Rest on the Flight into Egypt

By A. F. Moritz

The title of this new collection of poems by A. F. Moritz is taken from a painting by Bernard van Orley depicting a scene from the Gospel of Matthew. In the title poem this background of art and myth helps to bring into focus many of the book’s complex yet beautifully rendered themes.

“Van Orley has shown things/ as they are” the poem tells us, which isn’t at all a nod to realism. Plato banished poets precisely because they do not show things as they are, but rather imitate a phantom show of surface appearances. In defence of poetry it might be said that this mistakes the real poet’s aim, which is the construction of concrete universals and ideal (if minute) particulars. Things as they are get changed upon a blue guitar, which in turn only reveals to us more of what they really are. In other words, poetry is a sort of sur-realism, showing us not what is real so much as what is more than real.

Moritz’s penchant for the surreal is evidenced most clearly by his imagery. The sharply limned otherworldliness and grotesquerie he describes in such poems as “Manifestation” and “Industry” are like scenes from Dali. But the surreal is also very much a part of the collection’s philosophical foundation. Throughout many of the poems we find a three-fold conception of reality. In the middle is “fact”: a reality of desolate autumn landscapes and post-industrial burnout. This fact is, in turn, fashioned by authority into a corrupt vision of reality that is superimposed on things as they are. The authoritative vision of fact is associated with lies and propaganda, a word we are confronted with in the first poem as a General describes his hollow conquest of a border country. Propaganda is also the form reality takes in the self-help manual written by the clerk in “Artisan and Clerk” and the “muffled memories/ of ancient eloquence” indulged in by Kissinger at Nixon’s funeral.

But fact itself may only be another kind of vision, something superimposed on a more basic reality that Moritz associates with many favourite Surrealist motifs. Since this reality is imagined as metaphorically “lower” than the one of fact it is evoked through images of roots, night, and dream. It is a world of archetypes that the reader falls into, an earthward urge that ends up evoking a morally neutral primitivism.

“Life’s better now”, but things as they are, which includes injustice, tyranny and oppression, tend to stay the same. The archetype this autumnal world is associated with most frequently is the desert, and so landscapes of desolation frequently recur, presided over by generals, lords, strongmen and upper management.

It is unlikely such a landscape will be redeemed. Christianity seems ambiguously located throughout the collection (including a strangely constructed epigraph from the Gospel of Luke), and is shown in a harsh ironic light in “Artisan and Clerk”:

And we were shaken by a further rumour: of a flaw
in the world, in being itself, and even deeper –

a flaw in salvation. It was said that those ghosts,
even beatified, were eating heaven – that despite
infinity, they would soon consume it all,

have nothing left, and start on their own bodies.
Was this, then, what awaited us? Not likely. We
were condemned.

So much for the “fortunate fall.”

The interpretation offered here may be incorrect but it is at least an attempt at dealing with what are complex poems. Moritz is clearly writing in an intellectual tradition of poetry. (I would say “academic,” but that is too pejorative a term to use.) My own reservations about this direction in poetry I have noted elsewhere, along with my preference for poetry that is more “simple, sensuous and passionate.” This said, it is a relief to find in Moritz a poet capable of maintaining a balance.

He does so mainly through two stylistic decisions. The first is his frequent use of the dramatic monologue form, a useful tool for avoiding the oppressive self-consciousness and therapeutic confession that weighs down so much contemporary verse. The second escape route is his colloquial manner. In terms of their rhythms the poems imitate conversation rather than song. The tone is often understated, and some of the ironies muted as a result but, while quiet, the poetry is not resigned.

As a collection of poems Rest on the Flight into Egypt has highs and lows. Among the former, however, there are some truly excellent poems, including “Manifestation,” “Artisan and Clerk,” “The Little Walls Before China,” “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” and “The Lines.” Each of these deserves re-reading, containing much of that hard-to-crack simplicity which is both the essence of poetry and things as they are.

Review first published online November 15, 2000.

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