A Review of Intrusive Beauty by Joseph J. Capista (Ohio University Press, 2019)
The title of Joseph J. Capista’s Intrusive Beauty, is contained in the poem “Entreaty,” which appears late in the book. Here, the speaker directly addresses multiple crocuses that have appeared in the yard. The blossoms are referred to as “shards”; they are sharp, not, as one would expect, soft and delicate. The speaker (poet) asks who would not tire of these invasive blooms? In other words, he does tire of them, and if we do not tire, we might be a bit dull, a little too easy to please. He then says that, as a child, he “loved” a (presumably outdoor) wall that contained pieces of bottle glass. The colors of the glass came out only when the sun was low in the sky. The beauty of these shards wasn’t easy to see:
Crocuses, go away.
Purple shards purple the yard, shards of yellow yellow it.
Who tires not of such intrusive beauty?
Keep, I say, keep your anthers to yourselves. Your audacity.
As a child, I loved the wall whose copping was a mass
Of broken bottle glass: green, brown, blue
And only in the lowest sun illumined
The poem ends with the statement that these pieces of glass could not cut a careless person, because “any laceration required something broken / broken again.” I read this to mean that the glass is not sharp (like those flowers); it is cemented or embedded in the wall. The glass would need to be broken once more to slice the skin.
Beauty, whether intrusive or not, is a theme that runs throughout this book, which won the most recent Hollis Summers Poetry Prize (named for a poet who taught at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio). Consider “The Beautiful Things of the Earth Become More Dear as They Elude Pursuit.” This poem, composed in villanelle form, ostensibly is about surfing, with clear descriptions of cresting waves, sea foam, and sunlit drops of water. But on another level it’s about the search for beauty and the need to bring a greater amount of beauty to the words before us. The poem’s last stanza, a quatrain, reads:
“Your poem,” said Danny, “Needs more beauty. More.”
I paddle, touch the water to touch sun.
Another wave rolls over me before
I’m lifted, held, I’m sung right back to shore.
“Danny” (who, according to the book’s Notes, is the poet and educator Daniel Anderson), asks for more beauty: It is necessary. And I believe the poem delivers. The last two lines, repeated throughout the poem, suggest the idea of sinking in a trough, then rising to a crest. The speaker doesn’t ride to shore, he is “sung” back, in the manner of the villanelle’s music and dance.
The book’s short middle section, consisting of four substantial poems, is set in group homes for adolescents in a semi-wilderness area. One of these young people has been sent to a home because he took a loaned shotgun, meant for sport, and used it to hold up a food-delivery person. The shelters apparently are in Montana, and the speaker (poet) traveled there on a sort of mission, for a “year-long stint / as proxy-Jesuit,” as he states in “Johnny’s Father Enters the Shelter Unannounced to Repo His Adjudicated Son.” The speaker’s job is to try, in place of a parent, to help these confined young people by teaching them something about legal behavior and life. He himself doesn’t know whether he is in over his head or not. He writes that he is “unsure whether I am caught or I am saved.” In any case, these poems ring true to me because I grew up in northern Appalachia and knew a few desperate kids, like the ones described.
Elsewhere in the book, Capista shows he can see vividly through the eyes of a child. In “A Child Bird-Scarer,” based in an illustration in a book called Life in Victorian England, the poet (in the persona of a six-year-old child) tells what it’s like to have a job frightening birds away from seeds sown in fields. (We tend to forget that children worked at strenuous jobs in Victorian England.) As he performs his task, this (presumed) boy also feels a touch of meanness as he attacks birds with his stick:
Sometimes a cruelty rose in me
I could not tell apart from all
I pitched at them. The stick I clutched
has doubled now in length. The tin
Later in the poem, the child moves from bird scaring to hay baling, and realizes, as he lies on a pile of straw (perhaps his bed for the night) that the birds, out of range, will forget him. Again, after reading this poem, I feel I know this boy.
Capista is equally empathetic when he writes about his own family, his “dizzy toddler spinner” grooving to softer music (“On Music”), the partner (spouse/wife?) whose safety he tries to ensure with a kitschy “talisman” (“Cornicello”) hanging from a car’s rearview mirror. Throughout these carefully constructed, musically inclined poems, the poet brings us into a world, not only of intrusive beauty, but also of nonintrusive beauty.