Reviewed by Douglas Piccinnini
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.