by Rachel Moritz
New Michigan Press 2008
Reviewed by Matt Soucy
“…there is not much of me.”
Rachel Moritz’s brief Night-Sea is both a focused and enigmatic chapbook. Starting with a quote from Abraham Lincoln about a sketch of himself, “…there is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me,” the poems are loosely focused around the invention of history. While personal, these poems also delve indirectly into the creation of American myth.
According to Moritz, the past is cut out, rusted, pointed, “How much nostalgia lives / inside rusty bullets, amputation kits.” Here she recalls a personal memory from Boston in the 1970s, but every moment parallels and recalls the Civil War. Every poem is somewhat reminiscent of Lincoln’s face and Moritz borrows the description of Lincoln’s face as “half-alligator, half-horse.” Moritz’s craft is strong, clean, and purposeful. In “Past the World of Senses,” she writes:
Our flag wears thirty-two stars.
Then visit ‘The War is Over’
where soldiers loll
beneath the scaffold’s human
For the woman, until the end –
a ladder leans, her footing
Ghost by the wall who is
my own throat.
People are already – always –
This is a fairly literal example concerning the only woman hanged for conspiring to kill Lincoln. However, it shows Moritz’s conversion of history into the personal and, finally, the universal. She does this expertly throughout the book.
Varying between insinuation and more direct address, Moritz involves the reader in Lincoln’s most mythic moments, the log cabin, the whistle-stop tour, scenes of the Civil War, and the carriage ride to Ford’s Theatre. But this is not historic poetry; this is not going be read at any inaugurations. It is intricate and personal, vaguely critical without assuming too much—and always evocative.
Lincoln is used as a quintessential piece of history around which time moves. Time exists, as our experience tells us, as still moments. The movement of time appears as illusion:
Each winter day is dream-
Like in duration
More abstractly still, each
Is a brooding self, absolute
To the act of creation
from “Wonder Journey (Air-Wind)”
As with many poets, Moritz seeks something concrete in either time or space to hold onto and throughout these poems she offers some intelligent and heartfelt insights such as, “True being, meanwhile, is not in shapes / but in the dreamer.”
For such a short text, Night-Sea definitely merits multiple reads. The subtlety and depth grows as these well-constructed poems reveal themselves and lend power to one another.