Sunday, 18 August 2013

'Between Giants' - A must for your bookshelf

Everyone should have a contemporary poet to follow. Sure, many people know the classics - Wordsworth, Blake, Yeats. Some can even rattle off a verse or two, but how many of us can recite a list of contemporary poets, or even one?

Ashley Capes is a contemporary Australian poet whose poems vacillate between making you question the world and marvelling in its details.  His latest work Between Giants contains 49 poems that, to me, seem inspired by ancient Italy and modern Australia.

Over recent weeks I have picked up the book and opened to a random page.  More often than not the poems have caused me to stop and think. They compel me to consider things I normally don't 'see', or to simply appreciate a mood or a feeling. Shelley famously said that "poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted." For Between Giants the poetry is a mirror that prompts you to glean some meaning about the world, but I think every reader will see something different, and it's not necessarily "beautiful". Don't get me wrong though, there is certainly beauty to appreciate in this work - particularly with the simplicity yet weight of meaning within the words.

There were 'things' that really caught me. I'm wary of labeling these 'things' for fear of reducing them to something that perhaps they are not. You might call them 'themes' or 'topics' or 'thoughts', but I like to call them things.

Things we all recognise

Moments are captured in detail that all readers will instantly recognise. I love the first poem Transitions and its portrait of an airport. In a few lines I was nodding, smiling and then wondering about this strange structure, shared by so many cultures but yet so homogeneous in its 'feel'. Capes remembers for all of us that in airports "we are sitting and eavesdropping through no fault of our own". We all recognise this place where "announcements are goddess-like" and "hands get shopping bag fatigue". The quip "voices travel - we should be envious" had me smiling - recalling my own memories of the tedious wait for the plane in uncomfortable chairs.  The last line got me really thinking "everything is duty free".

With Birds still talking I felt invited to smile at another moment. This one much 'smaller' and more like a passing mood. For me, this poem is about the simple visit to the letter box and the joy this can bring when the weather gives us a glimpse of summer, when despite the "sun pedalling downhill" the "birds are still talking". How such simple, natural 'things' give us "hope".


That word, 'suburbia' connotes mostly negative stuff in my mind. But Capes delivers a picture of it without prejudice. So, in 'Things without Beds' we stroll along footpaths and watch "lights from lounge rooms leak onto front lawns" - snapshots of an Australian suburb on a dusk walk home.  Although, like Bradbury or Kafka, something alarming lurks in the shadows.

One of the townsfolk is one of my favourites. The title conjures notions of community spirit but such ideals are quickly unsettled by the "fishbowl dance" of most suburban households when the TV remote calls to us - "its patience like an old, desert stone waiting for rain". Many of us will 'feel' the guilt in this poem and wonder with the narrator "what the television gives me".

Narrow beds shows us pictures of our shopping strips and business centres where behind the "registers beeping and clicking" the "summer flowers linger". We see the narrow flower beds squeezed but surviving "between heroic volumes of tar". With allusions to the seasons, I enjoyed the tension this poem drew between natural and urban settings.

Past vs present

That contrast we feel, between the grand narrative of the past and the oh-so-ordinary present, is also something I chewed my lip about.  In Vesuvius sleeping we struggle through the hot hotel with flies who "batted their drowsy heads against the glass". Such ordinary images are positioned starkly against Pompeii of all places, with its "deep wagon ruts". But, what he also does, is to give us a glimpse of the 'less-than-romantic' within such classical eras -  "the stone brothel" of Pompeii - so clever!

Mythical begins with:

Over a hundred years or more
shops and gelatin
have crept close to the Trevi Fountain

It goes on to speak about the tourists and "the gaping mouths of hundreds" at the Sistine Chapel to -

to Saint Peter's Square
where we shoot
the requisite photos

Ultimately, against a backdrop of classical history, this poem makes you contrast the "millions of 1s and 0s" of mass modern tourism with the 'true' intimacy of "two people in the sun beside a fountain".


Speaking of intimacy, I've always enjoyed Capes' willingness to share how those intimate memories feel. It's another thing that, as long as you're human, we can all tap into. Hutchi street had me at "when we're apart". I read this poem when I was experiencing some time apart from my own partner (we were in the midst of moving towns) and it caused some serious eye-welling. This poem brings back those lovely moments of blossoming love (sniff).

The poetry in Between Giants is, more than anything, truthful. Its imagery reflects pictures of reality to us, but just like a mirror, we will interpret that 'truth' according to our own experiences.  I loved the moments of reflection, appreciation and questioning that this book gave me.  I recommend this work and this poet to anyone interested in reading and life. I hope that the promise proffered in a table set for thousands, rings true:

"I will keep sucking poetry out of small things"

We hope so Ashley, we hope so!

Between Giants is available here.


  1. Great post, Aderyn! I enjoy Ashley Capes' poetry a great deal.

  2. Donna, wow - thank you for the amazing review!
    I feel very lucky to be able to see my work through another's eyes.