The winner of the 2005 Akron Poetry Prize, Ashley Capps’s Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields is a refreshing, arresting debut endeavor. This is a book that puts on display not only Capps’s deft yet disarming handling of language but also a remarkable determination to enter a perspective of reflection so deep and drunk with consciousness one might easily be lost in the complex yet coherent hallways she has constructed between all the poems of the book.
A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Capps has allowed for a survey of personal history that I can only think to describe as admirable in the courageous variety her ruminations seem to dictate, not merely in recording them but in the subtle judgments and conclusions that seem to resolve throughout the book. This ‘courage’ is not simply the kind that might be tied to the revelation of the personal–like many poems I admire Capps’s don’t seem concerned with audience nor are they weighted down by any notions of pandering to the idea of being received or analyzed. No, the kind of courage I intend to focus on here is the kind implicit in any act of genuine introspection, which is to say the courage of looking backward regardless of what has happened or what dwelling on the past might reveal about a person’s present or future.
Taken in this sense it feels important to acknowledge a sense of courage more complicated and brilliantly cultivated than the expected, pat style of the courageous confessional, as once again a confession denotes two parties or ends of a conversation whereas this book feels like a place much more altogether lonely, absent any kind of easy, misguided defiance or unsatisfying movements that appear to be happy-ending catharsis at work. Rather, I never feel that anything has resolved or become any neater or more digestible at the end of these poems; there are no clear lessons to the spectrum of events the book contains, you’ll find no gift-wrapped epiphanies carrying Capps’s speaker toward some kind of easier or clearer place. This isn’t to say the poems are bleak in their collective whole, but rather don’t seem to shy away from the recognition of uneasy endings or the uncomfortable ratio of bleakness-to-hope that life often forces anyone to deal with at times. Many of these poems feel to me like the aftermath of the paradoxical epiphany that there aren’t really any epiphanies, and the unwieldy realities remain to be dealt with in all their unglamorous concreteness.
What’s left then, it seems, is to survive, to make sense of things when you can and to accept that most things simply don’t feel into any shape. Dean Young says about this book that “Sometimes poetry is able to bring us the news of how people survive”, a fitting perspective that demands a deeper pondering than it might at first seem to because of its simplicity; if as I have stated the book doesn’t make gestures of tidy catharsis, what is left is the curation of life continuing on without the warmth of resolution or epiphany, and this is certainly a book seemingly overflowing with ideas relating to survivability, often in the literal, bodily sense, as in these lines from ‘Poem on the Occasion of My MRI’:
“I’ve begun tipping over
midsentence. Twice at dinner with my parents.
Once near the end of a blow job. He didn’t understand
what was happening. Go home, I stammered, to your wife.
Last week in front of my students, discussing ‘Dream Song: #9’.”
The poem then ends with these lines, highlighting ideas of mortality and aftermath, and above all else a resistance to clean, simplistic hope or answers that deny the mess and multi-faceted nature of the speaker’s reality:
“I speak to her still because she ends me tiny messages
from the grave, full of grief. My father smacked her
with a shovel after I said go ahead, she was drowning
on her own fluids. Try as I may, I cannot
picture my spine as a tube of loving light. I cannot
find the peace glowing like a flame or moon
in the forehead and then the chest. The next
scan will be fourteen minutes. I speak into the emergency
microphone: Please, set Ode to Joy at repeat.
This resistance to disappointing perspectives and their concluding comforts becomes clear in the poem ‘The Nearest Simile Is Respiration’ (to poetry), a piece that seems to most explicitly reveal what the speaker has come to as the nearest thing to a workable logic, to poetry as the mechanism of the kind of survival so many of the poems detail:
not to do me in. Proof I was more
than the season 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.”
“With you, I forgive my father’s notes
to NASA, the self-inflicted swastika tattoo,
my sister’s coked-up juggernaut cannonball
into the afterlife.
“I forgive the afterlife…”
What ends up working so well in this recognition is the way it feels so anti-epiphanic; there’s nothing sudden here, no flashes of realization or 180-degree turns that reveal the world as so much brighter or full of meaning; poetry isn’t given these divine, universal qualities nor is it endowed with a healing presence so much as it is perceived as giving a language, literally and literarily to the introspection that has delivered the entire range of events of the book. The forgiveness of Capps’s speaker might on some level be a healing act but before that can even be part of the discussion its most immediate agency must be seen as that of survival and communication, even only internally, of whatever has transpired, and none of it has the faux ignorance of unsatisfying, contrived revelations, but rather the same sense of complicated, on-going process as the life that has given Capps these events.
The creative act itself is the endowing force, giving to Capps the authority of instructing meaning, or presenting a philosophy of her own liking in place of the any of the ‘ruined’ ones she feels have failed her. In this gesture we see the only answer Capps has available to the worries of mortality and loneliness, meaning and personal history, and an answer that in similar ways feels courageous to me in its frankness, in saying that whether it’s favorable or its logics make sense to anyone else, it remains her pervading language, not a decision in, metaphorically, the same way we don’t choose to breathe, but the only language or mode of existence she feels is left to her.
This overarching statement feels more genuine than any other, with the book itself working as its own proof, an artifact of Capps’s parsing out deep discourses on the fallible nature of humanity, both her own and others, alongside more quotidian observations, sigils seen along the roadside of the grind of one day in front of the next.
In the book’s titular poem, the honesty of Capps’s skepticism doesn’t leave even poetry from its broadening gaze, the implication in contemplating her sister’s death by drug overdose being perhaps that like the destructive comfort of a drug, even poetry’s ascribing of meaning as a false, if comforting truth, perhaps a ruined philosophy as well even if the one she must rely on:
“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.”
Even if it feels that things end up in a kind of nihilism, there’s a lot to admire about that kind of acceptance–it bears repeating, the anti-epiphanic view–and more importantly I think a lot to admire in accepting that kind of relativity in meaning and language, the importance of whatever it is that gives one some kind of logic toward meaning, regardless of whether that logic might compute to anyone outside of your own head. Capps has handed us an astounding remnant of her internal work here, nothing of course that could resemble a whole product or record, but particular pieces of a kind of concentrated reflection on personal history, fear, death, and finding a way toward meaning, even if no objective meaning will ever make itself available; the power of this final idea is the heart of this book.