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The Tale of Liz and John

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My wife and I recently reconnected with an old friend from Sarah Lawrence College. When we were young and poor in New York, Elizabeth Wassell was our elfin-voiced friend who shortly after she graduated from SLC was scratching a living as a food critic. Liz always had an extraordinary way with language, and I remember standing next to her at some gathering of neurotic New Yorkers, listening to her describe the "succulent morsels" she had just eaten. The shockingly inventive language she used to recreate the food can only be described as semi-erotic, and I have a vague memory of Liz constantly trailing a pod of anorexics and bulimics, hanging on to her every word.

Today Liz has four novels under her belt. I just read her latest, Dangerous Pity. In this spookily-entertaining book set in Nice, Liz explores what one critic described as the "host-parasite" relationship between famous author and stalker. Her premise: the writer invites in the stalker, making him equally culpable in the mess that ensues. Great story -- and very true, I think. Liz tells me she is now returning to her food-writing origins in the soon-to-be-published, Sustenance. Should be entertaining!

Among the many pleasant surprises we discovered during our catching-up: Liz is married to John Montague, the great Irish poet.

Montague, born in Brooklyn but Irish to the roots of his hair, is a name I recall from my 18 years in London. (Montague was the first poet to occupy the Ireland Chair Of Poetry, the Irish equivalent of Britain's Poet Laureate). I never got around to reading the work of this particular literary lion, but am now relishing Montague's Collected Poems (1995). I am struck by his uncanny ability to give a clear sense of Irish history and strife with prose-like clarity, but through the most astoundingly lyrical language and imagery. But I suppose that is the very essence of Ireland.

And, for all his important chronicling of Irish bloodshed and human heartache, I must confess I am growing increasingly partial to Montague's love poems. Here's the haiku-like opening stanza of Tracks, an exquisite poem about a couple making love in a hotel, first published in Montague's prize-winning, The Great Cloak (1978.)

The vast bedroom

a hall of air,

our linked bodies

lying there.

Basho couldn't have said it better.