Posts Tagged ‘Fence Modern Poets Series’

Everyone around Me Is a Total Stranger: James Shea’s “Star in the Eye”

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

Let me begin by saying that I am not 100% sure what James Shea is trying to do.  This is, natch, hardly a unique situation vis-à-vis holding a book of contemporary poetry in one’s hands.  I almost never know what the poet is trying to do, and I am someone who understands poetry for a living.  So my saying that I don’t get Star in the Eye (2008, winner of the Fence Modern Poets Series) is hardly an insult to Mr. Shea.  I suppose it’s not a compliment either, but here’s what is: I care about figuring it out.  And that part is unusual—with many contemporary books, I don’t just not get it; I also don’t care.  (With others still, I get it, but it sucks.)

Based on the fact that I seem to want to understand it, I will proceed from the optimistic assumption that Star in the Eye is not a book I don’t get, but rather a book that is about not getting things, which I understand perfectly.  (Yes, I know what the Fallacy of Imitative Form is, and I’m sure Shea does too, so let’s drop it, and anyway I’ve always thought that to be one of the stupider artistic fallacies, simply because you can’t argue with results, e.g., a bad movie that alienates the viewer because it is about alienation is bad, whereas a good movie that alienates the viewer because it is about alienation is good.)  Here is the first poem, which I like:

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.

It does a lot of things that lots of poems do, nowadays anyway, by which I mean that the speaker is sort-of imperiled, sort-of guilty, and sort-of kidding.  The good part about this poem is that it sets up the rest of the book very well, specifically the final phrases of the last two stanzas, which establish a) the question of whether Shea is kidding us, and b) the book’s propensity for giving genuinely valuable advice about things that make no sense.  The bad part about this poem is that the end is better than the rest of the poem put together.  This is, frankly, something that happens with fair regularity in Star in the Eye.  Here is perhaps the clearest example:

Idea of a Mutiny

The girls in groups
would not give me
their walkie-talkies.

I made a question
and brought it to the shore.

The only way I knew
how to get there was to think
I had gone too far
and to keep going.

The sea sort of gleeked on me.

Then I saw my dog
wake up last night—
Barking, defending everything
from everything else.

What’s wrong with a great ending?  Nothing.  And the rest of the poem certainly isn’t bad.  But when the end is so disproportionately good that it feels like a joke being played on the rest of the poem, something is off.  It’s like if instead of using it for “A Day in the Life,” the Beatles had appended a chaotic orchestral crescendo and final mushrooming E chord to, say, “Eight Days a Week.”

In summation, if one were to go through Star in the Eye and underline all their favorite lines, a preponderance of them would be closing couplets.  Is this a bad thing?  I have no idea.  But it is a thing I noticed.  It is worth mentioning, I suppose, because it is not usually characteristic of great poets, or great poems, that the best part is always at the end (to use the first example off the top of my head, the two closing lines of Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” are the best in the poem, but this is pretty much the only Yeats poem of which this is true).  It might be valuable to Mr. Shea to think about why this was the case this time around, and whether it was because of something he wants to keep doing or not.  Up to him.

Where is this coming from?  I have my theories.  I get James Tate vibes from Shea, and James Wright vibes as well, and both of these poets are more in the habit than are others of writing poems with Capital-E Endings.  But the best explanation is the thing that’s also kind of the whole point of the book, so sorry for not mentioning it yet: Shea’s (ironic? serious? he’s not sure, which I guess is fine?) obsession with haiku—not, of course, with the point-missing 5-7-5 definition we got in elementary school, but with the actual tradition of the Japanese masters.

I like the Japanese masters just fine (especially Kobayashi Issa, of whose work the above barking dog, or rather Shea’s gloss of it, reminds me, which may be why I like it so much), and I see what Shea feels he has to do with them.  Most importantly, I see (I think) how all this relates to the fact that I don’t get the book: there is (as I understand it) a superconcentrated conceal/reveal game at the heart of the haiku tradition.  All poetry, of course, plays with noumenon/phenomenon, but (the point of) haiku in this respect (is that it) is to “normal” (sorry) poetry in this respect as crack is to powder cocaine.  To read a (well done) haiku is to be slapped in the face by poetry—there is no process of experiencing it; it is of a moment, and it is impossible to say (or even think) “I am being slapped” until you already have been.

Shea is trying to spread this out over the amount of time it takes for a “normal” (sorry) poem to happen.   This, as I hope I have established by now, a) is admirable, and b) may or may not have worked.  It may even be the case that Shea knows that this does not—can not—work, and that the fact that it does not work is the point of the book, which strikes me as a) incredibly brave, and b) a little bit nuts, but what do I know?

There has been, of course, lots written about how Americans (well, Westerners, but especially Americans) can’t write haiku.  It’s unclear whether this is because our culture does, and hence our psyches do, not privilege the moment/season/image the way that some Asian cultures do, or simply because the darn things simply have to be (or, at least, originally have been) in Japanese, but in any case what’s on our plate here is nothing less than the “White Men Can’t Jump” of poetry.  (By that I meant the stereotype/quandary itself, and not Shea’s book specifically, but if you want to take it to refer to Shea’s book specifically I will not stop you.)

The first half (side one, if it were a record) of Star in the Eye ends with “The Riverbed,” a ten-page haiku and almost-haiku sequence about, well, the riverbed (it’s not just a clever name).  Unless it went over my head (beneath my feet?), this is exactly what it appears to be: James Shea writing completely unironic haiku about water and shapes and emptiness and potential and perception and—unironically, I will remind you once again—the Tao.  (I am aware that haiku are Japanese and Taoism is Chinese, but my expertise ends there, and so I have no sense of the extent to which there was/is commerce between the two traditions, but am sure Shea does.)  Taken at face value, the piece more-or-less succeeds: for whatever it’s worth, these are pretty good haiku that this white guy wrote in 2008.  Among my favorites:

Personal Riverbed

The water in that riverbed
Goes around that rock
Like a man
Who thinks he knows his wife.


Crossing the Riverbed

The duck
Plays with the river—
Knowing it could fly.

The collection ends with “Dream Trial,” another long sequence, this time of 29 (Shea’s age when he wrote it, maybe?  He was a bit over 30 when the book came out) still-sort-of-haikuish-but-not-actually haiku poems.  It is also quite good and, in light of Star in the Eye as a whole, is remarkable for two reasons.  Firstly, way more happens in it than in the rest of the book: rocks are hurled, animals are shot, gangs bust in, houses are burned down.  Secondly, “Dream Trial” seems to be a synthesis of what had heretofore been the two (very?) different types of poems that Star in the Eye contains.  There are bits of cutesy matter-of-fact alienation in the vein of Dean Young (who is always great, but whose back-cover blurb informed me of Shea’s poems that “their brevity is anathema to fragmentation,” which I am pretty sure did not help at all), e.g.:

She lives across the road from me,
where her family raises llamas.
I knew I was in for a real thrill.
Then my whole vacation got ruined
when I was held for ransom.
Suddenly a big thud happened in the rear.
Can you say heaven on earth?

…and bits of what appears once again to be life with the totally-not-kidding haiku goggles on, e.g.:

A rioter throws me a stone—
it is smooth in some places, puffed out in others.

I am sure it was.  As is (deliberately?) Star in the Eye.  I will wrap up by pointing out that “Dream Trial,” as the ending of the book, works a lot in relation to the book like the endings of the other poems in it do in relation to all their parts that aren’t the ends: it is the actual thing instead of the waiting for the thing, and as such, it is, if I may say so, better.  This may be presumptuous on my part, but then, if one gets the sense that the relationship between X and Y is that the whole point of X is leading up to Y, how can one not say that Y is better?  But here I may be speaking from exactly the kind of Western bells-and-whistles prejudice that James Shea has trained himself to shed and I have not.

James Shea’s Star in the Eye is James Shea’s Star in the Eye.  And yet, and yet…