On James Shea’s The Lost Novel

Jeff Alessandrelli

Albany, NY: Fence Books, 2015. 88 pages. $15.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

It’s the lazy reviewer’s first recourse—dig up a piece of criticism the author being reviewed has previously written and then apply it to said author’s own creative work. Utilizing his own recent review of the Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, one could thus claim that, as he states of Buson, James Shea’s poetry makes a point of spotlighting “the strange, incongruous details of the world”; that it “traffics in sensory details” and “emphasizes imagery and meaning over music and form.” Such assertions, then, wouldn’t be inaccurate—Shea’s work in his latest collection The Lost Novel does employ a strange incongruity of detail; it does pay consequential service to stark images and subtle, evocative meanings—but to flatly state as much would be doing a disservice to both Shea as a poet and The Lost Novel as a book of poems. There are the obvious differences, certainly—Shea, born 1976, alive, is American; Buson, born 1716, deceased, was Japanese—but more significant is the fact that Shea’s poetry relies on a seduction that the great haiku master’s perhaps did not. The voices of the poems in The Lost Novel are alternately unsettled, wry, contemplative, resigned, and baffled. But throughout those fluctuations they’re also relentlessly endearing; as the speaker of the poem “Florida, Missouri” tells it, “This is the breezy firsthand / account of my life. If you don’t / want to listen, I don’t care.” But it’s a testament to that insouciant breeziness that we do want to listen; we do care.

The Lost Novel is a collection as interested in absence as it is in presence or appearance; what isn’t there is as important as what is. In the serial work “Air and Water Show,” the longest poem in the book and one that spans the entirety of The Lost Novel’s second section, the reader is presented with a series of multiple choice statements; choose A, B, C, or D.  Pencil in hand, Scantron glaring up at us, we’re suddenly back in high school again—only the questions presented on this test would never appear on the SAT. Take “Multiple Choices” on page 25, which in its entirety reads:

  1. It’s the sound of the absence of sound.
  2. It’s not soundlessness.
  3.  It’s the decay after hitting the whole note.
  4.  It’s the sound of being heard.

Or the similarly-minded “Multiple Choices” on page 28:

  1.  He bought a small fresh apple.
  2.  She made him buy a small fresh apple.
  3.  A small fresh apple cost him a lot.
  4.  Where can he buy a small fresh apple again?

The options the reader is presented with in both instances are causal and deceptive. In the first “the sound of the absence of sound” might, in the end, be the same as “the sound of being heard,” but it seems impossible to be certain. The specific texture of “soundlessness” is far from definitive and the many, many sounds that go unheard are legion, surely—who’s to say, then, what they actually sound like or where the soundlessness of their sound (or vice versa) derives from?

Following this somewhat nebulous way of thinking, the reader might deduce “he bought a small fresh apple” only because “she made him.” Yet despite the steepness of price, the question of “Where can he buy a small fresh apple again?” is immediately raised. In this instance desire seems to outweigh cost, and yet that she “made” the speaker buy the small fresh apple is also significant. Can longing be artificially induced or can it only be accessed personally, privately? And is the phrase “small fresh apple” here a euphemism for something else, something involving the organic mechanics of sex and romance, of passion and love?

One can’t be sure but that’s the mysterious conceit of Shea’s poetry in The Lost Novel. To borrow Marjorie Perloff’s well-known term, Shea’s poetics might be indeterminate in the volume but his linguistic charm is omnipresent. In the title poem of the book the reader is not privy to the details of who “you” actually is when the first section of the work states, “I wrote you once for years. / I called you many names.” What we are alerted to, however, are those many names—“Party of One. / Sexy / Hypothesis. Miss Bliss. / The Instrumentalist.” How the title of the poem “Premium Ice Cream” directly or indirectly ties into its text—which, in its entirety reads, “At this point, we’d have / to get into the hot tub / to get something done”— is unclear, and yet the poem’s distinctly piquant logic makes that lack of knowledge moot, purchaseless. Shea’s poetry roundly concerns itself with the interstices where “a purposeless purposiveness” might reign supreme. As such, pristine, resolute fact, statement or conviction is something to be suspicious of in the collection. As the speaker of “Lyrical Intervention” makes clear in that poem’s final stanza, “I’m not sure what to make of the facts. / They may not even be facts at all.”

“Parable of an Epiphany,” a long prose poem occurring near the collection’s end, tellingly opens with a series of assertive sentences that nevertheless still hover at the brink of actual assertion:

I had arrived at the beginning of my life without a question. As I lived each day, a new question would arise from my lips unanswered, combining with subsequent questions until I stood at the precipice of my life with a string of questions for which I had no answers. The questions themselves produced great fear and confusion, yet their accumulation was sure and consistent, as if they had always been there, waiting for me to reach the day when each would reveal itself.

From this beginning we move through the poem tentatively, filled with a bemused wonder at the vagaries life has to offer, until ultimately the speaker comes to believe that life’s Big Questions are less about patience and knowledge and more about punctuation; the curved shape of a ?, the playful rigidity of a !. To wit, the poem ends with a series of questions about the nature of questioning:

I had imagined the question mark itself as a guardian angel perched on the shoulder of the sentence, protecting it from too much despair. I asked myself: where should I put the question marks? Do they belong after each question from each day, punctuating that day’s respective end, or should they collapse into a single mark at the very end, for a continuous sentence of questions? Or was I meant to straighten the bend in each mark, stretching each curve into a vertical line, so that all of those questions were suddenly exclamations, and all of those uncountable questions aligned before a single exclamation mark were an uninterrupted exclamation? I stood up with great pleasure.

To answer the myriad questions of the world merely by subverting what they seek to find into a solitary exclamation mark—such is the extent of the speaker’s conception of language in “Parable of an Epiphany.” But in both this poem, and the volume as a whole, questioning is more important than answering, and true contentment lies in accepting all that one does not know and might not ever know. We are all part of a grander scheme. But said scheme has “a purposeless purposiveness” that we will never fully understand and our lives are all the more rich and realized because of that lack. If, as Shea maintains in his review of the Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, “Haikai poets are the observational comics of poetry,” then the lazy reviewer would no doubt declare The Lost Novel to be a virtuosic stand-up set, one that startles and awes its audience as much as it induces laughter. Such a statement wouldn’t be inaccurate. Only a truly lazy reviewer, though, would make that analogy.

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