A Congress of Words
- A. F. Moritz (Author)
Conflicting Desire. Ekstasis Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- A. F. Moritz (Author)
Houseboat on the Styx. Ekstasis Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- A. F. Moritz (Author)
Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- A. F. Moritz (Author)
The End of the Age. Watershed Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Chris Jennings
When a 2001 article in the Globe and Mail listed possible finalists for the inaugural Griffin Poetry Prize, A.F. Moritz was included among the "newer voices" rather than the "established" poets. Hardly a newcomer, Moritz has established his voice in thirteen books of poetry, including a volume in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, and Rest on the Flight into Egypt, a finalist for the 2000 Governor General’s Award. The misnomer suggests that Moritz is not the kind of poet who stumbles into general success. Predominantly a serious poet (as his intense expression in author’s photos attests), he is as subtle and sincere in political poems as in celebrations of love and desire. His latest four books share a range of tone and image that intimates their kinship without denying their individuality. They would be a good place to start on the volume of selected or collected poems, the prerogative of the established poet, which seems Moritz’s due.
A selection of Moritz’s work could be an interesting critical as well as editorial artifact. Several species of dramatic monologue balance Moritz’s frequent use of a vatic voice, and his quiet, harmonious or sensory poems contextualize his two favoured modes. Across these stylistic boundaries, Moritz cultivates his taste for the surreal, even the grotesque, and draws on the associative licence of visions or dreams. In the vatic poems, the surreal and associative elements bristle with metaphors, while in the dramatic poems they often project the inner workings of the speaker’s mind. Moritz’s visionary surrealism conveys a kind of poetic intoxication, a willingness to give the motion of the mind over to the object of attention that undermines any implication of hubris in his elevated tones. This seems to be the nexus of Moritz’s versatility.
Collect the vatic poems under the epigraph "Hear the voice of the Bard!" (the first line of "Introduction" from Blake’s Songs of Experience). Moritz seems at home in the ceremonial tones and cadences of long, rhythmic sentences that roll over several lines in a syntax complicated by prepositional phrases, participles and infinitives. Lexis matches syntax in complexity, though Moritz rarely exercises his expansive vocabulary for its own sake. This style is difficult to manage and demanding to read. Moritz turns this difficulty to his advantage by tying it to the moral demands of addressing the predatory elements of western society. The pursuit of wealth, the exploitation of political power, and the destruction of both our ecological and civic environments are his major targets.
The short poem "Social Reflection," for example, sets productive, rustic simplicity against disabling, urban poverty in image, rhythm and tone:
You never thought of the poor of the earth or the toilers of the sea, did you, till you were one of them. Although you were brought up in a legless one-armed city with loose flaps over white eye sockets, unable to afford glass balls, and were yourself a pencil for sale in the blind man’s old cigar box.
The poem moves from the anapestic first line to the blunt succession of stresses in "blind man’s old cigar box." The maimed city reduces the addressee to a commodity, something to exchange or sacrifice to mitigate its own suffering. Moritz courts paradox by applying an image of homelessness to a city, but its metaphoric resonance draws out empathy as well as anger. Technically accomplished, Moritz validates his bardic austerity with emotional and logical complexity.
Devote a second section to Moritz’s wide range of dramatic personae. Considerable learning resides in these poems. Silenus, the speaker throughout Houseboat on the Styx, is named after the wise, satyr-like drunk who was a chief comic character in classical satyr plays. His immediate audience, his beloved, is Diotima, Socrates’ mentor in the philosophy of eros in Plato’s Symposium. The relationship between wise fool and Socratic philosopher resonates through the book. At the other end of the spectrum, Moritz gives the speaker of "Kissinger at the Funeral of Nixon" the breath to damn himself in lines ripe with arrogance.
Forbidden by our people to fight another people,
at least we killed until the last moment possible
and so punished both enemies. No question:
praise him as one who never gave up: this much is undeniable, and admired by all.
The poem expands into a kind of visionary quest, Kissinger riding "through the country’s dark interior / on a huge black horse named Credulity," that pushes beyond satirical portraits of specific people to grapple with the spiritual context that frames them. Other poems, "The General," "The Slave," or "The Undertaker," signal this expansion grammatically, combining the definite article with a descriptive category. At their best, Moritz’s dramatic per-sonae embody his eclectic, academic learning, granting ideation the appearance of personal experience.
Neither mode, bardic or dramatic, becomes a crutch for Moritz despite their recurrence, and a miscellany section would be required for the poems that rely on short lines, crisp logical turns and sensitive, accurate description. The powerful elegiac sequence from "Night: The Conclusion of Diotima" deserves recognition, as does "The Helmet," a quiet, rational poem that has the remarkable feel of Tightness, of instant recognition, that few poets can achieve. These poems showcase what Moritz does best, regardless of mode—he cultivates, and then rewards, attentive reading and rereading. A volume of selected poems would establish the kind of attention required to appreciate fully Moritz’s demanding (some will say willfully difficult) gifts. It could take its title and epigraph from Moritz’s "What Words Say":
This was a song of such broad, indefinable rhythms,
it seemed for a moment that I was only hearing the sea
or the fluxion of traffic on highways day and night
and not a congress of words proclaiming "hear me."
- A Barnyard Romance by Robert Stacey
Books reviewed: A Suit of Nettles by James Reaney
- Polarities by Ian Rae
Books reviewed: Inexpressible Island by David Young and Escaped Domestics by Robin Mcgrath
- Discursive Adaptations by Erin Wunker
Books reviewed: Reaching for the Clear: The Poetry of Rhys Savarin by David Solway, Something Blue and Flying Upwards: New and Selected Poems by Roger Nash, and A Dirge for My Daughter: Poems by Frederick Philip Grove and Klaus Martens
- Obscur désir by Yves Laroche
Books reviewed: La Rive solitaire by Denise Brassard
- Abiding Space by Neil Querengesser
Books reviewed: The Occupied World by Alice Major
MLA: Jennings, Chris. A Congress of Words. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 21 Feb. 2012. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #175 (Winter 2002), francophone / anglophone. (pg. 169 - 171)
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