Although I am a self-confessed romantic, I’m no expert on love poetry. I haven’t read a book of so-called “love poems” in years. The last love poems I remember reading are Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (which I devoured), and a handful of e.e. cummings poems, around the time I was starting college. >
There are a number of reasons why I avoid love poetry: I’ve lost patience with the sentimental. I’ve come to understand how sappiness enacts violence on genuine emotion. Basically, love poetry tends to be pat and simplistic â€“ qualities I try to avoid in my own work, and qualities I have no desire to spend my free time reading. I prefer the tongue-in-cheek approach to written romance, like David Lehman’s Valentine Place (it took all my husband’s gift of argument to convince me not to read Lehman’s “Wedding Song” during our nuptials last June). I like people who can laugh at their own romantic tendencies. The tender comes across as all the more surprising, all the more wonderful, when it’s set in something sharp, humorous, dry.
Think of it this way: I liked watching James Cameron’s Titanic. I gladly “oohed” and “ahhed” and whipped out my Kleenex. That kind of unabashed heartstring-plucking has its place, it’s like cotton candy for the psyche. But romantic cotton candy doesn’t belong in books of poems, at least not the books of poems I choose to read.
So when my local bookstore clerk pushed me towards About Love, Sheep Meadow Press’s recent release of poems by John Montague, I was both excited and resistant. The excitement came from the hope that maybe an older man, an Irishman who’s undoubtedly seen difficult things, could redeem the enterprise of love poetry for me. Of course, the resistance was because I wasn’t sure he could.
The book’s cover is plain and red, with black lettering. ‘So far, so good,’ I thought as I picked it up. No cupids, no Victorian scrollwork, no hearts. And I’m delighted to announce that the work inside lives up to my hopeful expectations, and dashes my resistance against a rock. Far from being the predictable glop I had feared, About Love is strong, elegant, passionate and playful â€“ and it holds a few surprises.
Although all of the poems take romance as their subject, not all are modern. The book also contains a number of narrative poems “after the early Irish,” in which Montague provides new renditions of old stories. The new twist on an old tale seems to me an apt encapsulation of the book as a whole; in its best moments, About Love is a new twist on the old tale of romance.
Even the romantic poems vary in their attitude, if not their subject matter. Montague seems equally at home praising the subtleties of mature love, showing the cracks and fissures of a relationship gone wrong, and providing wry commentary on the vagaries of sex. Montague reminded me that I am not alone in experiencing any of love’s complicated facets.
The book showcases the strength of Montague’s simple language. In “Tides,” he writes:
The window blown
open, that summer
night, a full moon
occupying the sky
with a pressure of
& the rectangle
of the bed where,
after long separation,
we begin to make
love quietly, bodies
turning like fish
in obedience to
the pull & tug
of your great tides.
The voice reminds me of Jane Kenyon in its clarity, its wistfulness, its aura of memory. This simplicity is one of Montague’s strengths.
“I’ll tell you a sore truth, little understood/ It’s harder to leave, than to be left:/ To stay, to leave, both sting wrong//” begins the poem “No Music,” one of the book’s shortest and simplest poems of ruined love. “You will always have me to blame,/ Can dream we might have sailed on; / From absence’s rib, a warm fiction.//” The final triplet: “To tear up old love by the roots,/ To trample on past affections: / There is no music for so harsh a song.” The poem speaks for itself, proving Montague’s ability to write as well about loss as he does about fulfillment.
I also enjoyed the old Irish narratives, recast in Montague’s clean wording. I don’t know the originals that he draws on, so I can’t comment upon their accuracy, but the language is crisp and easy on the eye and tongue. I was pleased to see that these historical poems range from serious to risqué, proving again that we’re not the first generation to invent sex, and that a little bawdiness can go a long way.
In one of my non-serious favorites, “Sheela na Gig” (literally, a footnote tells us, Sheela of the Breasts, “whose vulva is seen on many medieval Irish churches, as warning or fertility symbol”), Montague provides an extended meditation on man’s unflagging desire to sail back upstream from whence he came. “Cunt, or Cymric cwm, Chaucerian quente,/ the first home from which we are sent/ into banishment, to spend our whole life/ cruising to return, raising a puny mast/ to sail back into those moist lips…” The rhyme, the innuendoes of “cruising” and “a puny mast,” illustrate Montague’s sense of humor. As “Sheela na Gig” shows, he has escaped one of romantic poetry’s worst pitfalls: the urge to take oneself too seriously. And if you like what I’ve excerpted here, one of the book’s other poems – “Litany” – will amuse you even more. (I won’t spoil it â€“ go get the book for yourself.)
Montague’s love poems are well-balanced and finely-crafted. The book, simply, is beautiful. If you enjoy traditional love poetry, you’ll find much to like here â€“ Montague’s light touch with rhyme and meter are a pleasure for the formalist reader, and his rhapsodies on romance are buoyant. And if you don’t enjoy traditional love poetry, you’ll still find much to like. The combination of unexpected perspective with occasional irreverence will lull you into forgetting that these are “love poems.”
Ultimately the poems exist to serve the language that created them, and they do it a great service. You’d do yourself a great service by picking this book up, and reading it more than once.