Monday, January 12, 2009

A.F. Moritz' "Early Poems"

I've already blogged, briefly, about my inability to latch onto Moritz' work in two of his collections. But there's a critical buzz about his work (if "buzz" can be creditted to any book of contemporary poetry), and the poems' opacity and musical skirmishes demand a closer rereading to ferret out delight. Time is short, of course, and it's often a dilemma whether to chuck the cause after a second struggle, or whether to continue and hope the greater effort pays off. After giving his Early Poems (entire reprintings of his first four collections) a concentrative go, with multiple readings of many individual poems, I came half-way down upon those trying points, alternately skewered and thrown from the horns.

Like any devoted surrealist (or metaphoric stapler, or allegorist), Moritz uses imagery as carefully selected signposts, as visionary shaping, towards a greater "truth" of contemporary meaning. This is a double-edged sword: at its best, one is forced to contemplate the etymological particularities and subtleties of his word choices, which then feed into a complex kaleidoscope of vision; at its worst, nouns are set down not for their imagistic freshness but for their possibilities as abstract markers to global meaning. I'll limit this (for obvious reasons of time and effort) to one example, though the volume is littered with others, in most, and in multiple instances, in every poem:

(From "Soliloquy Of A Dreamer Absent From His Dream"): "two birds collided and fell dead./Now from the gap in the double mountain/of their bodies at every dawn and twilight". What kind of birds are these? What are the qualities of the mountain? "Bodies"? Is "every dawn and twilight" the same? Of course, Moritz' point is not to particularize, but to use these vagaries as general symbols for a greater ordering, where abstractions take on a heightened encoding which either delights, baffles, or bores the reader. I admit to the latter two of these reactions in this poem. In other poems, and admittedly after a long familiarity with repetitions of key words, the same patterning which at first appeared gratuitous and perversely obscure worked to reflect a carefully ordered vision, often one where the ubiquitous, undefined observer is befuddled as to how to make sense of the hyper-mutable contemporary world. I've never been enamoured with this vision -- it strikes me as facilely vatic, for the most part -- but just the idea of a contemporary poet having a vision, and a consistent, passionate one, at that, is refreshing.

You'll notice I've referred to "vision" throughout, and it's no accident that Moritz ends his poems with many references to sight and observation. "staring at the sun" is the end-line of his excellent "Stranded", and in this instance it works beautifully as dramatic bullet to infiltrate (this) reader's imagination. The reason? The images are concrete, vivid, individual. One can see a specific moment in an actual (though paradoxically fictional, of course) person's life: the unspeakable banal horror of the workaday world where a bee acts as perfectly timed conceit to release the bitter self-knowledge to the hapless protagonist. An equally excellent poem -- "If The Man" -- begins: "If the man who is only eyes/and those eyes always open/frightens you, don't think of him/or of what he sees in the wind". Another great poem is "Stabbing", which ends with: "And you now and he/are fragments in my mouth", detailing another sense important to the poet, that of the difficulty of right speech in a world where speech is derided, misunderstood, or unformed in the speaker.

The obverse side of the coin, however, is that these moments aren't frequent enough. Though the scaffolding is remarkable for its connected strength -- "wind" , "crickets", "sun", "root", "dream", "sea", "sky", "spring" are just some of the many important landmarks, the constantly repeated entries, with specific reflected meanings -- poetry sings best when it's felt. After completing Early Poems, I was reminded of a passage by Thornton Wilder, who reacted in frustration with the plethora of accomplished, but uninvigorating, productions of his time: "I was like a schoolmaster grading a paper: to each of these offerings I gave an A +, but the condition of mind of one grading a paper is not that of one being overwhelmed by an artistic creation". Of course, this comment was made in a different context, and there're certainly a lack of these "accomplished A +s" about in contemporary poetry, but the idea is still a telling one. I prefer more immediacy, more individual quirks, more surprising revelations coming from recognizable experience which can then be used to feed abstractions and philosophies.

No comments: