The experience of reading Shane Jones’s new collection A Cake Appeared (Scrambler Books) is very much like the experience of peering into one of Salvador Dali’s paintings — ‘The Hallucinogenic Toreador’, perhaps, or ‘The Discovery of American by Christopher Columbus’. Images transform, turn on and into one another, overwhelming and displacing the reader’s sense of scale, keeping any sense of security on edge. One idea turns radically away only to return in a slightly different form a moment later. Simultaneously disturbing and reassuring, these poems build up expectations, break them, and then, as soon as hope slips away, fulfill them, but never in the way you might expect.
The poems in this collection abound with helplessness, but despair and fear are pursued relentlessly, embraced even, so that almost in spite of themselves, they become hope. People put faith in something only to discover it will not save them, and they turn away from it in desperation, only to discover a new understanding of their own helplessness:
They think that tugboat can save them and when they get inside the tugboat nothing happens and then they run and jump off but there’s no river or ocean to catch them.
But even that moment of dreaming free-fall into nothingness and desperation resolves itself in an unexpected transformation. Throughout these poems, it is unexpected images, or the unexpected transformations of images — a sea monster that discovers a “black wet rock”, the sound of a bicycle’s “back tire sliding out on the wet tile” of a bathroom, an octopus offering “eight life jackets” to people on a tugboat, motorcyclists wearing “navy pea coats / and skinny brown / pants”, or a wolf on a leash that floats skyward — that offer solace from the unavoidable things we fear.
In “Half Scary,” the speaker tells us,
It’s a pulled string of imagination
you can run after
until the sky goes dark.
Until the storm clouds scare you off.
And I think we might take these lines as a way of understanding the collection as a whole. Lines of thought are pursued, pulled, teased, confronted, chased. The thing is, Jones isn’t easily scared by these storm clouds, so he pursues these lines of thought much farther than many readers might be comfortable with. There is a boldness in his writing as he pursues the fears that would scare many off, and what this boldness allows him to reveal is a sort of desperate hope that lies in the artist’s interpretation of images.
The long poem “The Nightmare Filled You With Scary” comprises over a third of A Cake Appeared and contains, perhaps, the most compelling writing of the collection. It is filled with vividly depicted repeated suicide attempts, each of them an attempt to wake up from a nightmare. Cats impale themselves or plunge themselves in pots of boiling water in order to wake up, a sheriff slits his own throat. “I don’t want to live like / this”, the speaker tells us, fearing that his unborn child will have nightmares, too, and he and the mother cut one another in an attempt to escape their own nightmares. After the child is born, both parents attempt to stay awake, to keep the child awake and so to save him from the nightmares, but the line between sleep and waking blurs, with consequences embodied in the fate of a woman who “was / so tired she thought / she was sleeping” and takes her own life. And again, the answer is not anything like perfect resolution, but hope does appear in the strangest of places: a sound like a train that is instead an endless coast-to-coast ride with a motorcycle gang.
In “Wood,” a group of villagers are confronted with death:
So the villagers had to rely on the artist, which was the last thing the people in the village wanted to do. The artist picked up the dead bird and twisted it like a tray of ice-cubes.
This, Jones’s surreal, postmodern vision seems to say, is the role of the contemporary artist: it is not to offer an answer when confronted by unanswerable fear, but to offer escape through a surreal manipulation of reality. Facing the loss of joy and sun and light and life, facing the inevitability of fear and pain and death, Jones offers a way of seeing the world that few readers will find entirely comforting, but that many will find some comfort in.
I leave A Cake Appeared with a heightened sense of my own fears, with the sense of being unmoored from anything that offers real peace or resolution, but I also leave it with a crumb of hope, feeling much like the title character from “A So Sad Big Man,” whose bathtub solitude is interrupted by a man riding a bicycle.
After the man on the bicycle performs for him, making circles on the bathroom floor with his skidding back tire, he asks, “Feeling any better?” And the so sad big man answers, “A little”.
Troy Urquhart’s website is troyurquhart.com.