Star in the Eye

by James Shea
Fence Books  December 2008
Reviewed by Melinda Wilson

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The Stars are Projectors (Yeah)1

star in the eyeStar in the Eye, winner of the Fence Modern Poetry Series, is a collection filled with the material of dreams and nightmares. The speaker is preoccupied with these, but somehow less than panicked.  The residue of self-doubt and remorse is evident, yet sentient, beautiful images abound.

In fact, the individual poems are on occasion so fully-imagined and detailed that it is not difficult for a Simician fair to materialize for the reader.  He is unsettling like Rauan Klassnik was unsettling in Holy Land, though where Klassnik’s lyrics are sometimes grotesque and shocking, Shea’s produce more subtle and steady waves of unrest (with some small exceptions of shock and gore, as in “Dream Trial,” when the speaker shoots a dog multiple times and his uncle “puts his barrel / into the wounds and fires.” The dog’s head “halves open.” I will say it again. Leave the dogs out of it.)

In the opening poem, all elements work together to form a colorful, yet unnatural setting. The title, “Turning and Running,” exhibits clear uneasiness. The poem begins, “The sun was backing away from me, / slowly like one I have betrayed.” The atmosphere is composed of fright, confusion and deceit. The speaker runs to a “river to burn in it.” Ambulances arrive; mysterious oral surgery is performed. There is unusual face-painting, and a constant search for exit. There’s regret: “There were at least four things / I should have said,” and the poem ends with a warning: “Do not step on the rug / with the live birds sewn into it.” It’s beautiful and jarring. “Turning and Running” launches the reader into the collection like a motorcyclist flying over the front of his bike. On impact, the pavement is cold and probably wet. S/he is alone, vaguely sad, pathetic, injured.

Shea’s poems do not inhabit the space of nightmares only; there is constant dreaming and waking. There’s something nebulously Vanilla Sky about this book, the familiar phiosophical wonder as to whether one is awake or dreaming; for instance, in the melancholy “Parts of an Inland Pier,” the speaker describes a trip to the beach in which he experiences individual waves “for a moment at a time.” The speaker seems to be experiencing clarity, finally “seeing” things as they are, but by the end of the poem he says, “I woke to three geese flying in a loose v. / I could live my whole life right here, in this chair.” The implication (very Wright, “Lying in a Hammock”) is that the former has been a dream; the clarity was not a reality, but could have been had he not been aware of its untruth. Whether asleep or awake, one constantly resets one’s cognition, reestablishes awareness.

Helpless to do otherwise, the speaker continually pursues new ways to view the world, better ways to absorb life’s fabric. It is lucidity he seeks; in “Around the Wind,” the speaker cleanses his senses. Shea writes:

I get in a plane and look for the earth.
I am without the sight of existence for miles.
I can see nothing from all sides.

These lines exhibit detachment both physical and mental. The distance at which Shea’s speaker stands from the occurrences of his “earth” and life allow him to acquire an alien, if fresh, perception of them.

Such distance might be valuable for the mind that composes it, but is not always so for Shea’s reader. The tone in each of these poems is similar; therefore, it is easy to feel as though the poems belong together. Yet the poems from Star in the Eye don’t entirely synthesize. They blend but don’t fuse, almost interchangeable in chronology and development. There is little movement throughout the book; beyond a few obvious redundancies, the poems don’t speak to each other. Perhaps there is something to be said for a collection that is static, reaffirming as it may our common potential for paralysis. But even stasis can be electric, a form of movement; paralysis can be movement.

Sometimes you feel it in Star in the Eye. Sometimes not. The inability to act is an American plague onset by fear of failure, rejection, death. Shea attempts to dissolve the troubles consequential to this immobility. He writes that there is “some comfort in the undoable.” Shea also includes a poem in this collection titled “Unperfectable.” The undoable and unperfectable inflict no pressure. Maybe these feelings are more universal than America, but either way, Americans suffer from them. Shea captures a contemporary consciousness in these poems. The oftener they are read, the more they grip the reader, telling a story that is familiar, if no story at all.

Familiarity is comforting because it is loyal, a constant. In one part of a 45-part poem titled “The Riverbed,” Shea exhibits the familiar through a reflection. The section is titled, “Ignoring the Riverbed,” and it reads as follows:

A boy by the riverbed
Turns his back to the river. 
His body is reflected by the surface.

The lines recall a Plath poem called “Mirror” in which Plath writes of the same type of clarity that Shea’s speaker hunts. From “Mirror”: “I have no preconceptions. / Whatever I see I swallow immediately / Just as it is, / umisted by love or dislike.” Shea’s speaker too desires to see things “just” as they are, and like Plath’s mirror, his river, faced with a betrayal, is dutiful and presents the familiar. “I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.” However, reflections, though faithful, are often distorted, contributing to the lack of clarity Shea’s speaker contends with.

In the final poem of the collection, “Dream Trial,” the next-longest in the book, Shea brings us back to the stuff of sleep—dreams both good and bad. Dreams are also a form of reflection. They often reflect that which we may be unable to face consciously, for instance, the fear of death. There’s a lot of death, or at least talk of it, in this book. There is even another multi-sectioned poem called “Death Poems” in which “The Void / welcomes you.” In “University of Air,” the speaker “spent the night practicing for the long nap.” Shea begins the second section of “Dream Trial” with the following observation: “Some animals live so briefly / they never need to eat.” Yes, by this point it is clear that the speaker is preoccupied with death, or at the very least, meaninglessness. Yet if one thing carries meaning, so do all things; the physical world, animals and all, can be imagined a character, or series of characters. Shea has found a projector of his fears in his dreams, his nightmares, all around him, even in the clouds: “Clouds pass over, watching us / what shapes we take.”

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1See Modest Mouse, “The Stars Are Projectors”

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