by Kevin Higgins

Night Street Repairs by A. F. Moritz (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2004, $16.95)

P. K. Page’s back-cover description of A. F. Moritz as “a poet of high seriousness—rare in this quick and confessional age,” is the sort of literary spin so often employed to advertise mid-career collections by moderate talents, that instead of exciting this reviewer with the possibility of a poet in the tradition of, say, Stevens or Eliot, it made me wince the way the thought of a visit to the dentist or tax office might. “Seriousness” is typically the frock of choice for the dull male poet who’s finally come to terms with the fact that because no one laughs at his jokes (except out of embarrassment) he’ll never be able to compete with Billy Collins and Simon Armitage. And so now it’s time we all put on some Bach, become suitably somber and listen to him speak his serious stuff.

That prejudice registered, I have to say that, as I made my way through Night Street Repairs, A. F. Moritz slowly won me over. Unlike most who aspire to seriousness, he usually pulls it off. The collection is divided into six sections with the first and last poems acting as prologue and epilogue. From the outset the poems reek of decline and regret, with occasional hints of madness; from “Simile”: “As if / the planet vanished then, under the noise, // and I would have to find another one to live on / if I wanted to live. As if in the whole / universe, though, there were now no more ...” The apocalyptic tone may be somewhat reminiscent of early Ginsberg, or even Dylan Thomas, but, in the way he keeps trying to put order on the chaos, Moritz perhaps has more in common intellectually with the 1920s Modernists than he does with either the Beats or the poets of the 1940s British New Apocalypse. The seven-page “To See The Day” is a meditation on things as they are: “The coherence / of the world is that it has fallen apart in some minds and / remains // intact and beautiful in others.” (The key, perhaps, to Moritz’s life philosophy?) In places it shows such glittering promise that the other poem it most calls to mind is “The Idea of Order at Key West”:

Day with large genius to endure everything human. In the
eighty-foot silver maple

swaying there high above the roofs, cicadas are already singing:
the summer

is getting late. Noon. Everyone in the city had long been up as I
left my house

and went out to see the day. Over all the light had put down
splendour as a mask ...

Elsewhere, the muddled abstractions of lines like “coherence of an incoherence just beginning, still with memory of / a ruined whole” ensure that it’s a poem of brilliant parts rather the masterpiece that might have been. As a result, reading it is a peculiar experience, like being forced to wash down the best salmon or steak with gruel rather than the more appropriate champagne. Such occasional mixing of magnificence and mediocrity aside, the collection’s main weakness is a tendency to sometimes keep
hammering home what has already been said. In both “The Wall: Autumn 1964,
Autumn 1989” and “To See The Day,” Moritz uses words of similar meaning—“void” and “destroy,” “excreters” and “secreters”—immediately after each other, when one or the other should clearly have been deleted.

However, this is perhaps to focus too long on the negative. Moritz’s work has its faults, yes. But he is also a poet who manages, again and again, to deliver. “The End of the Age,” “Singer and Prisoner” and “The World” are about as good as poetry gets—complex lyrical meditations in which Moritz succeeds in making his private griefs and terrors universal. Moritz is not a political poet in a straightforward Adrienne Rich-Tony Harrison way. But a kind of defeated idealism runs through the collection like a vein of gold. Where others would posture, Moritz offers us real emotion and intellect in words that are mostly beautiful. And in “The Erotic Civilization” and “North American Song”— “I have a mild case of everything. // I starve but not like they do in Ethiopia. / Life is empty for me but not like it is in Stockholm”—Moritz proves that he also possesses a sharp, satirical wit. His work may sometimes be uneven, but he is from the evidence of this collection incapable of writing a poem without at least a few lines certain to take the reader’s breath away and make other poets jealously wonder where they’re going wrong.

Kevin Higgins is a London-born Irish poet who lives in Galway. His poems have appeared in Metre, The Shop, Gargoyle, The Antigonish Review, Vallum and the anthologies Short Fuse, Breaking the Skin: New Irish Poetry, 100 Poets Against the War and Irish Writers Against War. His first collection, The Boy With No Face, will be published soon by Salmon.

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