M.V. Montgomery’s ‘Joshu Holds A Press Conference’
By Christopher Hobday
If Zen is to be found on a map, then the ‘X’ would be at the point of frustration when understanding ends, logic fails to enable progress, and the limitation of the individual’s conception of the universe is revealed, giving way to wonder and fear.
It’s easy to wax lyrical about apothegms and cosmic riddles, and it is easy to be amazed when one touches the boundaries of human thought. It is a tracing of the walls of the cage, feeling the weight of the lid, testing the gravity of the space. With the terrain measured, the real exploration can begin – systematically examining every grid reference, playing the role of the vainglorious cartographer, seeking nothing but the obliteration of ignorances.
In the four sections of Joshu Holds a Press Conference, M. V. Montgomery makes for a fine expedition leader, his flighty intelligence buzzing from one thing to the next, his interest in the human animal wide-ranging and incisive. He paints a colourful world populated with vivid characters whose reputations precede them, not least the titular character.
The poet’s interest is in delving into mystery. We might think of him not as cleaving through to the jungle’s heart but rather diving into the black depths of oceanic chasms to bring back pearls for the rest of us to fondle.
What we do with these pearls is up to us. Joshu serves as both master and metaphor, a wandering genius or madman who spent decades contemplating the term ‘Mu’, which translates as the negative, but might also mean nothing or simply no. Of course, it means none of these things, and is a word vague in its own tongue, hazier when squeezed into English. Let us say that Joshu achieved a mental power over social facts, became untouchable, reduced the potency of the corporeal to the fleeting fancy of the imaginary, and vice-versa.
Joshu is a metaphor for the unrealisable object. We do not know him, cannot know him, all that remains is Koan and conjecture. He is not even himself. The real wandering Zen master was Chau Chou of Tsung Shen. Joshu is what the Japanese have called him. It goes without saying that Joshu is not Chau Chou (how could he be?). We are arguing with the echo of an echo, translating a translation of a translation. But isn’t that the way it always is?
Fittingly, Montgomery’s collection begins far from Joshu in time and proximity. Linus Recalls Herculesis as typical a Montgomery poem as might exist (and there is no guarantee that such a thing doesexist). The tone is warm, conversational, pleasant. It dances on the edge of prose, held as music by the surety of its deportment. Modern terms sit comfortably alongside references to the ancient world, because this is a book in which any God would have to fit Milton’s definition as a being that saw past, present and future as one.
I could get nowhere with that one.
Built for heroic deeds, unsuited for the
lyceum, only interested in working out.
It’s lightly funny, providing Linus with a personality and Hercules with another dimension of character. That we do not hear Hercules speak for himself is partly the point; all we know of the world passes through someone else. Even our first-hand experiences are made real to us, realised by us, using terms and processes defined elsewhere and elsewhen. The lovely thing about the poem is not just its weightlessness – a leaf in time, a swirling mote in an ever expanding ocean of motes, bound to get lost – but the way that it ends with an apothegmic flourish that is both open and complete, unfinished and yet perfect. Beat-wise, it is a poetic ending, too, convincing the ear before it convinces the mind.
The title poem presents Joshu holding court, delivering his wisdom in short, impenetrable bursts. He flummoxes, teases, misleads and jibes his acolytes, his language switching between the crude and the contemplative. Divided into sections, it is unclear if each is an answer to the same question, or to further questions, or whether each question takes place at the same point in time, each a facet of the same response. If there was an answer that could be rendered in human language, or that could be comprehended by a human mind, there would be no need for the question. So Joshu responds each time in a way that moves closer to clarity, but rounds his character, making him slowly more real, more authentic.
Was it my answer that was nothing?
I have forgotten your original question.
Silence fills all of the sky
when an old bird is at roost.
.His cry of “Kaa!” might relate to Zen Master Hoshin’s last utterance before vanishing in another famous Koan. It ends the poem with a mystery, drives the point home with a hammerfall.
Montgomery likes his mystics. Saint Christina’s tragic and bloody story is retold, in which “she resembles a Pythia / or a sadhu rather than a tamable saint”. It shows how poetry can expand knowledge, how it can pique interest, how it can show how rich and fascinating the world and its myriad histories can be. Ultimately the poem serves as a reminder that the real Christina is as lost to us as the city of Tyro, now lost to lake Balsena, and that we can see only glimpses of the real person. I am not in any doubt that the poet would argue that these glimpses, however piecemeal, are as valuable as the myths and legends entire. Yet, as he notes in the triptych Three English Kings, it is human to place the false above the true, for obvious reasons: “we will ourselves to believe the unbelievable, still, / sifting through the ruins at Cadbury, hoping to call into our own time / any faint ray of light from Camelot.” If we are to have glory in our lives, is there enough in the ruins of the past to provide it?
With this in mind, it is nice to see Montgomery discuss Leigh Hunt, whose autobiography reminds us that Keats could not have cared much for Shelley, for the latter was of the landed gentry, which the former despised; we then think on Shelley’s Adonais, which provides us with the enduring caricature of Keats as a simpering, pathetic whelp (which he was not), and realise that Shelley might have admired his work, but neither knew nor understood him. And yet, Adonais replaced Keats in the same way Joshu replaced Chau Chou, and Saint Christina was stunt-double for a victim of terrible violence.
The second section of the book leaves the ancient world behind and explores instead the temporal zone that sits on the doorstep of modernity. It is less strange than the more distant past, because there is less mystery; the gaps can be filled in by historians, scholars, people with trowels. Here are characters whose lives are passed on to us in more reliable accounts, who are more real to us than the phantoms of antiquity. After considering old English Kings and Leonardo da Vinci, Montgomery presents us with snapshots of Gaughin, van Gogh, Bram Stoker. Formative events intermingle with these stories, including an autopsy of the enslavement of Irish Catholics and the Colonisation of America. These are foundation-like pieces, reminding us upon what world these figures walked, what had preceded their era, into what universe they had been born. Against it, they stand more vivid, more like themselves. The section ends with the splendid Darwin in Rio, encapsulating in its almost paragraph-like stanzas the aloofness of humankind from the rest of the natural world, a severance enforced by the mechanism called society, which presents us with more factors to amend our behaviour than mere survival and propagation. It is moving, alluring stuff; it is also an admittance by the poet that any deeper understanding of the human animal might well be impossible. I am reminded of Pound’s Meditatio: “When I consider the curious habits of man / I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.”
The penultimate section of the book gives us another exquisite pantheon. We meet Einstein, Darrow, Roosevelt. Each rises from the water like a dolphinhead then vanishes, leaving the vaguest impression that we knew them. The polaroid of Ginsberg captures the wit, occasional vacuity and edginess of that catalyst of the Beats, but Borges is treated somewhat lightly, but for some fine lines that nudge us towards the best of his prose:
Dark nights on the pampas.
The glint of a blade in the marketplace.
Literary conferences where
new gods were chosen,
and old ones put to slaughter.
.Elsewhere, my favourite line of the collection is to be found. Like J D Salinger rambles pleasantly, but underneath the chit-chat is a mute horror at the distance between imaginary idyll and modern civilisation. “My neighbors are always pulling out of their driveways” conveys a shadowy sense of displacement, or the nightmarish fate of Sisyphus converted into the life of every modern American. The sense of being left behind, of being outside, of being an exile from the tribe, ebbs and flows behind the line. It is marvellously off-hand, like a treasure hidden in the spare room. It echoed the sort of horrible dislocation one finds in the best Philip K Dick novels.
In a way Dreams from Obama is the last poem, an amusing and celebratory inauguration piece that cleverly ends the third section with a hopeful look into the future. It interprets several variations on the same dream and is a sustained cry for a positive mental attitude in the face of uncertain future.
Obama surrounded by crowds: he’s essentially in touch with the populace.
Obama among dolphins: kindly intelligence, a sign that rescue is on the way.
Obama among elephants: a sign of good luck, though not of bipartisanship.
Obama’s outstretched hand: nothing to fear.
The fourth and final section contains just a single poem, the experimental piece Ouroboros. Concerning death and rebirth, it declares that it is “the time to renew ourselves, / to devour our past year’s dead”. Like the Aztecs, who buried their dead to enrich the earth, understanding the cycle of life better than their European conquerors, we must recycle. All matter comes from elsewhere, nothing comes from nothing. Existence is the conversion of matter and energy. Time will end when there is nothing to burn, or when there is no death. The world and everything in it and around it is simply a game of constant reorganisation, conversion, transformation, most of it beyond our command. Whether the reader gets joy from this, or despair, depends on the individual. Following the hopeful lines of Dreams from Obama, it reminds us that even good things must be destroyed to cleanse the way for tomorrow.
Montgomery’s world is a terrain of familiar places but strange landmarks. Though a thread of sorts binds the book together, and each section has its own subtly unique flavour, it might be best to approach it as though it is an old book shop, the tomes piled to the ceiling, fiction nestling next to poetry, history arrayed alongside philosophy, occult primers and the odd vide mecum, folio or treatise poking out from the popular paperbacks. There is, throughout, a delight to be taken in Montgomery’s desire for knowledge and in the unmasking of figures lost to the dust and debris of the past. But mostly, this is a human book – a study of thousands of years of action and reaction, of lies, mythology and nonsense, of misreading and misinterpretation. It is a hand wiping grime from the oldest mirror there is, and asking, what do you find there? And is it what you expected?
With such portentous goings-on, it is good to have a guide who is full of bonhomie, not immune to the occasional bout of horror and misery, but always consumed by the thrill of our wide, wonderful world, with its heroes, murderers, poets, prophets, wackos, monarchs, artists, adventurers and paragons, and the spectacular concatenation of legends that is their constantly spreading wake.