This time of year perhaps reminds us of those who have gone before us. One is John Montague, the brilliant poet who passed away last December and whom I had the pleasure of meeting with his charming wife Elizabeth in the Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff in West Cork some years ago. I still treasure The Faber Book of Irish Verse which he edited in 1974 with his illuminating introduction on the art of poetry in general and the genus of Irish poetry in particular. He presciently saw the Irish poet as someone ‘in a richly ambiguous positon, with the pressure of an incompletely discovered past behind him and the whole modern world around… balanced between the pastoral and the atomic age’. Whatever penpicture John captured, it was always done with accuracy and authenticity such as in Herbert Street Revisited where his old friend Brendan Behan makes an entrée:

A light is burning late
in this Georgian Dublin street:
someone is leading our old lives!

And the black cat scampering again
through the wet grass of the convent garden
upon his masculine errands.

The pubs shut: a released bull,
Behan shoulders up the street,
topples into our basement, roaring ‘John!’…

…Animals, neighbours treading the pattern
of one time and place into history,
like our early marriage, while

tall windows looked down upon us
from walls flushed light pink or salmon
watching and enduring succession.

His fascinating memoir The Pear is Ripe gives witty insights into West Cork people among whom he sojourned for many years, and contains not only an account of his interesting life but many other gems about publishing and the art of writing and poetry.
When my own study of modern poetry was published, Clearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World, he not only read it, but graciously described it as ‘a linguistic ballet, learned and lively, on behalf of poetry’.

Another great writer who passed away not too long ago (in 2016) was Leland Bardwell. Although she was born in India, she moved to Ireland at the age of two. She was of the Anglo–Irish Hone family with links to the artist Nathaniel Hone, and was brought up in what is now the Leixlip House Hotel in County Kildare, not a stone’s throw away from where I live. She was an inspired and inspiring poet and wordsmith, and encouraged many young writers including myself. I remember enjoying in particular her fourth poetry collection The Whtie Beach for the honesty and originality of her poems. Particularly poignant from that collection is her poem Moments:

No moon slides over Harcourt Terrace.
The canal is black. The barracks
crouches on her left.
She sees the child. He holds his coat
across his chest. On his hands,
old socks blunt his fingers.
The handle of his fishing net
has snapped.
Sleep escapes the old woman
on her angry couch. Such images
assault, torment and tease
the sense of her.
Time rolls back on its silent wheels,
empties itself into moments.
How many guilts can one human endure.
One human in all the world, alone
one man or woman holding moments
of a child running, holding shut his coat
with socks on his hands.

It is a coincidence in not only having her muse close to me, but Leland Bardwell also published my first Spanish translation of a poem by Pedro Salinas in Cyphers, the superb literary journal which she cofounded in 1975 with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Macdara Woods and the late Pearse Hutchinson.
The translation from Pedro Salinas was called Ground:
Ground. Nothing more.
Ground. Nothing less.
Make do with it.
Because your feet are nailed to it
and your torso to them
and on the torso a firm head
and there to the lee of one’s brow
the pure thought and in the pure thought
the morrow, the key
– the morrow – of the eternal.
Ground. Neither more nor less.
Make do with it.

Apart from her poetry, Leland Bardwell also penned a beautiful memoir, A Restless Life, which movingly tells of the difficulties she endured as she tried to find her way in the world, and it also tells of her literary associations with writers of the time such as Patrick Kavanagh. And her novel, Girl on a Bicycle, a moving account of the struggle for individuality in a 1940’s Ireland, deserves classic status.

©James Lawless



Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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