Stepping Over Seasons, Ashley Capes. Interactive Press, Queensland, Australia. 2009. 64 pp. ISBN: 978-1-921479-32-8. AUS$25.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime
In his latest collection of poetry Ashley Capes mines the quotidian. The seasons play an important part in the life of the poet as he moves from “no whispers to quicken fruit” (“dawn”) through the “sagging tent ropes” of “slow moon” to “these / people and their autumn-house hold together” in “autumn-house.” Detailing the typical emotional routines of life today – marriage, home, a bus ride, a farm, the small town, the intersections and intrusions of the issues of the day, and the occasional time for thoughts about nature, death and God, Capes explores the links between nature and human nature. He typically writes simple one- or two-page poems with little or no punctuation. His introspective moments are triggered by rain, the moon, mushrooms, night, sunrise, butterflies, an echidna, autumn, grass seeds, and particularly small town life.
His style, not surprisingly, is lean, employing one-paragraph poems, or poems with short stanzas. Within these parameters Capes is good at what he does, while a few poems step outside his normal range: the surreal longer poem “leaking,” for example, or the clever poem “on the road,” contrasting the narrative of driving with the thoughts of what would happen “if they found your body.” And Capes’ issue poems, few in number but well-constructed, include the poem about the act of writing “take five,” and “black comedy” where the focus is on death:
or will I, in fact, be able
to laugh at my body as it’s lowered into a hole,
for some reason
in a suit in a box with
a pillow and my teeth probably
very clean and maybe
in case wherever I’m going
I’d need a great smile?
Much more representative is “overlook,” regarding great poets, who “romanticize their towns” contrasted with Capes’ home,
with street corners and marigolds
painted in vomit
cigars, puffing second-hand
smoke into the sky
three inland surf shops
dozens of bars, six fast-food chains
and one theatre
Capes lives in the world: “from the river / the echo of our fishing trips / and dark lines / polishing the shore.” (“tar and white paint”).
Capes’ language with all its sensuousness is the language of spontaneous overflow. Factuality goes along with the feelings and the emotions and there is an evident sobriety present in the poems. He builds his verses, several with headlong continuity and fitting compactly phrase to phrase and line to line, so that his poems present an overall visual impression of clarity. This solidarity is an aspect of sensibility. Capes is perfectly aware of the fleeting nature of experience, yet equally aware of its reality. So he takes things as they come: savours them, ponders them, feels them and fixes them in durable verse, as we see in “bitches brew”:
once, at the gate,
bragging about loneliness
he made a bow out of blue ribbon
and hung it above her headstone
murmuring to the wind.
In this particular passage the final effect is aesthetic prompted by stylization of the persona and the image of the headstone in the final line. Characteristically Capes exemplifies an acceptance of the whole of life, of his own humility – toughly, zestfully, serenely. In the first part of the two-part poem “botanic,” he writes about the park “full of photographers” and also full of readers, ibis, people and a “Chinese couple / posing for wedding photos.” But beyond this tranquil scene lies the city with its sirens, streets humming with threats and the casino. His equity is in simply being alive to the sights and sounds that surround him.
Capes’ poetry is, in fact, as eminently social as it is personal. It registers with a touch of irony the people at a hotel pool: “a man opens a window / grunt riding / beads of sweat down his chin” (“royal on the park”). The poem “by the curve” records with humour the man waiting for a loved one to return:
a teacup sits on the sink
inside, imagined marks
where you held it,
not by the handle
but by the curve, to fit a palm
aching from winter
The final poem “the jacket” offers an arresting image of “a filthy spring jacket” left lying on a chair which the reader feels must be of importance to the poet for
in the jacket
you linger in traces
and I rake them with my hands
collect every scent.
Here is a poet who writes with immense clarity and real verbal music on the main themes of life – love, loss and death – with humour and sensitivity.