By John Olski
Tom Montag writes in his poem “Only the Few,”
“Only the few mysteries
I am drawn to. The few
which take my breath away.”
With an ironic nod to spirit and its etymology, one could say that breathless wonder inspires “Seventy at Seventy: New Poems,” a collection that reaches beyond common expression to log a poet’s year in the natural world.
Divided into four parts representing spring, summer, autumn and winter, “Seventy at Seventy” pays reverence to light and darkness, wind and stillness, birds, trees, stars and a host of elemental players in the region of Montag’s home.
Striving for fresh perspective is key. When we get an understandable metaphor in “Evening, the First Day” that “The wind shoulders / its way in again,” it prepares us for a greater leap that “Darkness forces / the sun down” – night’s quality turned into an active character against the sun, which we might imagine if we opened ourselves to the raw feeling of dusk in spring.
Impressionist painters looked for hues in shadow, Picasso envied the fresh viewpoints of children, and Tom Montag surmises in “Were I a Painter” that he would convey:
“in the morning,
the bark of trees;
in the evening,
Forget your grade school science lessons – this poetry asserts animistic forces to be felt when you commune with orange glows of sunsets.
Koan-like complexity arises from spare language and simple forms in many of Montag’s poems, as with Water:
lake. The sky
does not know
Two couplets that reflect each other syllabically don’t tell us if the sky is dark and reflected by the lake, or blue and not reflected, as in a wind with waves. Yet by characterizing sky with a capacity for knowledge, we see the poet reflected in the poem, perhaps not knowing his own place as he presumes to speak for sky.
Many poems in “Seventy at Seventy” place a poet’s yearning in opposition to human limitations of body and environment. “Cleaners of the World” is a beautiful call to “Magpies and crows / and vultures, // eaters of the dead,” beckoning them to take those of us without wings “across the river” and “into the sudden light,” allusions to heaven in the literal flights of earth. There is a psalm of both longing and peace in the poet’s call to “you hope-birds, you fliers, // you sanctifiers,” a small-“r” religious sense found throughout the collection in mentions of silence, beauty and praise.
“Seventy at Seventy: New Poems” is a collection for meditation on daily and seasonal changes, and for companionship in confronting wind, cold, darkness, and other challenges to human mood. Though our ancestors inhabited the world of this book for millennia, Tom Montag shows that our observations and responses to each day can still be made poetically new.
John Olski is a former college composition instructor and support-staff librarian, currently working for a non-profit health care provider and writing poetry in Wisconsin’s Fox Cities.