Thursday, March 18, 2010

Paying Homage to the Pantheon: A.F. Moritz’s “The Straggler”

Poets do not invent themselves out of whole cloth; they are students of poetic composition who toil away, night and day, at their craft for many years. For the truly dedicated ones, this will last a lifetime. “Eternal apprenticeship is the life of the true poet,” as Theodore Roethke once remarked and it is a particularly pithy observation for introducing A.F. Moritz.

Both apprentice and teacher, it is hard to pinpoint what exactly characterizes his poetic style for that style has changed so often over the course of seventeen books. His tone is both complicated and passionate, his images both allusive and emblematic, his pacing both discursive and disciplined.

To read Moritz is to read many things— the surreal, the philosophical, the classical. Indeed, there is always a lot of English lurking behind his English which gives his poems their sense of high seriousness and unmistakable authority. Take, for instance, his poem “The Straggler” from his book Night Street Repairs published by Anansi press. This is a poem I find myself going back to all the time because of its pantheistic respect for poetry’s precursors:


The Straggler


It was when they all had vanished in the valley
of individual velleity that he lost them.
It was when he trailed them from an eager distance,
observing from rock ledges or high grass.
It was later when he saw them casting pots
a little differently each in the manufactory.
It was when they sang their massive denial subtly.
It was when he heard each celebrate one thumbprint
baked in the innocent clay. It was when he smelt them
cataloguing infinite many hues of umber.
It was when he felt the horn of the mighty hunter
faint in trembling coverts blossoming endlessly.
It was when a sudden edge cut the sobbing leaves,
when the vessels all were smithered by a hammer
and there were Blake and Homer, that he found them.

The spiritual undertaking in this poem—the squandering of individual possibilities; the desire for atonement and redemption through art—puts me in the mind of the prodigal son, albeit this is a non-Christian myth substituting poetry's fore-fathers for religion. The poem begins with the lines “It was when they all had vanished in the valley / of individual velleity that he lost them” suggesting that the reckless disregard of an individual’s freedom to make one’s own choices in life, to suppress and not act upon one’s personal desires, is a waste, even a sin, for it leads to solitude; an over-hanging sense of spiritual desolation that leaves one in the wilderness.

Atonement, it seems, comes through the making of art as Moritz writes, “It was later when he saw them casting pots / a little differently in the manufactory. It was later when they sang their massive denial subtly. / It was when he heard each celebrate one thumbprint / baked in the innocent clay.” How I read these lines is that poetry is about individual making—indeed, the word comes from the greek word poesis or ‘to make’—thus the “casting pots each a little differently” and the celebration of one’s “thumbprint baked in the innocent clay”. The line “they sang their massive denial subtly” appears more gnomic and lends itself to a few possible interpretations. The massive denial might be the choice not to cast pots or to make art as ‘imitation’ which is what you would find in a manufactory, but also it might be read as the refusal to subordinate one's artistic production to the demands of larger society.

The poem swerves again with the introduction of “the horn of the mighty hunter” which is both the clarion call of our own mortality, Death hot on the heels of the incipient poet, but also the powerful voice of the Imagination “blossoming endlessly” once it is heard.

Lastly, redemption comes when “the vessels were all smithered by a hammer" suggesting all one’s models for poetic composition must be done away with, at some point, if one is to write one’s own poetry and be counted among the pantheon of poets, not crushed beneath it.

As Wallace Stevens said," After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption" and certainly I take this to be the theme of Moritz's poem. If you found yourself enjoying A.F. Moritz’s poem “The Straggler” as much as I do, please pick up Night Street Repairs or his more recent Griffin award-winning collection The Sentinel, both by Anansi press.

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