The last line of A.F. Moritz’s poem celebrating spring, “Baltimore May 2015,” reads “in the orgy of imagination.” This is a perfect description of the book itself which visits a variety of themes and subjects in poems that are consistently well-crafted and constructed.
The list of previous books of poetry by Moritz is long enough to fill an entire page and is a testament to a career that has brought him to the forefront of Canadian poetry and perhaps to a shortlist of great living poets in the English language.
The variety of themes here is headlined by Moritz’s clear-eyed look at the end of life, sparked by a two-week hiatus in hospital for a serious heart operation several years ago. But there is no persistent morose feeling in these poems. They are characterized by a profound sense of empathy and a consistent welling of the joys possible in life and language.
The book’s first poem, titled “Terrorism,” introduces this sense of empathy in an unusual way. While the poet watches “grackles and starlings” playing about a fountain in a park, he notices high above, in a space between trees, a passenger jet on its landing approach. Memories of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 come to his mind and he wonders if the passengers are fretting about their safety as he is. This is a typical Moritz play—making a connection between two disparate elements (birds and jets) appear natural and normal, and he accomplishes it with striking ease.
In another example of empathy, in the poem “High Windows,” Moritz writes of a homeless man who has been given a job picking up dead finches that have smashed into the windows of a high glass tower. The poet’s ability to connect the lives of these small dead birds and the lives of the homeless, sometimes found dead on the streets in their nests of rags and cardboard, is heart-rending.
And finally, this theme meets its apex in discussing his own approaching death and how it will affect his partner. In “The History of Grief” he writes,
When I decline it will be
terror and long pain for you,
long even it it’s short, and helplessness
and confusion. You won’t know what to long for
till I die, and then finally you can rest, you’ll think,
and you’ll curse yourself for that thinking.
Poetry itself is another persistent theme, represented variously as words, song, voice, language and so on. In the first poem in the section titled “Childhood Friends,” Moritz recalls that his father knew the names of all the birds and the poet goes on to conclude that words themselves were one of his most basic, most cherished childhood friends.
All in all, images of birds of all kinds are sprinkled, like birdsong, throughout this collection. Whether the grackles, finches and starlings mentioned above, or blackbirds, goldfinches, mythical Thunderbird, sparrows, hummingbird or eagle, the poet focuses on this special beast of the animal realm, the only animal (except perhaps for whales and dolphins) that, like this poet, pours its life fully into song.
Mark Frutkin, a former editor of Arc, has published seventeen books, including five collections of poetry. The most recent, Hermit Thrush (Quattro Books, Toronto, ON), was a finalist for the Ottawa Book Award in 2016. He has published over 200 book reviews (including poetry) for the Globe and Mail, Amazon.ca, the Ottawa Citizen, the Literary Review of Canada and elsewhere.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.