NIGHT STREET REPAIRS
By A. F. Moritz
“Wandering between two worlds, – one dead,
The other powerless to be born.” – Matthew Arnold
There’s nothing particularly Arnoldian about A. F. Moritz’s latest collection, Night Street Repairs, but that sense of being caught between two worlds is front and center. So much is over. “The infinite erotic civilization we created/ is declining now” (so much for being infinite). “An age of anxiety was ending.” The revolution has come and gone, but what is this space between? The Wall has fallen, but that “waiting/ for something else, waiting so long/ it seemed no change could ever come” has only been replaced with an emptiness. This is an in-between, twilight realm Moritz likes to identify with shadows. Here, for example, is an “Architect Examining an Old House”:
Not yet torn down, forgotten somehow, its grey
façade of the last century
stands, a shadow, between clear glass and chrome
developments, beside the doming and arching
of reminiscent designs, unprecedented,
that suddenly came to us
as we trailed after the modern, wanting to be
Not yet torn down, but just give it time.
And then there is a very Arnoldian first cricket of the season, “lost as you are for this moment in this silence/ of your dead of a season ago, and your yet unborn.” The artist (here a singer of cricket “cantos”) is obviously feeling very un-attached to the zeitgeist. He is dissatisfied. He is a “thing unjoined”.
He is in the mood for a good argument with the universe.
Some would say it’s the role of a poet to have a bone to pick with the dominant culture. And in Night Street Repairs A. F. Moritz, who has long been one of Canada’s most rewarding poets, is at his most questioning, hectoring, and intellectually aggressive. In an “Ode to Don DeLillo” it even seems at first blush as though the poet is trying to pick a fight with the novelist. Just what is the relation between writing and our experience of life’s misery? Moritz wants to know. And his Ode is an interrogation.
Being argumentative isn’t just about tone. It means you have a point to make. This makes some of the poetry here difficult, because Moritz is an abstract poet (or, perhaps more accurately, a poet in an abstract mood). Abstract in that his images seem to work backward, going from universal to particulars. The landscape is inscape – there is little difference between what he sees and what he imagines. The world is “only a voice” (take away the poet’s universe and he still has his gorge). The material world, in turn, seems generic and prop-like. There are bridges, doors, sidewalks, and dumpsters (Moritz, like most good poets, walks), but these have the feel of symbols without symbolic weight.
And not all arguments convince. The poem “On a Sentence About the Ancient Maya” is an example. The sentence referred to in the title tells us that the art of the Maya created their reality in a way more powerful than we moderns can imagine. Moritz rejects this with a flat “No” (told you he was feeling chippy). No, it is the reality of the present that is the product of an art so powerful the imagination can’t get out. From the plastic spoon you eat your yogurt with to the grooves on a steering wheel, ours is a universe of inescapable design. And design is art.
Or is it? I have my doubts. I’m not so sure that “we have imagined an art so powerful.” We have mass-produced our designs to the point where “art” is all-pervasive, but this strikes me as something different than creating a new reality through art. And the imagination involved seems minimal indeed. The Mayans had creation myths . . . and we have yogurt spoons? It seems to me that this is the real Ode to Don DeLillo. We live in a world we made, culture is our nature, but is our inner life – our imagination – trapped by these mundane aspects of product design? Or does it live elsewhere?
It is this sense of fullness and cultural exhaustion that is the old world dead. The classical gods – Mayan or erotic – have passed away. We exist now in a limbo, like flies stuck in a mass media amber, “almost insensible, almost impotent, yet alive/ by the sufferance of our young.” The next age will turn us all into shadows. But then, the next age will have no imagination.
Night Street Repairs is a thoughtful, thought-provoking collection that only rarely captures the ease and beauty of Rest on the Flight Into Egypt. Moritz’s dissatisfied questioning trickles down (or up) to the writing itself. There are a number of passages where the expression seems overly worried and qualified. Too many commas suggest overwritten or misdirected composition, an absence of grace. Lines like
Now, after years, one wall falls, in Berlin,
and they wake there, childhood gone, . . .
So my first, simplest
songs, a child’s shouts, nothing but life, soaked,
buried and smothered in life, lost in life’s thorax,
There is something anti-poetic about this, though perhaps it is intentional. Still, one misses the visionary images (as opposed to arguments made of metaphors), the playfulness, the sound of words,
the flap-snap-flop of the laundry of the future
strung out the windows of tropical highrise slums.
Review first published online May 19, 2004.