Saturday, February 10, 2007


Once in a while I find myself despairing over how many well-adapted contemporary poets there are writing in America. The trend of sensible poets providing a steady flow of upstanding insights confirms David Brooks’s suspicion in his book Bobos in Paradise that the creative class is the semi-affluent professionals (Bourgeois Bohemians) laboring in the relatively clean and tidy spaces of the American exurb. These “Bobos” (as Brooks puts it) in the information age have used their liberal arts degrees in such a way that they have transformed the culture by marrying their wild, spirited, artsy side to their market savviness. They, in short, have become the producers of culture. I guess that makes everyone else with the same impulse but less money nothing more than rednecks.

Yet I’m not sure eating, say, a hamburger and french fries disqualifies a person from treading upon the sublime. Somehow it seems that Brooks is confusing taste with aesthetic. To have impeccable taste by cleansing one’s hair with an oatmeal and tea tree medicated shampoo is different from having a unique appreciation of the human mind or debilitating despair or ancient seafaring diseases or what have you.

In contemporary poetry in America this same trend often manifests itself in the well-honed and well-trained image in the natural world waiting for its audience to “oooh” and “ahhh” upon its invocation. While surely there is nothing wrong with experiencing awe in the face of the natural world, one wonders if these hikers through the world of natural imagery don’t stop off for a quick latté before heading back home to their assembled beds of measured verbs and adjectives. I want to know who dry cleaned the romance out of being wild and left a beautiful image in its place instead? Ah, but perhaps all this talk of “the wild” distances me too much from being well-adapted. All this “wildness” . . . I think I’m beginning to sound like Robert Bly.

However, “wildness” was on my mind while reading Ashley Capps’s Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields [University of Akron Press, 2006]. Her talent for bringing disparate images and wonderfully startling narrative turns together and forcing them to live peacefully under the big tent of a personal mythos is intoxicating. I kept on saying to myself, “Well, just one more and then I’ll get down to doing some productive work.” Then I’d find myself ten pages further in.

One of the reasons I got hooked was that I became engrossed in how the story of the author’s consciousness unfolds. For sure, the narrator [presumably Capps herself, though occasionally she adopts the voice of her father] has some unique challenges. She relates a somewhat troubled past tainted by the passions and poisons of one’s parents (as we might all have). She has a penchant for breaching contemporary mores. She has blackouts. She’s a chronic insomniac who uses the scrambledness of her vision to utmost advantage. And all of this makes it onto the page. So, indeed, she has courage. This is not tidy stuff made of bedroom secrets left unrevealed for years. Yet at the center of the storm is her love for the word, for poetry. In “The Nearest Simile is Respiration,” she dedicates the poem to poetry, and it quickly becomes apparent how poetry is the glue that holds the far-flung elements together.

The Nearest Simile is Respiration

To poetry

I was booed I was doped I was maybe
a floozy before you knew me, loose
leafed like autumn and most of the books
of the Old Testament that fell out
of my father’s Bible. I had a body.

I had a habit of hauling my telescope
into the outskirts, ransacking all
the toothsome blackness for what: a reason
not to do me in. Proof I was more
than the seasonal ragbag detritus
choking the rooftop gutters, more
than a piece of the cosmic dust
in some ruined philosophy.

I could not be consoled by the universal
Sisyphus in us all, the dung beetle
nuzzling its putrid globe.

I could not hitch my wagon. The stars
and stars abrade my notions of my Self;
tricuspid Eros chewed me raw; Jesus
Christ rubbed mud in my eyes, and I saw
not. I did not see.

But with you! my sweetheart hairshirt,
my syntactic gondolier, ruffian for hire, befoolable
irresolute Chanticleer: with you, I back-float
the massy and heretofore unnnavigable childhood
algal blooms, where no fish swam. No fish
have swum that Mississippi.

With you, I forgive my father’s notes
to NASA, the self-inflicted swastika tattoo,
my sister’s coked-up juggernaut cannonball
into the after life.

I forgive the after life,
resurrect John Lennon and the jukebox
at the Quik ‘N’ Hot, infect myself
with a rare strain of tarantism. With you, I dance
the summum bonum. With you, I am greater
than or equal to the lack, and the luck is weather
that permits my red begonias.

I think one will see that this is not just a poetry therapy poem. There is a high degree of artfulness here. Some might see the elevation of poetry, of the muse, as yet another sad embrace of Romantic desperation. Of course, there is a tinge of this, but to my way of looking at things, this is a merit, not a demerit. The desperate Romantic may stand as the polar opposite of the Bobo. For some, I suppose, that nuzzling dung beetle might signal too great a preoccupation with the nefarious and unseemly. Of course, this is the point of the soulful outlook, the one that continues to fester beneath the skin of a sometimes unruly body. Life is not just a quick stop for a latté with Jamaican Blue Mountain.

Capps signals her obsessions in the first poem in the book. Here she is not indicating she is particularly well-adapted. Her commitment to “one thing” and her questioning of this proclivity take center stage. The poem suggests she is able to escape being stuffed inside herself by projecting beyond herself. The call and response between what is one’s self and what is beyond it form a kind of identity, something comfortable that one recognizes as one’s own.

Hymn for Two Choirs

Best apple I ever had was three o’clock
in the morning, somewhere outside
San Francisco, beach camping, stars holding
the sky together like sutures. I was thinking
how I was going to get old and ask myself
why did I only live for one thing;
at the same time I didn’t know how to change.
I thought I felt like my neighbor’s huge dog—
every day stuffed into a small man’s green T-shirt
and chained to a stake in a yard of incongruous
white tulips. Here and there a red bird, a train.
Way down the beach other tents glowed orange.
I heard a stranger call my name
and another stranger, laughing, answered.

The image of the dog is comical yet poignant. Capps navigates between these two poles quite successfully. With every seemingly heartbreaking detail, Capps seems to catch herself in mid-“woe-is-me” phase, and a wry sense of humor emerges that is formed partly through practiced self-deprecation and partly through acknowledgment of an absurd truth. Capps is never maudlin despite the circumstances. Even when the scene turns sordid, her speaking voice fends off humiliation with a focus on the odd, arresting detail that urges the reader to laugh. While some might see these off-center deflections as swerving from the task at hand of being earnest about one’s life, I found them (perhaps because this is a natural tendency of my own) to be refreshingly frank about how humorous perspectives nudge themselves alongside the fervently dramatic. The humor underscores the cathartic moments in a way that registers it part of a reaction complex more than it registers as irony. The humor is reflex to the hardscrabble. Capps is not holding one up to the other for the reader to compare/contrast. Capps experiences schadenfreude for her own life. Her ability to distance (as in “Hymn for Two Choirs”) is what one comes to feel as redemptive.

In “The Sign Said” one gets a sense that the ant at the end isn’t ironic counterpoint. The ant integrates into the thick of Capps’s experience.

The Sign Said

I thought about my own Etc.
also I thought about worst jobs
What’s yours was one of my favorite questions
at parties the last time I asked it
this girl I knew said Phone Sex
Operator which was a thing she did
to get attention at parties although it was true
the part about her having that job
but not the part about liking it
you’d have thought I’d identify
with her loneliness and her need for attention
but I didn’t I subtly mocked her
which was a thing I did and do I didn’t
appreciate the way she used her boobs
at the same time as making high literary references
or how she grinned and said Tell them yours
because I was a maid at a Motel Six
which was actually all right
but a maid before that for this country club bitch
who on my first day pointed to a pool
of fresh poodle vomit and said
You’ll need to take care of that
and speaking of signs
the only reason I didn’t quit right then
was an ant crawled out
of a pile of toenail clippings lifting
the largest one like a sail.

The poem weaves in and out of various scenes (signs read, social settings, bad jobs) so that the figure of the ant at the end (presumably a kind of hallucination, but possibly ants just eat human toenails . . . yes, I believe they do) is recorded as one more piece of experience in the mix. It’s not just a bit of absurd humor.

Despite Capps’s tendency to ride the wave of skepticism of the good life (which often leads her to exploring the underbelly of existence), Capps is also at home among the literati. She uses her life as fodder almost exclusively in Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields, but she often does this in precise, well-crafted ways that pack an emotional wallop. The title poem is one instance where she makes literary/artistic references (other references to Berryman, Jesus Christ, Adam Smith, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Samuel Beckett, Anne Sexton, Marcel Duchamp, and the Dalai Lama) and delivers on these references with a poem that would deserve placement in even the most stately of literary journals.

Mistaking the Sea For Green Fields

Ophelia, when she died,
lay in the water like the river’s bride, all pale
and stark and beautiful against the somber rocks,
her hair an endless golden ceremony.
She made the water sing for her; it flowed
over her folded arms.

Not so my father’s sister Karen,
swollen in a day-old tub of water
when they found her,
needle tucked into the fold of her arm,
her last thing: a wing.

So everything went as nameless as the men
who lifted her naked from the tub,
or those who rolled her
into the mouth of the furnace,
which is what you get
when you don’t get a service,
when your mother’s years of grief turn
last to rage: I won’t pay for it.
Leave me out of it.

And even though they finally said
it wasn’t suicide; a mistake—
no one knew what to do
with all of that anger,
or in the end how not to blame her.

Even now, in her unmarked container.


People once believed a deeper reason, some dark secret
motivation to the way the lemmings threw themselves
en masse into the sea. Were they weray
of their lives; could they, too, despair?
Or like those second-vessel swine
when Jesus exorcised two babbling men of their demons,
driving the demons through a pack of bewildered hogs—
the way they plunged?

The truth we know now: they leave when food is scarce,
when they’ve grown too many;
believe the roads they follow
lead to new meadows, a place to start over.

I think of Karen, feeding
and feeding her veins, how it is possible
she saw us all suddenly there—miraculous
and festive on some bright and other shore,
like the life she had been swimming toward
all along, trying to get right.
Like those sailors long ago,
that tropical disease, calenture
when, far from everything they knew,
men grew sometimes delirious
and mistook the waving sea for green fields.
Rejoicing, they leapt overboard,
and so were lost forever,
even though they thought it was real, though
they thought they were going home.

The direction of this poem, one that Capps frequently heads in, is the identification with the outsider, the maligned and misunderstood, the one who might not ordinarily capture an abundance of pity. In this she seems to be at odds with the people (in this case, a mother) who have written off the father’s sister. Her take on the situation is more Romantic, more bohemian. The individual’s pathetic outbursts against a much larger, more unmanageable force is the story Capps generally ascribes to. I guess in today’s parlance this makes one a loser (by association). Fortunately, there is a whole list of friends readily available on the cell phone to affirm our well-being. Where would we be without our social networks?

But here she appears in the jacket photo as so sweet and untrammeled. It is difficult for me to imagine Capps as anything but the girl next door, yet I manage to think that I might offend her if I referred to her as a nice girl.

Capps devours her life. She turns it over and over again, inspecting it for bugs hiding in the fissures. In this way, Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields can feel a bit confessional, but there is usually enough terrific image-work going on so that we know we are in the hands of a gifted writer, not just a person who sycophantically sucks her life dry. You come for the story, stay for the costume and set design.

At times I must confess that the craft in her writing announces itself too strongly. One example that for some reason continually bothered me was in God Bless Our Crop-Dusted Wedding Cake. In the fifth stanza acorn barnacles “oatmeal” her back. For some reason, this term bothers me. I understand the image, and I even think it works. But it strikes me as one of those “muscular verbs” encouraged to activate a reader’s sensory center in the brain. Perhaps it’s just my childhood aversion to oatmeal that is surfacing. Perhaps I am momentarily experiencing an urge to hammer a poor, defenseless nail head and say, “Bad nail. Bad nail.”

To be fair, the story in “God Bless Our Crop-Dusted Wedding Cake” is not Capps’s own. She qualifies the content as being her father’s story, but one that benefited from a first person narration. Her release into her father’s voice as if it were her own (filled as it is with literary device) is an interesting conflation of the desire to inhabit one’s life as the parent at the same as one retains the license of the auteur. These two forces often mutually opposed pull at Capps throughout the book.

Capps engages in other ways besides as father’s daughter and all-around family member in reasonably good standing. In pieces like “All Night City Train” and “I Used to See Her in the Field beside My House” a dark and disappointed perspective emerges. In “All Night City Train” the speaker rescues a cocoon from the side of a dumpster only to realize later in the poem that it is a cotton ball, that the imminent life inside the cocoon is really a stain left by some applicator/user. Nothing was ultimately rebirthed, nothing redeemed. The disappointment with the physical world is shadowed by a fascination with it, but a fascination that ultimately does not provide any illumination. Similarly, in “I Used To See Her in the Field beside My House” the poem addresses a lowly beef cattle and its ultimate fate as a thing conveniently dismantled limb by limb and turned into a meal. Capps writes shockingly in the last line: “There is nothing / in this world that loves you back.” Here again is Capps’s sympathy for the dispossessed (in this case more than that—it’s sympathy for the wholly edible). If we as readers are to project ourselves upon the cow, a natural thing to do in this case, then it can be gleaned from this poem that we are in the realm of a terribly grim and brutal existence. Capps obviously forgot to take her happy pills the morning she wrote that line, but its disturbing echo reminds this reader that we are not dealing with a writer who feels compelled to make that redemptive turn at the end of a poem.

For this kind of sour gambit at the end of the poem, Capps may be thrown out of the company of the polite and the formal. Capps might not miss them, but it would be a shame if she were dismissed by the polite and formal for bad behavior, for not being well-adapted. The question is: how did such a sweet-looking young woman become so bohemian?

And furthermore, what happened to the old bohemians? Did they just morph into hippies and start living in small towns in the foothills where they recycle every item of trash and turn it into “designer paper” for their manifestos on the impending economic crash due to resource shortages?

Have yesterday’s bohemians been transformed into today’s “culture workers,” the agendas they carry around with them suggesting a systematic path to cultural reform?

Capps may be that new breed of bohemian that is defined by his/her passion for a particular aesthetic activity, who believe that committing oneself to doing and making (i.e. the art, the labor, the craft) is more important than the marketing. The making, shaping and treating of the self and all its intricacies is more important than how it is planted along the boulevard for everyone to gaze at. Let’s hope this gnarled beauty continues to grow and peer over the garden wall.

Capps is also lively and idiosyncratic. While she is wildly barreling through her life and looking for its messages, her prodigious talent for picking up on the discarded detail sustains the book. One wonders if she will be the kind of poet who, after writing the story of her life, will find anything else to focus on. Is this the one-hit wonder who, after using up what needs to be said about her life, will move on to other areas of inquiry? I suspect she will move on. I suspect Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields is just the opening act. Even if Capps finds she has no desire to write outside of her life, I suspect that she will be able to transform the minutiae of her life into an interesting read. Such is the fate of the idiosyncratic. Meanwhile, we should be grateful that Capps has emerged from the pack of contenders who might draw a circle around their lives in the hope that others find such a life exemplary. The main thing that is exemplary about Capps is her ability to get into a stare down with her life and win . . . by revealing its truths—warts, blackouts, immoral acts, sleep deprivation and all.

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