenic images of innocence and sexuality. Montague's poems are lyrical and...

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