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A SENSE OF PLACES: THE HOMING INSTINCT IN THE POETRY OF JOHN MONTAGUE RICHARD BIZOT My childhood country, so far from me . . . Where is my country? —ANDRÉ FRÉNAUD john montague is and is not any easy poet to “place.” He was born in Brooklyn in 1929 but spent most of his childhood in the north of Ireland, Wrst in Garvaghey in County Tyrone, then at boarding school in County Armagh. His earliest acquaintance with the south of Ireland came during summer holidays in County Longford; and he has lived more than half his adult life in the south, initially in Dublin, more recently in Cork. He also has spent considerable amounts of time abroad, principally in the United States and France, but also in Canada, England, Greece, India, and half a dozen other countries. Despite all his moving about, there is no doubt that, if Montague must be “placed,” he is an Ulster poet—though he was not born in Ulster , has never lived there as an adult, and in fact has lived more than twice as long in the Republic as he has in Northern Ireland. Fittingly, his work is well represented in the standard anthology of contemporary Ulster poetry , Poets from the North of Ireland,1 yet it does not appear at all in the equivalent anthology, Poets of Munster. The editor of the latter observes that Montague’s “work is so closely connected with Ulster . . . it would be Xippant to include him in a book like this.”2 And that is fair enough, THE HOMING INSTINCT IN THE POETRY OF JOHN MONTAGUE 167 1 Poets from the North of Ireland, ed. Frank Ormsby, 2nd ed. (Belfast: BlackstaV Press, 1990). 2 Poets of Munster, ed. Seán Dunne (London: Anvil Press, 1985), p. 18. even though Montague has by now made his home in Cork for more than twenty years.3 Montague is an Ulster poet because he has written so often and so well about the Ulster he grew up in and which he has visited many times since; but he is more than an Ulster poet because he has written so often and so well about many things beyond Ulster. So perhaps it is not such a good idea to try to “place” John Montague or his work. In fact, he is less a poet of place than he is a poet of places. He has often written out of a sense of the distances that separate people and places, psychic distances as well as geographical ones. He has written, too, about the things that connect people and places. Getting from place to place, and sometimes not being able to make the connections—these are among his principal themes. Montague has been called nomadic,4 but “migratory” better describes the patterns of his life. It has been a life of comings and goings, voluntary and involuntary—nowadays, happily, mostly voluntary. Since his early twenties Montague has written about forms of exile, which, in fact, is the title of his Wrst book.5 He has written about going away, moving away, being sent away, being expatriated, transported, displaced, dispossessed, disinherited ; about leaving, separation, banishment, and emigration; more fancifully , about “diaspora,” “hegira,” and the Wild Geese. On the other hand, he has written of coming back, of circling back, of return, of inheritance, of homing and going home. Again and again, in geographical fact, in memory , and in imagination, he has returned to former homes, former places and phases of his life, and to the people he has known in those places and phases. Migration, then: exile and the home instinct; circling: across the Atlantic, across Ireland, across lives, across time. Observing the convention of what he has called “the circular aesthetic of Irish art,”6 Montague begins and ends his collection of essays, The Figure in the Cave and Other Essays, with quotations from The Rough Field, his most famous book of poetry. Each quotation, in turn, is about circling. The title essay begins, “With all my circling a failure to return,” then asks, THE HOMING INSTINCT IN THE POETRY OF JOHN MONTAGUE 168 3 Theo Dorgan, “Palms Upward,” in Hill Field: Poems and Memoirs for...


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