With the simplest of words, Ed Lahey could take a reader deep into the Butte mines and even deeper into the Butte soul.
A poet, an author and proud Butte native, Lahey died April 27 in Missoula at age 75.
True to his humble roots in the Mining City, Lahey wasn't an internationally known wordsmith. However, those who know the man's work all agree that Lahey was truly one of the most valuable gems in the Treasure State.
"You don't often find true genius," Jo Antonioli said about her longtime friend.
Antonioli, who owns Books & Books in Butte, has a copy of his poem "The Blind Horses" with a photograph of the poet hanging on the wall in her store on Park Street. She takes the poem from the wall and reads it aloud after learning of Lahey's death Monday afternoon.
It's about a dying Butte miner recalling the tunnel-blind horses that were burned alive in the Lexington Mine fire. She reads the final haunting line and it brings a chill: "I hear them breathing, Ed."
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Lahey was born in Butte in 1936, and reared by a family of miners and
bootleggers. He once told The Montana Standard that he came from an "outlaw family." His rough-and-tumble upbringing contributed to his writing style that made him an authentic blue-collar poet, according to Antonioli.
"He had a deep affection for Butte, and he wrote with the sensibility that made him acquainted with the working man in Butte," Antonioli said.
Though a poet first and foremost, Lahey eventually wrote a work of fiction that was set in Butte during Prohibition called "The Thin Air Gang." Published in 2008 by Clark City Press in Livingston, Lahey said it was loosely based on his father's moonshining days.
Lahey would often read his poetry at Butte's Silver Dollar Saloon, and host writing workshops at Montana Tech. He also was honored with the 2008 Governor's Arts Awards for literature.
Clark City Press publisher and artist Russell Chatham discovered Lahey's work about eight years ago when he just happened to read his poem "The Blind Horses." Chatham was moved.
"I read it and said, ‘What the hell? How come I don't know this guy?'" Chatham said.
It didn't take long for Chatham to get to know Lahey, and he ended up publishing his collection of poems "Birds of a Feather" in 2005.
Chatham describes Lahey's verse as "relentlessly honest." His poetry was able to connect with all readers, whether sophisticated or common. Lahey had the ability to walk the fine line between the abstract and sentimental with his poetry, and this allowed readers to understand his message, Chatham explained.
"He let you into the window to his world and that's a difficult thing to do," Chatham said.
After that, Chatham published Lahey's "The Thin Air Gang." Though he said it was a great story, Chatham believes Lahey shined brightest with his poetry.
After "Birds of a Feather" was published, Chatham recorded Lahey in Missoula reading from this collection. He hopes to someday release it as an audio recording.
Chatham and Antonioli agree that Lahey is a major contributor to Montana's artistic and literary community.
"He was truly a very creative poet and writer," Antonioli said. "It's a loss to the literary community in Montana."
They hear him breathing.
Reporter John Grant Emeigh may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.