Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

The Lost Novel

By James Shea

Reviewed By Patrick Whitfill

  • Fence (2014)
  • 88 pages
  • $15.95
Buy this book

The Lost Novel wants to find a new idea, and then apply that idea to poetry, to poems, and, yes, to existence. Structurally, Shea splits the book into four sections, each one focusing on one (or more) of the classical elements—water, air, fire, earth—to reach the final element: quintessence. The need to get to the ether of existence, the quintessence, leads the poet beyond the image, into the abstract, into language. He writes, for example, in “City of the One-Sided Sun,”

The walk of a stranger,
movements of the earth
are no longer believable.
It’s the act that matters:
less the hydrant, red solid,
quiet with water, more
the belief in believing,
the faith we have even
in reason, a partial tree.

Yes, these are poems of belief and faith, of hope, and they reach toward those emotions through a careful unpeeling of older poetic adages: “no ideas but in things”, “make it new”, “earn your abstractions.” The notion of belief, the reliance on the abstract, the concept of the hydrant, the “belief in believing”—all of it can lead to a new adage: no things except first in ideas, as seen in “Ambulance Man”:

The calamity had calmed us, or rather,
it opened the possibilities of finding solace
in a winter blaze: one complete thought
or original idea that would last a few days.

Even the book’s own agenda—finding this “lost novel”—becomes a fool’s errand, because, as the poem says, it will, at best, “last a few days.” But in that few days, what then? I wonder—what the book asks me to wonder—what thing happens in that time that can change me, change poetry?

To counter the heaviness of this attempt to reformulate poetry into his own, new thing, Shea makes us laugh along the way, lets us see that gravitas as poetic element only matters when lightheartedness appears next to it.  Consider this passage from “The Second Comedian”:

It’s humid; “it” being the weather now.
But no, it’s cool because of the window
and the late rain outside, the colder air
being inside where it’s not humid, today.

Box of sleep.

Times I can feel my own stupidity.

Even while using relatively clichéd images—window, rain, weather—the speaker can’t help but blurt out, “Box of sleep,” a punch-line, yes, but a punch-line meant to exaggerate the need to surprise both the writer and the reader. It’s in the humor of the poet that we hear the joy of being lost and the seriousness of the endeavor. The appropriation of classical Greek elements, the rejection of poetic tradition, and the use of humor all build together to reach the novel idea, the new quintessence.

In the documentary Icons Among Us, Robert Glasper says Coltrane wasn’t God; he was a “fucking human being,” and, as such, he can be transcended by future generations. Shea, I would argue, sees the powerhouse poets of the past as just that, fucking human beings, with good ideas, sure, but ideas that don’t require dogmatism. Contemporary poetry doesn’t have to exist within those parameters, not entirely. Take the poem “Tiny Cathedral” as an example, which I quote here in its entirety:

She put her keys
in her cap and her
cap in her purse
and her purse in her
car and her car
in her barn and her
barn in her field
and she sat in her
patch and she
smiled at her lap.

The enjambments and the piling up of nonspecific, domestic images—car, purse, barn, field—react against the smidge of hagiography in the poem’s title. We see the woman smiling at her lap, not at the world outside of herself, nor at the items she piled together beforehand. The poem acts as a rejection of the poem. All of these items—from the purse to the field to the barn—are just that, items. The smile is not necessarily in response to anything the poem has developed, but is, instead, a reflection of the inner self, of the part of this woman that makes her this woman. Throughout the book, the speaker asks us to question our attachment to meaning, to imagery, to the workshop poem, the teachable poem.

The second section, “The Air and Water Show,” is in a multiple-choice format, where each section of the longer poem consists of four potential answers, A through D, just as you might find on any god-awful standardized test. Here’s an example of this longer sequence:

A. Can you feel the torque in this question?
B. Can you hear different storms in the sky?
C. Are you simply companion to an idea?
D. What are your names? I want to report you.

At first, I feel that I should pick one of the four, which is the standard way to view a multiple-choice test. But the lack of a guiding question to which an answer is required tells me I don’t have to actually make any choice. I can read the poem as a single stanza. Or not. The poem depends upon my recognition of the structure underlying the form, and then depends upon my reacting with/against that recognition. This concept—recognizing traditional forms to then move on from the normal response—is at the heart of James Shea’s search for a new idea.

In this section, this concept is much louder. Granted, when one of the answers is “God’s immeasurable diameter provides one miracle each” or “Gambling calmness into the sky, Solomon switched white soil for snow,” I feel elated in the presence of the line. And yes, the presence of God, creation, Adam and Eve—all of these appear in this sequence, as they do throughout the book. This section allows the speaker to retell the creation story without a guiding question. As such, we must realize, recognize, and then reject all of these traditions simultaneously. While not my favorite section (I keep thinking it feels gimmicky, one-note, though I hesitate to pin anything that negative directly to it), it does escalate the underlying concept of the book quickly and effectively.

The third section uses more of what we saw with “Tiny Cathedral,” where the voice finds a phrase to suit it, and then tries that on for a while. Take this passage from “Rain’s Misstep”:

Rain said, No.
Rains said, Get
the fuck out.
Rain said, You’re
wrong. Rain said,
You’re wet wet.
Rain said, that’s
it. Rain said
Keep walking. Rain
said, Raise your
arms. Rain said,
They will be
heavy. Rain said,
You will learn
to suffer better.

Both with “Tiny Cathedral” and here, the repetition and the anaphora become nearly grating to the ear, except that, as this grates against us, it also cuts away to a gleaming section of just-under-the-skin sentiment. The idea “You will learn / to suffer better” sounds myopic and reductive, preachy maybe. But shown to us as the product of a slicing away at the raw surface, it becomes a moment of clarity, of near quintessence.

But it isn’t until the final section of the book that we see who the speaker is in relation to the project. We had to go through the book to get to this new voice, to prove that the voice knows the old songs and now will sing his own, as heard in “The Phrase You Gave Me”:

When I’m awake, I cannot find a moment
without a metallic whisper. I practice
an old tradition of drawing sutras on my skin.
My wayward ways are never without purpose.
The purpose is simply not always productive,
a purposeless purposiveness, these days.

From the honest, nearly vulnerable confession at the beginning of the stanza, to the tattooing of the skin with a sutra (with the pun on suture), the poem admits to what the idea of the book has hinted at: a direction without a motive beyond itself. These poems exist, and because they exist, we can see, epistemologically speaking, the need for their existence. What he’s risking here is nothing short of his emotive self. As Lowell told us, and many other writers since and after: poets have to risk the sentimental. Or, in other words, we have to make readers care.

Undoubtedly, Shea’s book is smart. He knows his poetic tradition, and he knows how to use tradition to challenge tradition. But it isn’t because of the book’s intelligence, or its knowledge, or its cleverness, that you should read it. The vulnerability of the speaker; the risk of putting himself out there emotionally for us, risking sentiment, risking something real, something funny, something heartbreaking and bold; the attempt to find something new (and in that attempt, the risk of failure); that is why you should read it, over and over, until you begin to hear the quintessence rising up from the white space of the page, the part you can’t read.

Patrick Whitfill's poems and reviews appear or will appear in Southern Humanities Review , PANK , Kenyon Review Online , Painted Bride Quarterly , and other publications. He co-curates the New Southern Voices Reading Series in Spartanburg, SC, and teaches at Wofford College.