Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields

Last week, my professor, David, suggested that I pick up Ashley Capps and read through some of her work.  So, I borrowed her book from a friend of mine and started reading.  He wanted me to see how she structured her work.  At least, I think he did.  I couldn’t remember why he wanted me to read her when I started, but what I took out of it was how she structured her work.  There were several pieces that had phrases or words that I really enjoyed, but the one I like best so far is Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields, from her book of the same name.


Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields


Ophelia, when she died,

lay in the water like the river’s bride, all pale

and stark and beautiful against the somber rocks,

her hair an endless golden ceremony.

She made the water sing for her; it flowed

over her folded arms.


Not so my father’s sister Karen,

swollen in a day-old tub of water

when they found her,

needle tucked into the fold of her arm,

her last thing: a wing.

So everything went as nameless as the men

who lifted her naked from the tub,

or those who rolled her

into the mouth of the furnace,

which is what you get

when you don’t get a service,

when your mother’s years of grief turn

into last rage: I won’t pay for it.

Leave me out of this.


And even though they finally said

it wasn’t suicide; a mistake—

no one knew what to do

with all of that anger,

or in the end how not to blame her.


Even now, in her unmarked container.


People once believed a deeper reason, some dark secret

motivation to the way the lemmings threw themselves

en masse into the sea. Were they weary

of their lives; could they, too, despair?

Or like those second-vessel swine

when Jesus exorcised two babbling men of their demons,

driving the demons through a pack of bewildered hogs–

the way they plunged?


The truth we know now: they leave when food is scarce,

when they’ve grown too many;

believe the roads they follow

lead to new meadows, a place to start over.

I think of Karen, feeding

and feeding her veins, how it is possible

she saw all of us suddenly there–miraculous

and festive on some bright and other shore,

like the life she had been swimming toward

all along, trying to get right.


Like those sailors long ago,

that tropical disease, calenture

when, far from everything they knew,

men grew sometimes delirious

and mistook the waving sea for green fields.

Rejoicing, they leapt overboard,

and so were lost forever,

even though they thought it was real, though

they thought they were going home.


So many things I love about this piece.  For starters, I happen to be reading Hamlet.  I guess that gives me an extra appreciation for her Ophelia reference.  I love the way she pairs that image with the accidental overdose of her aunt.  I was also touched by the anger that you can’t get rid of, even when you know you should.  It’s the beautiful/pathetic.  Ophelia’s death was suicide, not accident, and her songs were a manifestation of her madness.  Not to say there cannot be beauty within madness, and there is a sense of serenity for Ophelia.  In fact, her suicide is one of her greatest acts, in my opinion, because she was finally allowed to act with her own agency without being punished for it.  And then there is Karen.  How sad for this woman, shooting up…maybe to avoid being alone.  And then no one finds her until a day later, when her body has bloated from her decomposition.  The saddest thing about her is the anger she didn’t deserve and the forgiveness she will never receive even though she shouldn’t need it.  They make an interesting pairing.  And yet, Karen becomes almost beautiful at the end of the poem, seeing the life she always tried to have shimmering before her mirage-like.  Maybe she pushed the needle too far trying to get back home.


2 comments on “Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields

  1. Pamla says:

    Erin, I have never understood poetry. Not until now. You have somehow made it make sense to me. You have introduced me to something very beautiful and very raw. Not only do I love what you have written, but from the works you have shared, I am beginning to see the world more poetically, if that makes any sense. Where I would look to the stars and sit in awe of their beauty and magnificence, I am now able to describe the history I am witnessing, traveling thru time without moving my feet. Thank you Erin. I really mean that. You say you want to reach people with your writing… please know you have done more for me than you realize. I love you Baby Girl.


    • erinrbritt says:

      I’m so glad you’re fostering an appreciation for poetry. You won’t always like everything you find, and you might not always understand it. That’s ok, though, because not all poetry is meant to be understood right away. You’ll read something, and then some day you will experience something that will bring that poem to mind and it will all make sense. The more you read it, the more you’ll get out of it. And I love you, too, Mama.


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