Despite being short-listed for the Governor General's Award in 2000, A. F. Moritz is that rarity among Canadian poets, one more venerated abroad than at home. He has received, among many honours, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Award in Literature of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His work is a constant presence in major American anthologies. W.S. Merwin calls him "a poet of originality, daring, and projection," with "a remarkable voice and range of imagination." John Ashbery has referred to Moritz's Phantoms in the Ark (1994) as "amazing."
It is not surprising that Moritz's work should be received with a little hesitancy in this country. The type of poem most widely favoured here involves an approach to sentiment through close descriptions of concrete phenomena and situations¨usually in conversational, short-line free-verse. This conception of the good poem is resolutely earth-bound, makes few spiritual claims, refuses abstractions, appeals to the eye rather than the ear, and disavows big words.
This is not Albert Moritz's kind of poetry. He is adept in the use of a Whitmanesque long line, which, paradoxically, achieves both conversational effects and an intensity of rhythm that is altogether incantatory. This new collection addresses, as have earlier ones, the difficulties of describing the world and its inhabitants. He writes in "Maybe":
Maybe someone will translate into words hard and definite
as that pure roofline on that November azure the vague suggestion of the man
who went outside ten years ago and has never come back in
and still is sitting propped against the sunny cold wall,
his flowing beard and hair patriarchal white but for the amber nicotine stains.
But probably not. You, vacant adverb, aside from a full stomach are what we have.
Quivering on the knife edge of "maybe", this poet cannot take for granted, as many of his contemporaries do, the power of "hard and definite" language to seize essences.
Moritz seems to believe that the thing we call "accessible" in poetry is, often enough, an illusion or, at best, a very narrow slice of being. A fervent, twentieth-century romantic, he feels the obligation to explore the interior life. He acknowledges his affinities with European and South American surrealists and produces imagery that is fragmentary, sometimes nightmarish. One of the difficult aspects of his work is that he does not usually provide a narrative frame for dream imagery¨his persona does not, as it were, get tucked in¨but the reader quickly works out that discontinuity is normal in his poetic world:
Why was it so hard
To feel with his friends, to see them as he knew they were
Right now filing into the great hall in twos and threes
To feed the sluglike beast with grass they had picked
From lawns and ditches on their way?
The figure of the beast appears repeatedly in this volume, often suggesting a political force interiorized, an inner enslavement to structures and values that can only devour what is human. Moritz's examination of the inner life is full of political outrage, as in "Social Reflection":
You never thought of the poor of the earth of 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.
Moritz's startling imagery allows him to venture on an ethical statement that, however true, usually produces a clichT. This experimental poet is able to open up enough territory to make all sorts of traditional, even theological, statements that are nearly impossible for poets who are more "accessible."
Despite the challenge Moritz's imagery poses to the reader, the work immediately communicates genuine compassion. "Essay on Destination", the first poem in this collection, is a dramatic monologue in which an old woman recalls a sexually charged bus ride: "To be so small/seemed right then¨it's horrible at this age, nothing /so old should be so meagre except maybe a sparrow." She recalls her sense of how the future was once made certain by love:
I thought we would always be together on that bus
riding deeper into our country, past shells of blast furnaces,
fields of timothy, corn, and beans, fields ploughed up or fallow,
past cafeterias where Brobdignagian citizens all day
eat mesas of egg and potato, past the city entirely of silver banks
and on into night, gentle bumps of the road
making the sleepers' arms fall like gates across the aisle,
no one awake but me in the back and in the front
the never-finished never-weary driver.
A passage like this communicates the perennial hope that our lives will add up to something, a hope Moritz, without settling the question, allows both the speaker and the reader to entertain.
Ordinarily, I have a limited taste for surrealist art and poetry, but I am an enthusiast for A.F. Moritz, simply because his journey is not away from meaning but towards its very core. In Conflicting Desires and earlier collections he has achieved a rich musicality, a stunning clarity of voice, and a depth of humane understanding, which, together, deserve our fervent admiration. ˛
Richard Greene is a poet and an Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto.