"Someone’s life was always an emergency," Ashley Capps warns us in her poem "Black Ice," and she is there to comment wryly and sadly as the ambulances arrive. In her debut collection, Capps takes on the idea of family history in a series of poems that feel expansive and brave, even when they only run ten to twelve lines. One of these briefer poems, "April," winds together with the lines “The future promises more / of the same. It is hard / to love people enough,” and we encounter these personal failures again and again, whether perpetrated by the speaker or by the transient married lovers, the fathers and mothers that arrive to "soak [their] head[s] in kerosene," to "lose it early down by the tracks."
But the collection doesn’t limit itself to cataloging human disappointment; Capps approaches her topic elliptically, describing always the dark space around the obvious action. In "Encore," Capps’s speaker follows a little black dog through a landscape of chalk outlines and "mauve clouds" before coming to a man who "clap[s] [her] once on the shoulder / & [says] Come in, it’s been / a disaster without you." In "River," Capps looks wonderingly for "enormous clams" and their left-behind "white wallets," for the "satellites of trash," before detouring abruptly into the mire of the personal:
...Look at me: fumbling
over details of her red hair, when
all I meant was to tell you something
about a fish, that hill, or the long blue
blade of dusk which has just begun
to enter the sky, and to punish us.
Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields occasionally veers into done-already territory: a pithy "Ars Poetica" is vivid but not particularly incisive, while "I Used to See Her in the Field Beside My House" takes on the subject of animal cruelty, a topic that seems too specifically political for Capps’s narrative. (I became interested in Capps’s work after reading "Spit and Image" in Boston Review, a poem that, in a dizzying, messianic way, attacks this same topic; she is deft with making art from the political, but that doesn’t seem to be the matter at hand in this collection.) However, these moments are few. In nearly all of these poems, Capps spins gold from the straw of the mundane: home stays in foreign countries, the bizarre, dehumanizing experience of the MRI ("I’m floating / this particular river / in a boat for one. // Voice over the water: / The next scan will be three-and-a-half-minutes..."), or my favorite in the collection, the occasion of "Reading an Ex-Lover’s First Novel." Here, Capps again plays sleight-of-hand, directing our eyes just past the tragedy, a magic act beautiful enough to quote in its entirety:
But I have a problem
with the way you describe the body
of the crab washed up that morning
as an orchid, as a music box, as
if it were intact, when in fact
the thing was pink chunks of meat
that floated away from each other,
blue broken pieces of shell on a gut string.
You saw it. You
that enormous claw, dangling
like a polite, ridiculous teacup.
March 4, 2011