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Review: The New Collection by A.F. Moritz

The Sentinel
by A.F. Moritz

The Sentinel’s title poem emphasises the lonely plight of the one who waits, in the dark, poised between enemy fire ahead and friendly encampment at one’s back. American-born, Canadian-based poet A.F. Moritz, surely mindful of cultural and other borders, implies such a position is even more that of the poet, pressured to “innovate” into the absence ahead, but lapped by the traditional what-has-been always pressing at his ear. Either way, one is somewhat damned – poems thrown too-forward are not deemed reliable reports of future incursions, and if one becomes too comfortable, straining to make out the shadows, the accusation is worse, of sleep or sloth. As such, this collection seems a noble attempt to ride on the sounds of the past (mainly the modern moment of the first half of the 20th century), while gesturing at contemporary diction, and detail, from time to time.

The collection consists of 63 poems, divided into three sections, “Better Days”, “In A Prosperous Country” and “Better Days” (again). The collection is announced by an opening poem, “The Butterfly”. The presiding spirit of the collection is perhaps Wallace Stevens, or late Eliot, with something of Richard Wilbur and F.T. Prince in it, too: that is, the tone represents a style more than a voice: a vaguely dandified, discursive eloquence, at once capable of stoic observation and melancholy reflections on the passing of time.

At times, the diction shifts, as in Laforgue, or Corbiere, from high to low (and here Moritz fails to live up to his greater ancestors). Over the whole collection, which seems polished to some form, or idea, of perfection, is the sun (the last poem is titled “The Sun”), and particularly the Stevensian sun of “Sunday Morning”: “We live in an old chaos of the sun, / Or old dependency of day and night, / Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, / Of that wide water, inescapable.” In short, the splendid munificence of Harmonium bleeds across these pages, staining the poems with, at times, a Floridian radiance.

There are fifteen or sixteen poems in this book as good as any a Canadian has written, in this particular, mannered, abstract, lyric style, and a few of them are beautiful, in a way so old-fashioned as to be utterly admirable, and brave. Several of these moved me to tears, in the way that Housman or Hardy (or Larkin) can use form and emotionality, and a particular rhythm, to do so.

I’d like to name the poems I feel are excellent, before narrowing in on a special few, and also discussing where the book’s tone perhaps fails to live up to its full potential. Here are the ones that any reader who might want to test Moritz against the very best poets should read in this book: “Better Days”, “Cassandra”, “Failure”, “Childish Willow”, “Memorial”, “Poet And Sister”, “The Ant”, “Old Pet”, “Swiftness No Longer Trusted”, “In A Thunder Shower”, “Place”, “Cleanliness”, “The Moment”, “Flower In The Crannied Wall”, “The Source”, and “The Sun”. I should explain that I have selected here poems of rare achievement, and also, as Moritz would agree, those which are closer to a sense of “pure poetry”, less cluttered by the intrusions of a sometimes too-clever contemporary toxicity (no doubt part of the test, but fun, of being a Toronto poet now).

Since Moritz has seemingly political, or at least, semi-didactic aims in places (some of the poems bear the stamp of valedictory Tennyson) his work is not all timeless, or classical; instead, a sometimes inept hipster shift in diction emerges (one that Geoffrey Hill has latterly assayed as well, to better effect) to capture the dross of communication in our idiotic time; this is handled cleverly in “Vermin; or, Weariness” where household pests “have vice-presidentially overturned/ the garbage can and spread the repast” – obviously a Life Studies moment, but accurate and wry nonetheless. Indeed, this poem builds to a kind of Iraq of local trouble with its “smashed abdomen of an hour ago” and a crescendo of bile aimed at all that is officious and relentless about the current world.

No, the problem is with poems such as “The Titanic”, which is actually a clever idea: the ship never sank, and circles, housing infamous missing celebrities. Ah, but who shall appear? Why, John Kennedy, Elvis Presley, Hitler, and “the Roswell alien”. Moritz skirts the blandly expected with such references – something younger Canadian poets, like David McGimpsey, do far better, by knowing how to extend the audacious, near-empty bubble of such allusion and make it pop with real oomph.

Moritz, who clearly admires Stevens (see “The Jar” for damning evidence), sometimes lacks that great poet’s necessary saving angel, always-accurate (and enriched) verbal aim. In Moritz’s lesser poems sometimes the expected word, the first word, appears, and not one that seems fought for, and won.

In “The Butterfly”, a poem about an unearthly event, sublime and wondrous description is sought. We have “roiling gardens”, the creature is seen “hovering” and it even dives like “a fighter jet”.

Nothing terribly wrong with this, but in a poem about amazement, somehow all-too-poetic, the default moves are simply made. In “Your Story”, once again, “the perfect police erased you” – “erased” being the right word, maybe, but not the astonishing, revelatory one. It may be that Moritz is here testing the warring aspects of his art he delineates in “In A Thunder Shower”: “plain style” and “decadent decoration”.

Moritz has a strange sensibility, which at times has a sci-fi aspect to it. When treated whimsically, it leads to poems which are unusual, and charming, but perhaps less offbeat than he might’ve hoped (we are used to strange things, now). It would be inaccurate and malicious to criticise this collection, further, however, for it contains more than a dozen poems of the first rank.

One of the poems that works very well in the weird style he sometimes adopts is “Old Pet”, with the metaphysical, startling opening lines: “Come, my body, leap up, while you still can, / onto my knees, into my lap. Come let me pet you, / comfort you and take comfort while there’s time”. In this poem Moritz orders his lines well, and his images are fresh.

“The Source”, one of the last poems, and very nearly a sonnet illustrates the entirely successful command of the high modern tone (by way, perhaps, of Ashbery): “”What would silence be? The song/ of a tempered shining, almost too small / to hear – the song itself of the sun, / hushed as it is by distance, and so, hidden/ in the ear’s ignorance, but in good time / for no reason it comes to notice”. This sublime mustering of lyric sensuality and cosmic distances is light of touch, and resonant.

Less lofty, and even truer, the finest poem in the collection is the lovely “Place”. It has something of Dante in its sweet style, and the last few lines are impeccable:

…… Then I remembered
the molecular diagrams she used to send to me
in her letters: I’d look and see her eyes, where each
thing that exists tumbled yet held all space
like a ring in a box. And O, I thought, if only
I could go back and write her, why did you go
and what are you doing there, love, my only place.

In such poems, Moritz gifts contemporary Canadian poetry with something subtle, graceful and precious: the absolute right to be both emotive, and intelligent, with style.
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