Victorian poet Ashley Capes has been a favourite of mine for quite some time now, beginning when I got a hold of a copy of his chapbook of haiku Orion Tips the Saucepan (2010) and his collection Pollen and the Storm (2008). With his second collection Stepping Over Seasons, he does not disappoint.
Capes’ work is distinguished by its searing honesty, uncharacteristic of contemporary Australian poetry, and any modern poetry for that matter, touching on themes of love, loss, death, marriage, struggles of living in rural Australia and the placement of the poet in the modern world.
As a poet, Capes does not attempt to dazzle or confuse with an elaborate use of pretentious wording that eliminates everyone but scholars, rather presenting a series of short poems that reminds us of poetry’s true purpose and paint a picture with skilful simplicity. It is no surprise that Mark William Jackson has stated Capes’ work “will appeal to both lovers of poetry and readers who have been burned by poetry in the past”.
The collection focuses on depicting “the finer details of life” with an emphasis on “change within people and places as seasons change”, creating a broad and powerful body of work.
Capes has the ability to create an evocative poem from something as simple as an object or place, such as his wedding ring in ‘other objects’:
my wedding ring is a plain silver
barrel band. same as dad’s, very modest
and very hard to keep smooth,
with scratches I can’t keep track of
and don’t want to hide. It’s no good pretending
There is something fresh about the feel of this poem, as with the entire collection, with a perspective only observed by the active creative mind. This is also demonstrated in the award winning ‘farm’, that explores the hardships of drought in small towns with a chilling use of metaphor:
dawn comes like someone embarrassed
to bring bad news, sunlight
very soft on weatherboard.
Perhaps the most moving and clearly relatable poems of all touch upon the darkness and hardship attached to the existence of a writer, such as ‘fujin’s bag’ and ‘late night’. ‘Late night’ discusses the limitations placed upon the artist in poetry with only words to produce an emotion or image. ‘Fujin’s bag’ reflects on the displacement of the poet in the modern world while he sits at a desk writing late into the night, calling upon the happenings around him while still confined to the page:
to the desk, blinking
back sleep, convincing
that all this
darkness is necessary.
Personally the greatest triumph in the collection is one of the longer pieces ‘on the road’, that centres on the idea of death as a possibility in day to day routine when driving, and that the bustle of existence and force of habit eliminates thought:
you don’t think about
yourself just behind the glass
in the supposed repose of the white sheet,
belongings in a plastic bag:
one that’s somehow meant to sum you up
or give comfort to loved ones.
This poem also analyses the footprint that is left by the dead, how disposable a life seems to those not personally involved, and the realization that death is an inevitability.
Even when Capes is discussing darker topics such as a lifeless, empty town in ‘small town’, he manages to create and capture atmosphere with masterful simplicity and beauty:
marks on the footpath
don’t fade and the cemetery
never shrinks, only the town around it.
Capes’ output is truly remarkable, publishing high-calibre work consistently in almost every good lit journal in the country and I would go as far as to say this is his best release yet, and one of the best books of Australian poetry I’ve read in quite some time.
Simply put, this is a wonderful collection of astounding work that was recognized with a Commended Award in the 2009 IP Picks Best Poetry Competition that joins Capes’ other poetic achievements for individual pieces, such as commendations in the 2008 MPU Poetry Competition, the 2009 Rosemary Dobson Prize and a prize in the 2008 Ipswich Poetry Feast Open Poetry Section.
For me, at least, this is a book that demands to be read again and again. I look forward to more work from Ashley Capes, who stands up with the best as one of Australia’s finest contemporary poets.
– Robbie Coburn
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.
– Patricia Prime, Another Lost Shark