The very title of Tom Montag’s latest book of poetry started a Simon & Garfunkel song playing in my head. “How terribly strange to be seventy,” a 27-year-old Paul Simon wrote in “Old Friends” back in the late 1960s. In having reached and passed that milestone, Montag writes in “The Honeyed Sweetness”:
I am an old man
on a new spring day
and everything sings
around me. …
even as I age,
even as I fall
how this world goes on
with me, without me.
Montag’s name will be familiar to readers who know their Wisconsin poets. A resident of the tiny village of Fairwater in Fond du Lac County, he has been active in poetry and creative nonfiction—writing, editing, and teaching—for nearly half a century. Among many other accomplishments, Montag originated the Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar, published it (with help from his wife) from 1982 to 1984, and then turned it over to the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, which produces it to this day.
In an interview, Montag once said he’s most poetically productive when on the road, describing the process not as “writing while driving,” but rather “driving while writing.” The difference, he says, is important; the process has bearing on not only the length of the resulting poems, but one’s ability to revise them, at least in the moment.
In Seventy at Seventy, Montag has crafted a collection that manages to be both lyrical and spare. He gives the natural world the gift of his close, respectful attention—perhaps the highest form of praise—then returns that gift to the reader in the fewest words necessary. (The shortest poem in Seventy at Seventy is a mere five words, including the title—and I would not change a letter of it.)
Seventy at Seventy touches on themes of hope, seasonality, music, gratitude, and (of course) mortality. Humans seldom figure directly in the poems, but natural entities are imbued with intentionality: the wind takes what it wants, fences hope to be mended and fields to be walked, water knows what loss is, crows show us “bird magic and card tricks,” and trees love the light which in turn loves the trees.
But lest you fear an overly saccharine diet, let me reassure you that Montag shares his doubts and uncertainties as well, as in “Another Day”:
Some days you turn
back and behind you
find nothing. Some days
you do not turn.
Montag has clearly loved his life, his wife, and his hometown. Lucky man. And, lucky us that he has written about so much of it, and distilled it so well into this stellar collection.