Night Street Repairs

by A.F. Moritz
ISBN: 0887847048

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A Review of: Night Street Repairs
by Carmine Starnino

Anyone who has spent time with the French symbolists-Stephane Mallarm, Paul Verlaine, Paul Valry-will be familiar with the deep theological swoon of their theorizing. They may have rejected Christian principles, but it's hard not to feel they were really religious poets who simply transferred their devotion to matters of style. Poetry, of course, has always had an affinity with religious belief, but what makes symbolism so interesting is that it marks, arguably, the first major example of literature's relationship with religion, turning from a shared curiosity about cosmic questions (life, death, suffering) to an exclusive interest in the creativity that "solved" those questions (rituals, signs, icons). Mallarm, who assumed the office of symbolism's high priest, argued for a poetry that was supernatural in its logic, that resembled a "religious mystery." To put it another way, poetry was a province of secrets-secrets that needed to be protected in exactly the same way religion seemed to safeguard its own: by privileged concealment. Mallarm believed that religious answers were satisfying because they always withheld something, because they always mystified. Mystification became for him, therefore, the truest, most authentic poetic experience. "To name an object," he wrote, "is to suppress three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem, which derives from the pleasure of step-by-step discovery." There are excellent reasons to be skeptical of the "enjoyment" Mallarm had in mind (Edgar Degas reportedly ran out of one of his readings, screaming "I do not understand!"). But the Mallarman aesthetic-the paring down of language to its essence and the simultaneous building up of its opacity-was in fact modeled on religion's own radical cryptography. Jesus, after all, also taught by setting puzzles. He relied on parables and metaphors, and his sermons were often densely subtle. Thus, if the exercise of the parable can be understood as a spiritual task, an ambitious search for the riddle ("The Kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed," "Many of the first will be last, and of the last many will be first") that entices the mind toward the reality it seeks to illumine, then symbolism is poised on the edge of a similar paradox: it purports to decipher the world only by enciphering it anew.
But there's a difference between addressing mysteries and manufacturing them. The genius of the parable (a riddling that was never esoteric in its diction, but simply the relocation of ordinary ideas into unusual, defamiliarizing contexts) lies in the way it short-circuits the everyday mind. It frustrates the recipient into thought, rather than lulling him into dwelling on his own bewilderment. Scripture doesn't end with the mind's confusion; it merely begins with it. ("Therefore I speak to them in parables," Jesus says in Matthew 13, "because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, and neither do they understand.") The insinuating power of the parable was exactly what symbolism longed to recreate, and here we can point to the sense-scumbling texture of Mallarm's own poems-the aureate diction, the scrim-like syntax, the impossibly private allusions, the confounding imagery-as best exposing the sacred basis of symbolism's literary intentions. But to believe, as Mallarm did, that "everything that is sacred and that wishes to remain so must envelop itself in mystery" is to believe that the sacred is nothing more than a reverence-inducing mood, an ambience created by "enveloping" a subject. Without an appreciation for the motives that fashioned scripture's suspenseful form, symbolism was free to perceive the sacred as a problem of style, as an achievable literary "effect". Symbolism, in other words, threw away the religion but kept the religiosity, converting it into an exoticism that could be practiced for its own sake. The consequence of confusing scripture's evocative difficulty with its evasive appearance (a confusion that helped shift the gears of twentieth-century poetry) is that mystery is now no longer regarded as a means-a message-making tool able to preserve the essential ambiguities of an insight-but an end. Thanks to Mallarm, poets can today claim the privilege of posing unfathomables without the burden of showing fealty to truths.
I've taken the long way to A.F. Moritz's new book, Night Street Repairs, because it's clear to me that if there's a contemporary Canadian poet making fresh use of the symbolist ambition (as well as serving as a fresh example of its failings) it's Moritz. Since his arrival here in 1974 from Niles, Ohio, he has published fourteen books of delicate, indefinable poetry, among the most notable being The Tradition (1986), Song of Fear (1992), Mahoning (1994), and Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1999), which was nominated for a Governor General's Award. His work has generated an extraordinary amount of interest, and is fraught with a seriousness that continues to prove particularly irresistible to our younger poets (his influence can be observed in the recent work of Ken Babstock, Karen Solie, George Murray, and Eric Miller). The apostolically solemn figure he cuts among contemporary Canadian poets has a great deal to do, I think, with the reverent melodramas of his writing; writing, you might say, that thinks secularly but is religious in its enthusiasms. By "religious" I mean, of course, it resists the workaday. It frees its subjects from a straightforward relationship to the plodding prose of their own literalness and lifts them, instead, toward a higher, purer referent: "our world"-as Moritz defines it in the very last lines of Night Street Repairs-"which is the world, although it is not here." But by religious I also mean it draws a veil across its message. Mallarm-style mystery mongering, in other words, which locates its greatest authority, creativity and ambition in a poem's most obstinately runic moments. Many of Moritz's admirers routinely define these moments as "surrealist" in their underpinning, and it's easy to see why. But when critics like Richard Green argue (in Books in Canada), that Moritz is able to make "theological statements that are nearly impossible for poets who are more accessible'"; or when Moritz himself explains that his poetry

"creates a strange, "illogical"" story out of visible things, wrenching them from their normal positions and their obedience to laws of nature and habit, by making them subject to an invisible meaning which, it asserts, is their deeper reality."

-they are placing the poems squarely in the Mallarman tradition, the poeticizing of the sacred. This, however, raises the crucial question of how to properly read Moritz's new book. What I may feel has been given an unwarrantable vagueness ("Somewhere near here is where I fell behind, / or looked away, a moment only, lost you, / and you went on oblivious") you may feel has been permitted its allowable mystery. What I may feel has been undecodably distanced ("a global drift of broken bricks your loss / shovels down to hunger from apex and appetite") you may feel has been cryptically enriched. Accusations of obscurity have, I admit, become reviewing's most overused dig. And it does seem rather philistine to level that sort of grouse against poetry as sophisticated as Moritz's. After all, "making sense" may not be much of a priority with him, but his poems can be deeply attractive in their difficulties. Night Street Repairs is an excellent case in point. One of his most charismatic collections to date, it serves up a palimpsestic verbal music pieced together from small moments of cut-and-run logic. The poems are elasticly discursive, generous in their eccentricities, and full of looking-glass skirmishes with language. It's telling, however, that whenever Moritz's poetry is working at the height of its powers, as it surely is here, its principal flaw is also at its most conspicuous. This is because any "good" Moritz poem-like any "good" symbolist poem-draws all its heat to its surface, leaving itself busily vacant. It is intense and interesting, but has no quiddity. It is fat with allusive density, but offers no deep purchase on the imagination. I'm well aware that Moritz has run up a reputation as an ambitious poet who grapples with serious ideas, but I can't think of a poet who uses a vocabulary less viscerally suited to his subjects. His rummagings through a topic turn up very little except lots of "deep thoughts"-thoughts, in other words, which are pregnant with significance, but are too inchoate to fix in the mind. The result is a kind of spirit-speech defined not by its lofty unreadability but by its intellectual frictionlessness. If Moritz's poems are difficult, in other words, it's because the thinking has no traction. It is a directionless traveling-away-from that leaves the reader with nowhere to look. . .

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