James Shea’s The Lost Novel

by on Mar.06, 2015

urlThere’s a certain type of poetry that orbits around an on-going absence, giving the reader the sense of ghostly not-there-ness with images that are all the more vivid for the emptiness around them: trees, lone houses on wind-swept beaches, blackbirds among twenty snowy mountains. But this absence isn’t necessarily premised on loss. Rather, the absence can sometimes be based on a restraint that’s all the more mysterious for being so exact. If the poets of absence were on a sort of scale of formalistic experimentation, Wallace Stevens might be at one end and John Cage at the other. Strand and Lauterbach and Ashbery and Palmer would fall somewhere between them. And James Shea would have to be in that number, too. His brilliant new book, The Lost Novel, is haunted by absence in the way other collections are haunted by memory.

The first line in the first poem (“Thinking of Work”) emphasizes a brushing back, an act of clearance: “A brief storm / blew the earth clean.” It’s an appropriate line for a book that often seems to take place in an aftermath, placing the calmness after the storm and not before. Yet the poem is not an ode to this cleansed earth, but rather about how to carry on post-storm: “There was much / to do: sun to put up, / clouds to put out, / blue to install…” And this response — this nature shaping and re-shaping — is emblematic of the collection. For all of Shea’s close attention to the natural world, to the intricate details of leaves and “cloud-shaped stones,” his poems are less about a cohesive organic world and more about the aesthetics of nature. In “New & Selected,” he writes, “Best to begin loving someone / in the late fall or winter, when / nature will not outshine you.” Nature in both this poem and “Thinking of Work” is seen almost as a stage set, a phenomena that might “outshine” its actors.

This highly aesthetic approach to nature is often seen in the poetry of absence. If nature isn’t a plenitude, then each image becomes not a marker of truth (spiritual or otherwise), but simply a sign, and the natural world itself becomes “an empire of signs” (to use Barthes’ phrase in a very different context). There are moments in the collection where this act of reading signs is explicit. In “The Phrase You Gave Me,” Shea writes, “I remember almost / nothing of what I’ve written, except / that it begins thusly: Crows seal the sky. / They speak of their suffering in long, distant sentences.” But usually the reading is implicit. In “Supervenience,” he writes, “Dusk approaches, wild geese overhead. / The mind can build upon the brain.” As the above lines suggest, Shea, like Stevens, is fascinated by all kinds of art-making, both literal and metaphorical, and, also like Stevens, he is drawn toward the paradoxes of this making. In “Poem By Tolstoy,” the poet writes, “For ten years or so I haven’t had such a wealth of images and ideas as these last three days. I can’t write, they are so abundant.”

imagesThe title itself hints at absence, too, though in this case it’s an actual loss: the lost novel. Is the novel “lost” as in left behind somewhere, and cannot be found? Or lost in the sense of the writer having lost the thread of the novel and therefore not being able to complete it? Or is the title meant to be literal, with “lost” being the theme of the book? (Of course, the fact this is a poetry collection and not a novel seems to also be at play — as if this “novel” is so lost it can no longer even be rendered or described in prose, and instead is referred to in a different form, marking yet another degree of separation.) All of these questions are implied by the title, and in the title poem itself.

There are nine sections in “The Lost Novel.” The first lines are addressed to an ambiguous “you” that might be the novel itself. “I wrote you once for years. / I called you many names.” Not “I wrote to you” but “I wrote you”: implying that for the speaker the novel has be transformed, anthropomorphized. The following section gives us some of the names/titles: “Party of One. Sexy / Hypothesis. Miss Bliss. / The Instrumentalist.” Because this is a lost novel, there is no final name/title, only a list of possible ones. The next sections pick up on this fragmentation. In section four, the poet says, “Some chapters just sketched out, others quite filled in.” And later, in section six: “Chapters 6, 7, 8: / Develop character!”

Despite the injunctions, these fix-it notes to self, you begin to think that this novel — like a modern project grounded in its own failure and/or incompletion (Beckett and Kafka come to mind) — is a work that cannot be completed, that houses its own missing parts within itself. As the poet writes near the end, “I still have all my notes,” suggesting that though these notes will never lead to a completed novel, they continue to hold promise, the “still” being a wager against the impossible.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. adam s

    “lone houses on wind-swept beaches”–is this Bishop’s End of March?

  2. James Pate

    Not intentionally, but I guess it could be rattling around in the back of my brain!

  3. adam s

    It fits perfectly, grins. Slightly less perfectly, it’s hard not to think of “Auroras of Autumn.”