canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Early Poems
by A.F. Moritz
Insomniac Press, 2002

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Poets rarely arrive out-of-the-box so self-assured and competent in their craft that their words are less summoned but reconstituted instead. By writing words from the outset that vie constantly for sublimity, the early oeuvre of A.F. Moritz can be thought of as a word furnace, a combustible mix of dark imagery and deep pessimism that was cogent and compelling from the very first poem in his first book and continues to the present day.

Moritz wrote four major collections in the space of thirteen years, and his initial soundings must have been a formidable herald to other poets upon the publication in 1975of New Poems, his first book.

How often do poets in their debut write such excellent nether-poetry? An excerpt from "Thinking about Dreaming," that first poem:

"Chrysalid of vengeance," says someone else.
Indeed, I am as enchanted
as the elements in a ticking bomb…

The men are marching furiously, flies
upside down on the ceiling of the womb.
The patient women sleep like the flowering
of a shell thrusting a whole into a wall…

The moon will be bathing down in the wet woods.
I think I’ll leave my hounds at home.
I think I’ll go out to her and kiss her
and enter her as a fish thrown back.

Moritz has a unity of vision, a consistency of tone and form. He’s cold and controlled in diction, merciless in shaking down emotion. The inventiveness of his language reliably conjures up new coinage: "I wish we could control this revolting/ want of control: these people/ with their spongy eyes, their mouths/ of trembling shoehorns, billhooks for penises/ and bear traps for vulvas." Another: "But every night the warden mixed new mortar/ in your tear ducts, which are my veins." And how about "…the problem of what to make/ of woman, lax entrée/ to the immobile gate of bone. Still, soft/ body of morning, I’m going out/ into you, you to return me/ a hard light in the afternoon." There’s just so much of this wordsmithery, I’m compelled to include it all, so if this review seems drunk on quotes, that’s because it is. Moritz’s poems are dense with this magic of originality. He’s never tired, prolix, or lazy. His often-elegiac tone –albeit of an arch or cryptic variety- can’t help but display a communicable energy appropriate to the most restless of free verse, but this energy is instead yoked to the lyric poem, as in "Always On the Verge": "O fondly remembered/ sutured smile, the mountains sway and waver,/ the sun being visible at last and seen/ for itself: an axe, saying: Bring me the limbs/ of the child." It’s a plurality of skill, a technique of sagacity that brings to mind the wisdom of the very old and learned; in his twenties he was writing books not just mature but ancient.

A criticism I make of Early Poems is likely the corollary of Moritz’ incorrigible phrasemaking. A poet this inventive risks abstraction, and early Moritz possesses this weakness. Sometimes his couplets are perfect for Chinese Cookie inserts, like this one: "Beautiful as a sunken city/ you make water from our ignorance." Word choices at times become baroque, and any sense of "meaning" is compromised. (Although I feel dowdy writing this- his poems, despite their occasional obtuseness, always register on some intellectual level.) This is taken from "In Reality" as an example:

In reality is talking about singing
but it comes out how nothing but sex and death
in a fishbowl with sunrise back of it
prods the tin cans, "Become beautiful, dear,
take the feedbag off your horse."

Even this was held in the air of a hidden flute
with someone’s footsteps, going alone after it
down the cliff into the fleshly white stone landscape.

Not much news there- but still evidence of the solemn "voice" that Moritz fashioned from the beginning. Also there’s a detachment here, a dark remove from which Moritz writes his poems. If the book displays any joy at all, it is the wintry joy taken in accepting doom and decay, a largely humourless joy. A perfect example of the Moritz verse attitude is taken from "The First Chapters of Genesis":

No more my neighborhood the crushed
cathedral. Disappointed men,
where are you today with all your arms
that used to make one pitiful gesture, raising
and shaking shredded fingers
to imitate a head? No more
puffed and drained fragments of human
bodies roll over, at last turning
pink and yellow near the black
lipstick of a simple smile.

Crushed, disappointed, pitiful, shredded, imitate, drained, bodies roll over… an antidepressant tonic for the melancholic soul! But how magisterial and grand a darkness, how intoxicating a poetic that shines a searchlight into our collective despair. Moritz is somewhat of a paradox, fashioning beautiful lyrics tarred by blood and excrement. His poems are exempted from popular culture and reach back towards classicism, in form as well as subject: old testament prophets are as likely to appear as Greek deities, and the verse structures are hunched-shoulder, square-box lyrics conscious of metre. The dominant image is that of water, as identified in Don McKay’s foreword; water that erodes, buffets, crashes and crushes, but especially water that reflects. It’s a jarring image taken in view of Moritz’s relative formality: one expects fluidity from a poet so engaged with water as metaphor, and Moritz’s poems are firm and not fluid. Yet there is an intellectual fluidity to Moritz, a capacity to collapse whole worlds into his poems; perhaps this is the quality that he shares with water, that element of endless vistas.

One of the great technical accomplishments Moritz has mastered is the line break; a poet less skilled would require much more punctuation than he does. Instead, his lyrics are mostly punctuated by breath, relying upon comma or semicolon when necessary, preferring to use the line break and standard period. Consider "Betrayed Light" in its entirety, and note the paucity of enforced punctuation:

Her coming had been sunrise. The star of figures
appeared and settled above her head,
its golden band sheaving her blows of light
into a day of numbered staves. What love
demands this pillory, this song of what will happen,
of how the single character says goodbye
and the knife parts him? The song is of divorce
although in fact the memory of our marriage
is only a pain incited by her turned back
and betrayed light piercing sullen water.

Moritz has patience about his poems, an infiniteness. They wait for an illumination of the perpetual darkness, and though that relief may never arrive, still they wait, as in "Soliloquy of a Dreamer Absent from His Dream", which starts: "Long ago the universe set within me/ and at once in front of a rising sun…" Such an invocation of time sets the backdrop for Moritz’s often unrequited patience in his poems, a state described at poem’s end: "Over the shingles under the hard/ dome of the sun-exhausted sky/ they wander, enduring their jars/ of water that chastens fire to words,/ seeking a way to enter or leave." So there is no definitive conclusion or resolution to the poem, only a dialectic of fire, water, and words, of all three trying to escape or arrive.

There’s a claustrophobic feeling to Early Poems. I commend Insomniac Press for collecting all this splendid poetry and making it available to audiences –excuse the pun- otherwise kept in the dark, but it would have been better to have allowed the poems space. Early Poems clusters them together, sometimes with the parts of three poems to a page. A poet like Moritz has earned the room to maneuver.

As one of the few Canadian poets who can legitimately stake a claim to posterity, early Moritz has been made available to an audience that should refamiliarize itself with his writings. The odd thing about these poems is that there’s nothing "early" about them in terms of technique; the only apt aspect of "earliness" is the sense of wonder that they inspire, the innocent reminder that, in this merit-light world, there are poets up to the task of investigating their surroundings, despite the darkness.

Shane Neilson is a poetry editor at The Danforth Review.







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