James Shea takes us on a mysterious quest, by foot and by car, through rain and through fire, into our restless unknowing, where unreasonable questions that refer to a lost text of spiritual and material imperative—the missing bible of this spare universe—undermine and trouble our impossible pilgrim’s progress

James Shea, The Lost Novel, Fence Books, 2014.

James Shea’s first book Star in the Eye won the Fence Modern Poets Series, and garnered widespread acclaim with rave reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, Boston Review, Colorado Review, and the Chicago Sun-Times, which named it a “Favorite Book of the Year” (2008). His follow-up, The Lost Novel, comes on the heels of that praise and the anticipation that’s been building since his stunning debut.

“Equal parts deep trouble and heavy pleasure, The Lost Novel is make-up that gets its real on at the ever-breaking mirror we call the world. Lo and behold: James Shea is the James Shea of poetry.” – Graham Foust

“Though “There’s really no dimension / to what we should know,” Shea’s peripatetic second collection, The Lost Novel, takes us on a mysterious quest, by foot and by car, through rain and through fire, into our restless unknowing, where unreasonable questions that refer to a lost text of spiritual and material imperative—the missing bible of this spare universe—undermine and trouble our impossible pilgrim’s progress. How shall we proceed? And how will we know if we have succeeded? These poems are full of subtle longing even as they elegize the unnamable: “What are your names,” asks Shea, “I want to report you.” “If / there could be / a monument to / the journey we / took it would / have to be grand / and quiet and / shabby and wear- / ing thin of its paint / with another monument / showing through.” The Lost Novel is that sadly beautiful monument, and The Lost Novel is that beautifully sad journey.” – Robyn Schiff

There’s a certain type of poetry that orbits around an on-going absence, giving the reader the sense of ghostly not-there-ness with images that are all the more vivid for the emptiness around them: trees, lone houses on wind-swept beaches, blackbirds among twenty snowy mountains. But this absence isn’t necessarily premised on loss. Rather, the absence can sometimes be based on a restraint that’s all the more mysterious for being so exact. If the poets of absence were on a sort of scale of formalistic experimentation, Wallace Stevens might be at one end and John Cage at the other. Strand and Lauterbach and Ashbery and Palmer would fall somewhere between them. And James Shea would have to be in that number, too. His brilliant new book, The Lost Novel, is haunted by absence in the way other collections are haunted by memory.
The first line in the first poem (“Thinking of Work”) emphasizes a brushing back, an act of clearance: “A brief storm / blew the earth clean.” It’s an appropriate line for a book that often seems to take place in an aftermath, placing the calmness after the storm and not before. Yet the poem is not an ode to this cleansed earth, but rather about how to carry on post-storm: “There was much / to do: sun to put up, / clouds to put out, / blue to install…” And this response — this nature shaping and re-shaping — is emblematic of the collection. For all of Shea’s close attention to the natural world, to the intricate details of leaves and “cloud-shaped stones,” his poems are less about a cohesive organic world and more about the aesthetics of nature. In “New & Selected,” he writes, “Best to begin loving someone / in the late fall or winter, when / nature will not outshine you.” Nature in both this poem and “Thinking of Work” is seen almost as a stage set, a phenomena that might “outshine” its actors.
This highly aesthetic approach to nature is often seen in the poetry of absence. If nature isn’t a plenitude, then each image becomes not a marker of truth (spiritual or otherwise), but simply a sign, and the natural world itself becomes “an empire of signs” (to use Barthes’ phrase in a very different context). There are moments in the collection where this act of reading signs is explicit. In “The Phrase You Gave Me,” Shea writes, “I remember almost / nothing of what I’ve written, except / that it begins thusly: Crows seal the sky. / They speak of their suffering in long, distant sentences.” But usually the reading is implicit. In “Supervenience,” he writes, “Dusk approaches, wild geese overhead. / The mind can build upon the brain.” As the above lines suggest, Shea, like Stevens, is fascinated by all kinds of art-making, both literal and metaphorical, and, also like Stevens, he is drawn toward the paradoxes of this making. In “Poem By Tolstoy,” the poet writes, “For ten years or so I haven’t had such a wealth of images and ideas as these last three days. I can’t write, they are so abundant.”
The title itself hints at absence, too, though in this case it’s an actual loss: the lost novel. Is the novel “lost” as in left behind somewhere, and cannot be found? Or lost in the sense of the writer having lost the thread of the novel and therefore not being able to complete it? Or is the title meant to be literal, with “lost” being the theme of the book? (Of course, the fact this is a poetry collection and not a novel seems to also be at play — as if this “novel” is so lost it can no longer even be rendered or described in prose, and instead is referred to in a different form, marking yet another degree of separation.) All of these questions are implied by the title, and in the title poem itself.
There are nine sections in “The Lost Novel.” The first lines are addressed to an ambiguous “you” that might be the novel itself. “I wrote you once for years. / I called you many names.” Not “I wrote to you” but “I wrote you”: implying that for the speaker the novel has be transformed, anthropomorphized. The following section gives us some of the names/titles: “Party of One. Sexy / Hypothesis. Miss Bliss. / The Instrumentalist.” Because this is a lost novel, there is no final name/title, only a list of possible ones. The next sections pick up on this fragmentation. In section four, the poet says, “Some chapters just sketched out, others quite filled in.” And later, in section six: “Chapters 6, 7, 8: / Develop character!”
Despite the injunctions, these fix-it notes to self, you begin to think that this novel — like a modern project grounded in its own failure and/or incompletion (Beckett and Kafka come to mind) — is a work that cannot be completed, that houses its own missing parts within itself. As the poet writes near the end, “I still have all my notes,” suggesting that though these notes will never lead to a completed novel, they continue to hold promise, the “still” being a wager against the impossible. - James Pate

Lyrical Intervention

These are not-great poems.
These are mistakes of a serious nature. 

The absence of a cut is not healing,
healing is the mending of a cut. 

There’s a name for what we held
together through those early years.  

Now one may trace our whereabouts
all over the rooms of the earth.   

Things are not easy. They are difficult,
especially in the run that lasts the longest. 

Did we want always to be loved despite
our faults, or because of our faults? 

I’m not sure what to make of the facts.
They may not even be facts at all.

James Shea, Star in the Eye, Fence Books, 2008.

Winner of the Fence Modern Poets Series
“The speaker of Star in the Eye is wide-awake in a dreamscape, navigating an illustrated netherworld where the ‘Plane’s Controls Come Off in My Hands’ and a love affair can be distilled into the titles of unwritten haikus—all in the same poem. Again and again James Shea brings us to the edge of the unknown and points into the darkness, until our eyes adjust and we see that he is pointing at himself, already there. These poems make me wish I had the same dreams Shea has, and after reading this book it seems possible—anything does.” —Nick Flynn

“With a simplicity of phrasing, directness of address, and nimble first-mindedness, the poems in Star in the Eye convey great depth, zest, and mystery. Their brevity is anathema to fragmentation; instead playfully and mordantly, they honor ‘what will suffice,’ as Stevens says, with a calligraphic precision and flair. If anyone could cut a diamond with a paintbrush, it would be James Shea—his work is so marvelous; utterly lucent and revivifyingly strange.” —Dean Young

Turning and Running
The sun was backing away from me,
slowly, like one I have betrayed.
So I ran to the river to burn in it.
And they blocked the road with ambulances.
They gave me surgery on my mouth.
My eyes were packed with feathers,
and my whole face was painted flat.
An expert told me I was probably a joke.
There were at least four things
I should have said. Do not step on the rug
with the live birds sewn into it.
I am Kumi. This is Ken.
Is this your bag? Is that
a school? You are Tarō.
Are you Emiko? What is this?
I play shōgi. I do not like
tempura. Do you play the piano?
Is this a pen or a pencil?
What do you play? I have
many books. Clean your room.
Don’t use a pen. Let’s play tennis.
This yukata is beautiful.
These are eggs. Those are eggs.
Who is that girl? This is
my bike. That is my father’s bike.
Whose pen is this? I know Billy.
I like him. I know Ann.
I like her. They like Ann.
She likes them. Where is Pat?
I can speak English. I can’t swim.
Can you swim? Yes, I can.
No, I can’t. Which do you speak,
English or Japanese? Billy is playing
tennis. Is Ann playing tennis?
What time is it? Did you write poems?
Yes, I did. No, I didn’t.

James Shea’s first collection, Star in the Eye, winner of the Fence Modern Poets Series competition, is a strangely beautiful, strongly unified collection. Inspired by the brief, witty lines of the Japanese haiku, the book’s most distinctive formal strategy is the juxtaposition of short sentences (often one-sentence lines) that forces the elision of connective, cause-and-effect conjunctions: “There is no rhetoric of a storm. // There will be a way to explain what I am saying.” Things simply happen next to each other, their relation often hinted at but seldom made explicit. Shea balances this storyless, centerless process, this squall of simultaneous but isolated raindrops, against the drive to communicate, to find “a way to explain.” As in Japanese haibun, which blends prose and haiku, those parts of life that don’t fit into the austerity of Shea’s tiny, exquisitely crafted lines spill out into more narrative, expressive poetic forms. One example is his poem “Haiku,” actually an extension of the tradition of explanatory haiku titling, which lists prospective titles to nonexistent poems: “Upon Looking Past You / into the Mattress, into the Faces of Prior Lovers.” Mainly, however, Star in the Eye travels: back and forth through themes of love and death, and unpredictably through personalities, projected faces, and tones. In “Short Short,” Shea writes, “Love consists mostly of timing / and cleanliness. (I made that up!),” twisting from a Larkinesque, sardonic disillusionment to an almost childlike glee in the space of a parenthesis. One of its most fascinating travels is between Japanese and American ideas of the individual: although deeply convinced, in Daoist fashion, that we must avoid the construction of a pat, sayable “single-way of being,” the book succeeds, even from transit, even from nowhere, in founding a self and voice with which it reaches for us and, on its own terms, reaches us. “The fog made certain things, / feelings clearer. You spelled a word on my thigh,” Shea writes in “Two-Way Exit.” “I spoke to you then, so I could speak / to you now: we didn’t exist for an instant.” - Nick Admussen

Star in the Eye is true to itself and to the heavier emotions that stem from awkwardness, transition, rejection, resignation, lost time and memory. Recent winner of The Fence Modern Poets Series, it is easy to understand why this one was chosen among its stealthy competition. James Shea's thoughts are carefully constructed so that they become valuable to anyone, not just devoted poetry followers or even those who craft words themselves. Certain lines are so effectual and familiar -- especially to those who question every iota, including their own flecks in and of the world -- that Shea lets them stand alone: “Here, place me wherever.” Perhaps more guarded than their surrounding clusters, perhaps not, lines such as this one press the reader to denounce previous conclusions or reject the roles of others around them. Or: maybe this line refers to the collective sentiment of our spent generation... taking whatever job or role we can. There's little room to be picky in an era similar to last century's stifling Depression; there's little room left after excessive technological spews, media binges, flagrant consumerism.
Thirty-one sensitive poems ranging from the unassuming “Poem” ("I was sad I was not the young boy who passed me each day the way water carries a ship...") to the morose, filmic vignettes of “Dream Trial” often require a double-take:
The stagecoach resembles a teahouse
in which I've fallen asleep. The stagecoach
overturned in the canyon. Horses on their sides
crying out. Echoing back and forth inside the ravine.
Morning but the sun is not out.
The driver dead. A little girl survives.
She's not sure where to go. She doesn't know the canyon.
She stays near the body. Charged with questions.

I burn my house and mostly
the people in it. Others watch
so I pass the matches around.

Not strictly subjective but not objective either, these creative islands float in between two states, somewhat ubiquitous. Words push and tug the reader, just as much as they might have yanked the original one experiencing a moment ("I can't imagine anything anymore. I feel like there are cameras on me, clicking while I eat and sleep"). Can any of us imagine living in an uninvaded milieu today? Who manages to escape self-consciousness and surveillance, and if so, how? Is it difficult to accept that the notion of a genius or harbinger of uncharted originality is now obsolete? But Shea emphasizes in “Stoic Wreck,” Ideally, you want to become shoreless. Talent or no talent, most of us struggle to be part of something larger than ourselves, while simultaneously wishing to be left alone.
Many of Shea's lines are sharpened by their selective intimacy -- the kinds of thoughts that one has while successfully living a very public, social life whilst also cultivating a parallel universe of solo-observations, notations, philosophical oddities left to be heard by the original thinker only until these gems are lassoed by Shea ("I took a train and when the doors slid open I felt the wind. Would I have to live again tomorrow?"). Does anyone need to live after one feels and sees the beauty of life? How many times must we see this beauty to be full? Or is this beauty the one narcotic that we share, infinitely search for and crave, despite our differences?
Shea's style is mysterious, expectant, questioning, and accessible though not always comfortable. He writes:
Often two people must separate to reveal they are inseparable. In a world that we are told is getting smaller with improving technologies, the actual physical distance of being apart for those who love or need or want another cannot be replaced by the click-clacking of a keyboard or the sound of a voice over air waves. This is felt and known by those who have ever been removed from an attachment either deliberately or by an external force at work or play. Yet, no one likes to feel or think about these distances.
Maybe Shea believes that writing through such a distance can help one overcome its painful verité. More than one of Shea's poems in this collection is linked to a recurring dream or fantastical alternatives and if they are not, they beg us to contemplate our own divisions between truth and diversion, the sleepers and the awake, the active and passive markers that we call humans. - Jacquelyn Davis

James Shea’s first book of poems, Star in the Eye, has lots of lines that cross the wires of proverb and punchline. Sometimes, such lines come without context, like the bumper stickers of an odd sect: “Easy to cross the river if you are part river,” says one section of “Dream Trial.” Another: “I am the opposite of a solipsist.”
More often, such announcements accrete, forming coherent scenes from declarative statements that have discrete integrity. The leaps between such statements can be excitingly large—“That’s the remarkable thing about me. / I am not a hawk that can swim” (“Runaway Model”)—but Shea’s voice stays steady, moving through propositions with clipped glibness.
Despite its cleverness, this voice is less cheeky than thorough-going and frank, suited for the poems’ strange and necessary labors. “You are the performance artist / who charges people to leave,” begins “Around the Wind.” In fourteen lines, this poem has the speaker landing a plane on that you’s street, a distance it’d be hard to traverse without Shea’s gift for bursting across surfaces.
Many poems in the collection have similar catapulting starts, jolting forward from an initial scenario or problem: “I just realized my recent error: no space/time” (“The Yellowstone Revolution”); “I dropped my soulish thingy in the parking lot” (“Runaway Model”); “You are not free to enjoy the nostalgia” (“Panopolies”).
Frequently, the sequential statements that follow are stitched together with startling and restrained pathos. “I live once supposedly,” concludes “Mechanical Foliage,” one of many poignant sentiments Shea delivers with the flatness of transcribed song lyrics. In the book’s opening poem, this approach makes cartoonish elements feel harrowing:
They gave me surgery on my mouth.
My eyes were packed with feathers,
and my whole face was painted flat.
An expert told me I was probably a joke.

(“Turning and Running”)
Elsewhere, Shea’s pieces show off their seams more, serving less as translations of pseudo-linear monologues than as compilations of linked utterance. “Storms,” for example, seems written by a language student whose only fluency is phrasal, evoking the book’s frequent themes of language study and travel (“The yukata is beautiful. / These are eggs. Those are eggs. / Who is that girl? This is / my bike.”). In “Haiku,” Shea makes a self-portrait out of potential haiku titles.
Upon Kissing You After You Vomited.
Upon Walking You Home and You Pissing
in Your Pants. Upon Asking a Complete Stranger
about Our Situation. Upon Reading Issa’s
Prescripts “Issa in a State of Illness,”
“At Being Bewildered on Waking” and Realizing
the Haiku Poets Were Not So Laconic and How
Could They Be?

Such conceits are fun, though I’m most impressed by the poems that use accumulating compression to stab with mischievous, imagistic clarity, not just create continuity or collage. The forty-five short poems in “The Riverbed” do this with dazzling range and scope; I wish they were printed on coins.
Italian Riverbed
Gathered along the riverbed,
She walked among us
Like a cameraman
At a wedding.

Riverbed on a Leash
The leash moves
Around the sitting dog.

Origami Riverbed
A child made a riverbed
Out of paper.
Then he laid it
On the river.

Baby Blue
After the movie
About riverbeds,
You said, I wonder
What it would be like
To be married.
I said, Yes!

The humor in Shea’s collection makes you cock your head, not guffaw. Continually starting and stopping, the morsels of this long poem—I’m tempted to quote many more—have a measured pace, highlighting how clipped statements, for Shea, are less quirky sloganeering than expressions of his willingness to be dumbstruck. In mixing reticence and exuberance, his tone is pleasantly odd, but not at odds with tenderness and awe; it conveys an amped-up sense of earnestly “defending everything from everything else” (“Idea of a Mutiny”).
Without such earnestness, it’d be easy for a poet with Shea’s ear and wit to be a sort of solipsist, entertaining us with an off-kilter interior view, but, being the opposite of a solipsist, Shea uses these techniques to express old fashioned emotions in original ways. In “Poem,” for example, we see self-consciousness blossom into self-awareness as Shea considers “how the world protrudes out at one:”
I was sad I was not the young boy
who passed me each day the way

water carries a ship, but I was happy
I saw him and this contradiction

saddened me, but I was pleased with myself
for having noticed it.

The self, in Shea’s poems, is composed as it speaks (“Whoa, I said, you hear everything you say,” concludes “University of Air”). Such composition requires slapdash improvisation but also has high stakes for its language—I love Shea’s subtle mulling of phrasing, such as in a section of “Dream Trial” that says, in its entirety “No, no, it’s alright. // Hey, no—it’s alright,” reminding me of Frost’s experiments with sentence tones. The difference between those two statements is enormous. Attentive to how tones grind against each other, Shea helps us hear it, and stop, but not be stopped by it; his is a minimalism unafraid of wordiness, that doesn’t collapse on itself but folds into an origami boat that floats on to further observations and memorable lines. For many poets, such lines occur only at the beginnings and ends of poems; you wander between them waiting for the rhetorical microwave to ding and say you’re done. Shea constructs an entire book out of them. - Zach Savich

James Shea’s first collection, Star in the Eye, considers the expanding and shrinking values of experience with vivid strokes of suspicious wit. His poems wander through dreamscapes, retaining their lucidity. And though it seems as if a sudden gridlock of nerves is impending, the speakers of Shea’s poems maintain composure and as “Panoplies” asserts, “[y]ou are not free to enjoy the nostalgia.”
The collection begins with “Turning and Running” and quickly establishes Shea’s shrugging expressions of alienation and peculiar rapport with the natural world— themes which stripe this solid debut. 

The sun was backing away from me,
slowly, like one I have betrayed.
So I ran to the river to burn in it.
And they blocked the road with ambulances.
Shea’s compressed narration moves in logical jerks that result in the delightful accretion of visual surprises. The speaker’s relationship to nature evokes a kind of eco-consciousness, which resists slipping into clunky agitprop critique. Instead the speaker of “Turning and Running” insists on a reappraisal of [his] conditional relationship to nature and concludes, “There were at least four things / I should have said. Do not step on the rug / with the live birds sewn into it.”
“Turning and Running” befits an era of uncertainty— the title immediately ushers us out of the nearly chewed-through first decade of the 21st century. Shea’s voice captures an intense perception of the natural world taking us beyond Whitmanesque awe, and instead invokes a Stevens-like suspicion of both the perceiver and the perceived features of nature. Consider the opening of Stevens’ “The Green Plant”:

Silence is a shape that has passed.
Otu-bre’s lion-roses have turned to paper
And the shadows of the trees
Are like wrecked umbrellas.

The effete vocabulary of summer
No longer says anything.
Stevens’ violent image of “wrecked umbrellas” finds the natural world in human terms imagining nature as a kind of failed machine, i.e. a wrecked umbrella is a worthless machine, perhaps abandoned on the street. For Stevens and Shea, human activity and perceptions of nature push and pull on one another.
In the last lines of “Turning and Running,” a human product (a rug) and nature (birds) are unnaturally wed. The speaker’s cautionary closing signals a disturbing hybridization of nature and technology in a seemingly inevitable marriage. Shea’s speaker in “Turning and Running,” like Stevens’ in “The Green Plant,” experiences the “effete vocabulary” of a natural world that “[n]o longer says anything.” Though Stevens’ lament appears to be seasonal, it too, like Shea’s, suggests a betrayal by the natural world. As a result, both poets’ vocabularies shape the natural world into a kind of bio-technological event. Stevens’ bare branches are like twisted metal; Shea’s freakish magic carpet is ineffectual— to step on the rug with “lives birds sewn into it” is to wound or kill the birds: its potential for flight removed. As “Turning and Running” closes, only one of the “four things” the speaker “should have said” is said. In a similar outcome, the final stanza of “The Green Plant” suggests the difficulty in negotiating competing perceptions:

Except that a green plant glares, as you look
At the legend of the maroon and olive forest,
Glares, outside of the legend, with the barbarous green
Of the harsh reality of which it is part.
In Star in the Eye, many of Shea’s poems inhabit a “harsh reality,” which is to say nature corrupted, or co-opted by human experience, and yet these poems contain sensuality. In “Mechanical Foliage” the speaker feels “the rapid turning of the sun in [his] direction” and, like “Turning and Running,” is again faced with a natural encounter that leads to feelings of internal conflict.

A young entrepreneur sold me his business card.
He told me this was one of the beautiful days.

He offered a presentation on my whereabouts:
half of you awake, the other half was not asleep.

He said I would see handsome epiphanies,
a vision unifying the particulars, for example.
The poem ends with this promise fulfilled as the speaker’s senses heighten:

I heard sheets of ice clink over the lake.
I found the extraordinary moment and recorded it.

I wash small trees with my hands, sponging
the trunk and leaves. I live once supposedly.
In a type of cleansing ritual, having found the aforementioned “vision,” the catalytic sun again leads to a moment of insight in the natural world. Perhaps the sun is the “star in the eye” of Shea’s poems.
Shea’s talent for plain-spoken acuity is best laid out in the string of haiku-like segments contained in “The Riverbed,” which is one of two longer sequences in Star in the Eye. Shea’s “The Riverbed” uses “riverbed” as a thematic anchor: “On the Riverbed,” “Autumn Riverbed,” “Family of Riverbeds,” “Riverbed Water,” and so on. These gentle, playful lyrics mark an airy section, not only in its sparseness on the page but like the satisfaction one might feel seeing a box kite sailing in the sky.
In “Dream Trial,” the other long sequence that closes the book, part 12 codifies the interiority of Shea’s voice: “What if only my anxieties keep me alive? / What if only my anxieties transmigrate?” Shea’s speakers experience the bewildering clarity of not an unforgiving world, but one that simply persists in endless renewal. In the final moments of the book the speaker again faces the sun— the star, albeit hidden by cloud cover:
I lie down on the splintery lawn.
Sparrows ’round me like corners.
Above: a small re-release of rain.
No one can stop the Spring from coming.
- Douglas Piccinnini

Do not trust James Shea. He wants you think he is an idiot. He is not an idiot. He is a ninja hiding behind a telephone pole, waiting to karate chop you in the Adam’s apple. Even if you don’t have an Adam’s apple. Especially if you don’t have an Adam’s apple.
Even in the title of Shea’s first collection of poems, Star in the Eye, there’s a connotation of idiocy. What does it mean? Has some clod clumsily poked his face on Polaris, his head afloat in the clouds? Is it some backwards reference to the way children draw the dead, with asterisks, or “X”s over the eyes? Whatever it is, it sounds oafish in a way you can’t quite put your pinky on and, in this way, Shea’s poems are dangerous.
The works in Star in the Eye have an immediacy to them that one wouldn’t find in most experimental poetry, or even much traditional verse before the 20th century, for that matter. Maybe distant relatives to Russell Edson’s fable-poems–less narrative, but just as immediate–or Michael Earl Craig’s creepy dreamscapes. The poems are comforting in their immediacy, like the book is just a conversation.

Don’t look at me.

I built this house from scratch.

I am going to eat this sandwich.
I sleep with my fingers under the pillow
Sure. You’re OK with all that. Fine.
And the book is filled with lines of the same curious, innocent idiosyncrasy. It puts a reader at ease and can result in a relaxed near-skim of a reading. Not only can you follow the poems– you can feel smarter than the speaker(s) while doing so. The same effect is achieved in the very first lines of University of Air: “I took a train and, when the doors slid open/ I felt the wind,” 38). However, it’s this same innocence that makes Shea’s unusual lines that much more jarring, even disturbing, when compounded. He follows the opening line of University of Air, for instance, with “Would I have to live again tomorrow?” OK. Off putting. The poem goes on: “I spent the night practicing for the long nap.” Ambiguous lines dog-pile, one on top of the other. There may be something communicated here that you’re just not quite understanding. Or, maybe the speaker(s) of these poems is a sociopath and you just can’t quite figure out how to squirm your way back out of this conversation. University of Air continues:

I saw a statue of myself: arms straight, head
titled, lips pursed. I was a splendid person.
I pinched a butterfly and ate it

I walked outside and drew a tree upon a tree.
I lost my faith in my common sense.

I drove an ice cream truck into the guardrail.
Whoa, I said, you hear everything you say.
Suddenly, the novelty of this book you mistook for innocence is unmistakably psychosis. As in, still not guilty, but only thanks to the insanity plea.
This last line of University of Air, “…you hear everything you say,” is also characteristic of Star in the Eye overall. Here Shea employs a kind of over-explanation, explaining things that most consider common sense. The book is loaded with it:

This is my first life and I want to get it right (The Yellowstone Revolution)

You wake at night rushing to the door,
touching it with your hands (Stoic Wreck)
Upon first encounter, these seem like givens, obvious. Of course this is your first life. We only get one, no? Of course you’d touch a door with your hands. How else would you open it and what else would one do with a door? But it’s the questions Shea gives a reader, not the answers, that keep these poems going. What else would one do with a door? Or, consider a passage from Death Poem: a different kind of over-explanation in this super-redundant excerpt:

The rain came down like so many depth charges.
The rain came down like a depth charge.
Each drop came down like a depth charge.
Each drop a depth charge
Hmm. One can’t help but think that the rain drops fell as if depth charges? Yet still, with the same message seemingly reiterated quadruple, a reader can’t help but wonder what the repetitious lines are getting at, if indeed they’re getting at anything at all.
This is how Shea’s madness proves methodical. Whereas the immediacy of the poems creates that sense of conversation and may result in a fast-paced, near-skim of a read, in between these conversational passages are jarring lines of weird technique that demand of readers quadruple takes.

Waking is an emergency.
Easy to cross the river if you are part river.
…the ground,
and I dig into it,
cursing aloud
heaving dirt
into the air, trying
to dig away
what we walk on
and the ground
falls back to itself”
(Dream Trial).
This element of surprise that is the strength of Star in the Eye begs intense reconsideration. A reader might skip past a line like “A newborn orange/ wafts in the terminal air” (Replicas of Grace, 39), feeling it’s so direct that its message is readily clear, with no unpacking necessary. And, perhaps, if it were removed from the context of the poem (an act Shea’s lines offer themselves generously to), that would be the end of that. However, the patterns that emerge from the dog-pile of ambiguous lines–the urgent environment of poem that makes the weird lines even weirder–act as symptoms, for a reader, to some dormant disease. The tall grass you’ve been running through seems now to be punji sticks the more you look at them. “I spent the night practicing for the long nap” now means practicing for death, clearly. But how does one, then, practice for “the long nap? ” Maybe the night was spent sleeping– a morbid enough interpretation. Even more morbid, maybe it wasn’t spent sleeping, but simply waking, an act strangely common in Shea’s work. Or, maybe the night was spent writing this poem, these poems–these death poems. Shea writes of death as endearingly as anyone in the English language since Philip Larkin (a comparison that probably couldn’t stretch much beyond that commonality).
Shea’s poems are misleading only in that the idiot speaking them is anything but. They misguide, but not in a dishonest way. Even perfectly precise maps can lead a disoriented traveler off a cliff. And no one starts a journey eager to fall off a cliff. Some perspectives, however, can only be seen from the vantage at the bottom a ravine. - Nick Demske

The straightforward idiom in James Shea’s Star in the Eye can be deceptive at first. Taken piece by piece, the images of each poem seem so right and precise that I almost forget to investigate the strange leaps taking place within the entirety of each work and within the book as a whole. While contemporary poetry often toys with randomness or the creative collisions of picture and sound, this collection doesn’t feel like part of that project. The disconnect in Shea’s poems feels coherent—like there is a rhyme and reason to the movement from bathing in the sun to avoiding a rug with live birds sewn in.
The book’s reliance on dreams and elemental motifs creates this unconventional coherence. While some leaps may be surreal, they don’t ever feel out of character. Water and sky are appropriate motifs for a book that deals with dream and death and language; there is an uncertainty and changeableness that the book explores in all those forces. Shea writes:
I drove with my jeep to the beach.
The waves in general were special to me.
I saw them all for a moment at a time.
The two boys woke to their deaths.
They could not give up more.
There is no rhetoric of a storm.
The natural elements become part of the more human landscapes of dreaming, dying, and speaking; they become indistinguishable.
Shea’s book has, in my opinion, four very appealing strengths: a beautiful, uncomplicated language to deal with its uneasy movement from image to image, an ability to touch on the dire without getting lost in it or losing a sense of humor, judicious use of the short form, and a willingness to interrogate language.
The short form is displayed best in poems made of a series of tiny sections. “The Riverbed” is composed of 45 brief parts. In the section titled Crossing the Riverbed, “The duck/ Plays with the river–/ Knowing it could fly.” In Revised Riverbed, “ A man feeds his penis/ To the fish.” Shea certainly runs the gamut here. All of the book’s themes and preoccupationsfind outlet in this collection within the collection.
This poem is also an excellent example of how Shea borrows from the sensibility of haiku. Again, the simplicity is deceptive. The short section so quickly read deserves another look.
There are other poems that use small sections to comprise a larger whole and these poems along with works like “Storms” and “Haiku” which employ form to call attention to writing and language are the backbone of the book. They take on a light of their own. Some other poems in the collection too easily fade into the background; they carry the motifs and employ their beautiful language, but without being especially memorable. Perhaps these pieces are a necessary backdrop to the sharper moments in the book. And Shea’s Star in the Eye does have a satisfying number of those moments.

James Shea, selected by Sarah Gridley: Introduction to the work of James Shea

Presence and absence. This axis is form's major dimension.  —Ron Silliman

The poet is the origin of two beings, one that projects and one that holds. From the lover he borrows emptiness, from the beloved, light.
  —René Char

     What could it feel like to have a star in one's eye?
      It could feel like a form of constant protection, a reliable ring of muscle fibers dilating or widening the pupil according to levels of incoming light.
      It could feel like a burr, a prickly seed-case hooking to our vision, looking to further its own agenda.
      Like a mark of distinction, a replica of grace.
      Like a time-splintering asterisk, a persistent reference to omitted matter, backwards, forwards, a chronic sense that something significant is presently missing.
      Maybe it is the sun itself that is missing. The star we are told not to look at directly for fear of over-saturation. Star that can start a fire where it concentrates hard enough, say through the aid of a magnifying glass. Star that will one day extinguish. Be extinguished?
      There is a great river this side of Stygia
a curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction…an unnamed flowing…the folk-lore of each of the senses…The river that flows nowhere, like the sea.

      So goes the "The River of Rivers in Connecticut."
      It is a poet's calling—or pastime—to get to the bottom of this. To touch the river and the riverbed. To sort light from surface, mud from shadow.
      In Egyptian hieroglyphics, a hieroglyph for vision is a fish-in-the-hand. A fish-in-the-hand is worth two in the river.
      The One-Who-Fights-Shadows has a long row to hoe. A big river to fish.
      [When even] The fish are sciamachists!      Is there a word for the one who battles shadows by entertaining (with) them?
      By most accounts, shadow puppetry originated in China during the Han Dynasty. After the favorite concubine of the emperor died, the emperor fell into deep depression. One of the emperor's ministers had an idea: he fashioned a puppet reminiscent of the concubine, and after dark, rear-illuminated it behind a curtain. The concubine was re-animated in shadow, and the emperor was cheered.
      In Star in the Eye, James Shea plays with all the (f)actors of this legend: the source of desire, her absence, the grief-stricken emperor, the resourceful minister, and most of all, the concubine revived in the form of shadow. In his relationship to words, the poet must try all the working parts, reverberate the contours of presence and absence.
      When I was ten, my family moved to Japan for six months. In Tokyo, we found a market where we could buy familiar western products. Above the entrance was a sign in English: ENTRANCE. Above the exit was another sign in English: EXITRANCE.
      From which I learned: coming and going, inside and outside, are halves of a unifying trance. Is there room on the dance floor?
     Do fish swim?

      Let's dance. —Sarah Gridley


As you suggested, the beauty
of the house amazed me. It was sleeting now.
But that was okay. The trees
had already prepared for winter.

From then on I wanted advice daily.
I thought I missed the quarter-
colored sky and felt restricted
by a natural, beautiful event.
But it was semi-logical
you said. Like a mystery
I knew how to perceive.

You showed me how when
a storm comes it belongs to everyone.
And when we met, we drank
immediately. In the same sense,
you said yellow is the color of sunflowers,
sunflowers equal summer and summer
equals freedom from troubles.

Later my son said, Hey, you pain me.
My heart is a discrepancy. And I
left for your house and you said
how you wouldn't really say that.
How we draw ourselves back like strings.
My new life needs a new death.
How I keep a little of this one left. 

Notes on Using Words

We are never not expressing ourselves. As Eliot might put it, this is "the boredom, and the horror, and the glory" of being alive. Breathing itself is an expression, a "pressing out" of one's breath, and even the dead have their own rhetoric. A poem exists in this continuum, arising both as an expression and a turning inward towards the nature of expression. The difficulty and the pleasure of writing a poem lie in the way that it must surpass or match the strange and continuous expression inherent in the world. "There is poetry in everything," writes Miroslav Holub, "That / is the biggest argument / against poetry."

Some writers, like Shakespeare, seem to express themselves without revision. Others, like Merrill, allow us to feel their revisions, "the beauty of the attempt," in the words of Donald Justice. All writing aspires to express itself, trying to push against and outgrow its writer. Book Two of Don Quixote, for instance, is better than Book One because Cervantes realized that Sancho was more interesting than Don Quixote. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's characters change the way people do in real life: slowly and without knowing it. We spend over a hundred pages inside the mind of Mrs. Ramsay in Woolf's To the Lighthouse and in Part Two, she vanishes in a sentence.

A poem resembles a dream in its movement, and it mirrors a dream in the way the reader puts down the poem and returns to the world, as dream-like as the world may seem. This is expressed in a line from James Salter: dreams are "the skeleton of all reality." Ryan S., a third grader, writes it this way: "If we need a map, / we can just look in the waves." A reader should be made to feel like a poem's speaker exists in the world, or could exist in the world, or could exist in a dream that could exist in the world.

"Yes you do feel what I mean," says Gertrude Stein. In other words, some people write about things that have happened to them. Some people write about things that they can imagine happening to them. And some people write about things that have happened to them, but which they have not yet imagined.

A poet will say a thing just to hear it said aloud. ("Driving over road kill, one becomes squeamish as if one were eating it.") In this way, poetry and comedy have much in common: precision, timing, surprise, honesty. But a joke aims largely for a single response, whereas a poem's aims are expansive and mysterious. Poems are also similar to films in that they have a grammar, which unfolds in time, and they rely on silence for their shapes. Ozu said plot uses people, and to use people is to misuse them. He was referring to his films, but he might have been speaking of poetry. -