As a new mother hungry for poetry about motherhood (especially the struggles inherent in it), I found Joseph J. Capista’s debut collection satisfying and refreshing in large part because his poems are saturated with his complicated and verisimilar experiences as a father. Capista's poem “40” situates us, like the opening of Dante's Divine Comedy, in the middle of life, and indeed, we learn, of lives: "of life and lives I have, for hours, read by lamplight." As the speaker wanders in the wilderness of his attic, he sees sycamore bark from the windows and observes, "I know children will wear this bark as armlets / as they did last year". This is one of many lines in the poem that insists on the interchangeability of the days, years, and moments that comprise a life, even as the title indicates the importance of this moment and the act of composing a poem itself arrests time to subject it to philosophical and aesthetic scrutiny. When Capista concludes the poem, “If I descend the attic stairs, I suddenly become a father”, it is not the first moment in the book where family and the quotidian cares of a middle-class parent/partner emerge, but it is the moment when I knew I was reading poems by someone whose experience of those cares, and whose relationship with his own, at times contradictory identities, resonated with my own. Until I read this line, I had barely considered that other mothers experienced such moments of brief dissociation and split-identity amidst what feels like the swirl of time's contradictory redundance and heterogeneity; finding myself reading a father experiencing that was a powerful moment of connection across the imaginative space of this book.
Capista’s choice to write about unglamorous aspects of his life is consistently surprising and offers multiple opportunities for readers to connect with his poems’ narratives and the philosophical predicaments he uses those narratives to explore. “Thirtysomething Blues” is a poem that engages attachment to material possessions in a way that doesn’t spare its speaker at all. His younger self is an object of casual reproach, “To do without at twenty-two was ‘in’…we sought: the chance / of sloughing all we never meant to own.” In the poem’s present, the speaker acknowledges, without celebration or apology, an ongoing quest to accumulate: “The job, car loan, the mortgage on the house: / the things we need are things, not dreams but plans.” The poem ends, “to have not stings”, situating the poem firmly on the earth, and in the mire of human striving for what, the poem is very much aware, does not transcend our mortal preoccupations. How unusual to read a poem that, within a prolonged examination of the spiritual question of attachment, affirms and defends the need for things. A poet more blind to his privilege would end in the music of the spheres, or at least with his ear cocked in that direction. Capista instead reminds us of suffering: the signature characteristic of this transitory life.
In the beautiful and daring poem, “Devotional of Daily Apprehension,” Capista writes “through unclouded air I worry about what others might / perceive as my growing incapacity to love the world.” Loving the world is a theme that recurs in Instrusive Beauty, and gets at the proletariat heart of these poems: how the artist self can survive in a world that demands ceaseless toil for bread alongside constant refutations to one’s inner sense of justice. The ending of this poem, “these swallows how they ache supreme in flight” harkens Baudelaire’s poet in “The Albatross” who “cannot walk because of his great wings.” Though not dwelling more than necessary in sensory ugliness, and, as the title indicates, interested in beauty so powerful it cannot be kept in place, nevertheless Capista is firmly in a Baudelarian tradition of not turning away from the unpleasant, even when it indicts the speaker. As Baudelaire did in “The Eyes of the Poor,” Capista’s speaker frequently sees himself behind the glass that children hunger through, even as he struggles to make ends meet.
In its unsual and honest way, this is a book for the working class: many of Capista’s poems recall the speaker’s experience working with vulnerable communities, and the comparatively bourgeois present of the poems details an academic slog that many readers of poetry will recognize from their own experience as adjunct faculty in entry-level classes, and which is starkly absent from the work of more established poets, many of whom became tenured before universities and colleges across the country began their slide towards benefitless, semester-by-semester faculties. Capista is a bard of freshman composition. In his poems of the classroom, his speaker is relentlessly portrayed as an out-of-touch dreamer at once seeing his students and blind to them, writing a language they don’t understand, prone to failing them as an educator even as he is empathetic to their strengths, histories, and tragedies. Poetry of the classroom tends so often to be about magical transformations, a log of the poet’s pedagogical successes, and the classroom itself (usually a creative writing workshop) locates firmly within a rarefied academic environment. Capista narrates, instead, the woebegone struggle to actually educate regular people in required courses. In “Malaprops”, the speaker mediates on Hailey, a student with a tragic personal history that caused her severe disabilities. The speaker juxtaposes his own and Hailey’s physical realities, “I have two hands; Hailey none” and reflects on the gulf between the way she speaks and the acts she can perform, “I heard her warn / a classmate ‘I will slap // you.’ Slap: ‘To hit someone or something with the palm.’” To this weave of cognitive dissonance Capista adds the speaker’s notes in the margins of Hailey’s essay: esoteric comments few if any freshman could derive benefit from: “I don’t believe in signs // like these…which reduce / our world to mimicry.” When the poem concludes with Hailey’s response, “She asks me what the hell / I wrote’s supposed to say / then what the hell it means”, we see the extent to which the physical and communicative disabilities attributed to Hailey are in fact the handicaps of the speaker, who cannot use his hands to write (clearly) and who fails to make himself understood, or to write something worthwhile for his audience. Though the type of classroom described in this poem, and the kind of failures Capista narrates, must be common locations and experiences for readers of poetry, I have yet to read a poet who matches Capista’s audacity in admitting how we struggle or the ill-fit so many artists experience when we attempt the difficult work of teaching young people to read and write.
As is often the case in a first book, in this collection Capista turns his hand to more themes and formal experiments than I have managed to touch upon here. He engages history and geography, especially the city of Baltimore, and a number of people’s personal stories serve as microcosms elucidating his stance as a proponent of social justice. The book can fairly be called a formal book: Capista often uses repeated lines, regular meter and end rhyme skillfully. But for this reviewer, it was the philosophical perspective of these poems, the admitted obsessions, the candor about failure at the things I think I fail at, that fascinate and linger. This book is powerful in the humility it strikes as it bears withness to the often underwhelming and still splendid life of an artist. I see myself everywhere in its breath.
Intrusive Beauty by Joseph J. Capista. Ohio University Press, Hollis Summers Poetry Prize, 2019.