Do Not Trust James Shea: Nick Demske on James Shea’s Star in the Eye

james shea

Star in the Eye, James Shea, Fence Books

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 (Panoplies)

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.