Imagination’s Place: The “Old Poet” Poems by Tom Montag.
Review by John Olski
Tom Montag’s 2017 chapbook of thirty-two “Old Poet” poems suggests a translated Tang Dynasty poet like Hanshan, the reclusive “Cold Mountain.” Spare verse traces the emotional journey of a hermitic “Old Poet” in a writer’s shed confronting archetypal silence, darkness, and a search for God in wind and stars.
This self-imposed disconnect from twenty-first century world engagement is delivered to readers through the visual and aural completeness of Montag’s poems. Gathered from previous publication in thirteen journals, the “Old Poet” poems coordinate well with each other in order, word and symbol to form a collected Ars Poetica on the emotional tides of a writing life.
In “The Poet Flies Away,” the Old Poet himself acknowledges “I’ve always wanted to / write crooked lines… // and straight away they fly / off like wounded birds.” From a narrator’s perspective in “The Truth,” the Old Poet is a “Word hoarder, / speaker of // what is seen / and unseen…” He is bidden to write “what is cloud / and what is sky // behind the cloud, / what is cold // and what is the / color of cold, // as Li Po / would say.” Discursive images play against poetic lines and stanzas, while poems themselves dialog with each other across pages, the way “The Truth” yields to “The Old Poet’s Words” and an observation that “Certainty is no sure / thing in his life, where his words are like // light, particle or wave depending on / where they fly, whom they strike, what he means.”
Woundedness, sadness and distance figure prominently in the Old Poet’s struggle to write and to justify the habit of writing over other action taken in the world. The Old Poet listens for God and for his own next words, and he is often disappointed by silence. His “Ars Poetica” begins, “He does not wish to / play games with words, // does not want to shim / the sound and beat // to something it is / not. Dammit, he says, // people are dying. / Can’t we just say that?” Of course, the answer is no – just saying something does not make it poetry, and Imagination’s Place follows the struggle to transform observation and experience into words worthy of their place amid stones and stars and the scope of eternity.
Imagination’s Place does not show readers the Old Poet’s actual poems, or explore much of anything about his history, his community, or the specific ways “people are dying.” Readers used to a ‘confessional’ style of poetic revelation through detail may struggle with a more iconic, symbolic approach to narrative that feels embodied only as it is contained in Tom Montag’s poetic forms, and in the reader’s own place of imagination.
To that end, Imagination’s Place gives readers pause to consider, in an era of causes and diversions, why they are still compelled to define and make time for good writing.