Catholic poet captures essence of the city

By  Dorothy Cummings, Catholic Register Special
  • December 21, 2007

{mosimage}Blaise Moritz’s poems recall an age when honest work gave shape and meaning to life. Moritz deals in both nostalgia and hope and, infused with a desire for justice, he is not afraid to deliver a barb where a barb is due.

So what’s Catholic about that?

It’s a relevant question because Moritz is Catholic. Moritz’s name popped out at me from a long list of Governor General’s award nominees. I remembered he was at St. Michael’s College School when I was at Loretto Abbey. Even then Moritz was a talented writer, submitting stories to the Blue Herald. I e-mailed this new kid on the Can Lit block, requested a free copy of his book and demanded answers to a list of impertinent questions to be followed by a personal interview.

Crown and Ribs is Moritz’s first book of poetry. It is thought-provoking and attention-keeping. It is also pertinent. Canadian city dwellers will discover their own experiences, histories and cities captured in these poems. The first features an encounter between the hesitant poet and a veteran builder having breakfast. Another is an elegy for the town that Richmond Hill once was. Another recalls a summer spent as a landscaper. The local knife sharpener, historical labour leaders and the history of Davis Day all appear in turn.

Moritz’s narrator journeys from shyness in approaching a working man to the deep confidence of British labour leader Jack Dash. The poems citing Homer’s Odyssey underscore the sense of a journey, of striving and of timelessness.

In his poem “Davis Day,” Moritz envisions a conversation between New Waterford’s BESCO (the British Empire Steel Corporation which once dominated industrial Cape Breton) and newer multinationals: “:See, says BESCO’s ghost, I am your ancestor/and your equal: being both impersonal/and strong, still I terrorized, withheld/such necessities as people trust will never be withheld;/I came before you in these tactics, and in killing too!/ I’ll put my Bill Davis up against your mass graves any time. Billy’s got his own day!”

{amazon id='1554550386' align='right'}It doesn’t appear that Moritz is frightened of the political. Nor does he seem concerned with striking a literary pose. He’s interested in the real world.

“Yes, I’m a practising Catholic,” Moritz told me. “A Catholic is something that I am always, in every situation. When I play with my children at the park, I don’t know that it’s relevant that I’m a poet, but it seems relevant that I’m a Catholic. My faith is not an overlay or a vanity: it’s essential, in the sense of being an aspect of who I am, the way my body is an aspect of who I am.”

I asked Moritz why he is so interested in workers and social justice. He wrote, “I feel that one of the essential aspects of my life is that I’ve seen: the betrayal of the urban worker... I remember as a child watching the news about steel mills closing and hearing people debate whether or not the unions were to blame. I think that 19th-century critiques of urban and working conditions suggested a number of paths forward. I don’t like the direction we’ve gone.”

For Moritz looking at the past isn’t just an occasion for nostalgia. He casts a critical eye on history.

“We seem to have solved the problems of the dirty city, the urban poor, the working poor, largely by moving them elsewhere,” he said. “But in: unions (and) progressive movements:there were other ideas aimed at improving things right here: I talk about labour because it’s an issue which most would see as a lost cause... (We need to) re-address people lost or betrayed, to find different jumping off points for solutions... And I would see all of this as an example of how I write out of my Catholicism without being an overtly Catholic writer. For me, the mental freedom to adopt such a perspective is enabled by faith.”

When we met at a cafe near the University of Toronto, I fumbled with my new tape recorder and asked Moritz where he was born (Milwaukee) and where he went to school (Toronto French School, St. Monica’s and, of course, St. Michael’s College School). Moritz particularly enjoyed his years at St. Michael’s. St. Michael’s was so academically rich, it offered ancient Greek to the boys who wanted it. We discussed the importance of myth, industry and, above all, the city.

“My audience is city dwellers of the developed and nearly developed world,” said Moritz. “For me, that’s an audience that cuts across cultures, and that’s a very massive audience: I’ve often thought that the place of the city in poetry is still a kind of an antiquated one. That sort of modernist excitement about the city and how awe inspiring and frightening.”

Moritz dismisses also the passive, post-modern pose that can say no more than that the city is fragmented and complex. He refuses to be limited to mere sociological description.

“What concerns me as a poet is the here and now. What is the city that we make? That we are going to live in 10 years from now? Twenty years from now?” he said. “You know, I think that it’s always challenging for poetry to be clear-sighted about the present moment. And I think that is the challenge I take up in the book.”

Having already won fans on Toronto’s youthful poetry scene, Moritz’s poems are attracting attention from more seasoned poets.

“It’s a rarity to find a young artisan looking at the art of the city,” said Pier Giorgio Di Cicco in an e-mail. “Looking at the city as art with cognizance of the blood, sweat and tears of which great cities are made. Moritz knows that great cities aren’t made by design but by the quality of love and dreams and shared sacrifices. This is a spiritual lens that Moritz looks through, with a craft and intelligence that makes the city readable, livable and accountable to its own failed dreams and heroisms... Moritz stands for a generation that insists on the urban romance. And it starts with the eloquence of Crown and Ribs.”

(Cummings is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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