John Montague


22"x36" ink and watercolor

At the Grave of Teilhard de Chardin

A chickadee above our heads, in a giant hemlock,
a small, harsh, rasping sound. A Jesuit
graveyard is like a military cemetery,
small granite stones standing to attention,
orderly as on the Marne or the Somme.
French aristocratic, bearer of the enclitic "de"
you now lie between Mac Quede & Reilly,
simple soldiers of the army of Jesus,
you who were the theologian of earth,
servant and witness of the evolving logos,
of the universe in Chinese deserts......


4'x38" ink and monotype

Dying, the salmon
heaves up its head
in the millstream.
Great sores ring
its gills, its eyes
a burning rust
slowly corrodes
its red gold skin
Wash the poison
from the streams,
cleanse the enormous
belly of ocean, tear
the invisible insides
of mesh, so that your
kin might course again
proudly through clean waters.


The summer I was freed from McLean’s I accepted a job from my friend Philip, who was running a trip for teenagers through Europe called the Infinite Odyssey. I was his co-leader. We were barely out of our own teens, and I was barely out of a mental hospital, let alone mature. I don’t understand how parents let their children go off with us, but they did. We had the best time in 1969 as Europeans were not yet tired of seeing Americans. We all shared common interests more in line with hiking, drinking, eating and dancing than seeing cathedrals, art museums, or studying history. At the end of the summer, I set out for Ireland determined not to return to the United States.

I went to the small town of Shannagary, east of Cork, where Philip and I had previously met the Pearce family. They ran a pottery. I would be a potter. 

 I knocked on their door and the mother, Lucy, answered. I announced to her

I had arrived! She said, that’s nice, what can I do for you? I said I wanted to be a potter. She said, I don’t think so, but come in for a cup of tea before you leave. She called her neighbours, Rene and Joan Hague, and returned to the table to say they had a cottage to rent, overlooking the ocean, if I were interested. Joan was the youngest daughter of the English sculptor, Eric Gill, and Rene had been the printer at the Golden Cockerel Press. 

 The Hagues befriended me, renting their cottage for one Irish pound a week, provided I paid in cash, and in person, every Friday and stayed for dinner and the night. This way they could check on me, be sure I was OK. They lived in a Georgian House, the Penn-Gaskill house, where the Quaker William Penn lived before he sailed to the New World to found Pennsylvania. My room was under the main stairs, a monk’s cot and side table. The ceiling sloped to the contour of the ascending stairs and the walls were high. Rene was a calligrapher, and in four inch high black lettering on the white walls, he calligraphied (in Latin) the death of Hector at the hand of Achilles. I went to sleep hearing the clash of their swords, the grunts of their fight. 

 Several years later at Harvard, I wanted to return to my friends in Ireland. They were close friends to the poet David Jones. I asked my English Department if I could write a thesis on Jones and his life as an artist and poet. The department chairman, Walter Jackson Bate, agreed I’d learn more in Ireland than in Widener Library, however, the administration looked down on the idea. The first Afro-American dean said to me, “Mr. Perkins, most people try to get to Harvard, not leave it.” Sponsored by the English Department, I gained permission, although on my return the same dean denied me honour’s credit, saying my affiliate, the University of Cork, was not up to Harvard standards. He also realized I would get four full credits from Harvard without paying them tuition. My junior year abroad was way ahead of time, and Harvard quickly passed a requirement that going away to study could be done only after Harvard received its full tuition. 

 I met John Montague at UCC. I attended his English Introductory Course. Two hundred students listened to him lecture, which must have been painful for him as he sometimes became flustered and stuttered. On the first day, John concluded his remarks by reciting Shelly’s poem To a Skylark. I shrank down in my seat as two hundred voices joined him in the recitation. We became friends and in his home I met many poets and aspiring artists. He had a Morris Graves bird drawing, one of my heroes. 

 He wrote out the two poems, the first being the poem about a dying salmon, a metaphor for 20th century Ireland. A man of modern faith, John loved Teillard de Chardin because he questioned dogma. He also liked Rene and Joan, who loved poets and their conversation. I was the fly on the wall in both houses, too shy to speak much, but absorbing it all. 


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