“I heard a stranger call my name / and another stranger, laughing, answered,” Ashley Capps writes at the end of the first poem in her first book, Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields. Someone says your name—you hear it—and yet that someone doesn’t mean (or want) you: what could be more cruelly truthful, more impeccably strange?
In his “Actualism—A Manifesto,” Darrell Gray writes, “There is no room for alternate illusions. There is barely room for the table and bed.” This part of his proposal is structured—to my mind, anyway—like that old Groucho Marx joke: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” But if Groucho’s sentences make us leap from simile to satisfaction, Gray’s force us to consider simultaneously two spaces that are different and related, similar but not the same. In the first sentence, we find a physical figure for thought, and we’re told that one of the mind’s figments precludes the presence of another due to space limitations. In the second, we’re told of tight quarters in which both dreams and words might be made, and the room’s lack of room suggests an inevitable connection between the activities that take place in and at its furnishings.
The comedian makes us laugh; the poet makes us dizzy—the room of our minds and the room we have in mind aren’t an exact fit. There’s much fun in the chuckle that follows a pun, but the gap between Gray’s two sentences isn’t so easily and immediately filled. Thus, some combination of claustrophobia and vertigo sets in, and it’s as if the inability to escape the mind is the very condition that lets us lose it. Ashley Capps’s poems have the same hyperventilatory spin.
Let’s not mistake this effect for a lack of clarity or an absence of pleasure. As has been noted ad nauseum, Emily Dickinson is said to have said that poetry made her feel hopelessly cold and painfully scalped—I assume she wasn’t complaining. Capps’s poems constitute what Theodore Roethke called “[a] poetry of longing: not for escape, but for a greater reality.” Thankfully, they’re also often funny.
Elsewhere in his manifesto, Gray quotes Eugène Guillevic: “The problem is to do to things what light does to them.” Ashley Capps sees Guillevic’s point and raises him one—her poems do to things what hands do to them. With that—and them—in mind, I’d say they’re worth adoring.
An end in itself
flows into and out of
of the incident.
if and only if.
There is a cognitive agent.
There’s a kind of fish
people used to
add wicks to
and burn them for light.
I was walking down 5th St.
ventilation kicked up
and the tree
next to me
In the porcelain artist’s painting, the mistress
languishes behind a screen.
She receives her pain.
I sleep, eat, the egg slides over the pan,
the flyers say WE ARE SLAVES TO THE CAPITALISTS
or they say CARPET STEAMED 4 LESS;
it’s almost Christmas.
The light is gone by six o’clock.
I force narcissus in a bowl of shallow rocks.
On channel three, a teary Miss America is planting kisses
on the small bald heads at the children’s cancer ward.
Across the street, my neighbor’s yard blinks:
HAPPY! BIRTHDAY! BABY! JESUS!
like a blister on the season.
Have I even set the stage right?
Left/right back: two small windows, curtains drawn.
WINTER calls to SPRING:
Are we still going apple-picking today?
SPRING (a long pause):
I remember you . . . I think I do.
Dear God of Detachedness, I am separate.
God of the Sea, I adore the tide, its long milk mustache full of sparks.
And the moon so like a saltlick— we were sick once,
my sister and I;
all summer long we slept like tubers, back to back.
The long curtain blew in over the bed.
That house is gone now, all those lilacs,
and the bait shop where some kids beat a man to death
with rakes and shovels.
Someone’s life was always an emergency,
someone’s mother sobbing soaking her head in kerosene,
someone’s sister losing it early down by the tracks.
And Ace died of steroids,
and Daddy came home from the chicken farm one night,
saying, Nothing is funny.
After years, my lover would not leave his wife.
I drank enough wine to marry myself.
I was too drunk to carry me over the threshold;
punished the neighbor’s roses instead,
but he forgave me.
In a photograph of my father, there’s just a head
sticking out of the waves. The sun is white.
My mother always liked to say he was out to sea.
She liked to say that was what I inherited,
always being out to sea.
But you can tell it was shallow water.
I think he had lifted himself on his knees.
Everywhere, the ghost
wigs of dandelions,
everywhere the green
toothache of early spring.
are beating their horses,
and they wave at me
from the fields. All the girls
show their shoulders now.
The future promises more
of the same. It is hard
to love people enough.
Too big, that were
gunbright on her
is the question
again I have to
a sale is always
or shape &
the fire this time
is the fire last time
on the wall
if you will
how & why
as they do
and not otherwise
A dog peed on a Dog Rose.
The man with the dog: all his wounds had healed.
The dog wandered on, not getting the joke.
Could there be dog pee on another dog rose?
And could the man have lived a life less broken—
he looked at a puddle in which night was.
What I could have done but did not do, he thought.
Then he thought: what someone else could have done,
“Black Ice” and “April” originally appeared in Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields (University of Akron Press, 2006). Reprinted by permission of the author.