by James Sale

Wind in the Cave, Finishing Line Press, 2017
Out of Nothing, Shanti Arts Publishing, 2018

Recently in a poetry review of another poet on these pages I commented that the poet had included 33 poems in his collection and speculated whether or not that had any significance; possibly not. But one commentator observed to me that this looking at the numbers seemed a futile kind of activity. May be so, but I now have in front of me two highly polished collections from James B Nicola: highly polished and very substantial. Indeed, his 2017 collection, Wind in the Cave, has 88 poems in it. Does that mean anything? Possibly not; but when I tell you that his 2018 collection—Out of Nothing—has 88 poems in it, I am sorry, but the poet is trying to tell us something and numbers speak!

What does the number 88 mean? It could mean a lot of things: perhaps, the figure 88 represents two people facing each other; or perhaps it is the doubly lucky Chinese number meaning extra prosperity. But my best guess at what it means is simply this: there are 88 keys on a piano and James B Nicola is nothing if not an artist and he is showing us the full range of intellectual, emotional and technical content as he plays and sings those notes—those words—across the two operas represented in these two collections.

For operas they are: the blurb on his books makes it very clear that each book is a special kind of journey, complete and entire of itself. What, then, to make of his work? What is it about? And how good is it? I need to say at the outset that the two collections are very different and I shall have to point towards these differences later in the review; but for now we notice that the starting point is that they are linked by their titles. Nicola has a philosophical, even theological turn of mind: the ‘wind in the cave’ recalls Plato’s cave and the unreality inside for those who never see the sunlight. But whereas the sun never penetrates the cave, the wind, of course, gives us a sense—a feeling—of the true reality beyond because it enters in and infiltrates our darkness. So Nicola’s poetry strains to address or suggest transcendence; I say strains because we live in secular times and it is quite clear that Nicolas is entirely secular in his outlook and beliefs.  Second, ‘out of nothing’ is surely an allusion to the classic Christian belief that God created everything ‘ex nihilo’—out of nothing. In short, what Nicola is obsessed and fascinated by is this metaphor whereby for him art has effectively become THE creative act and from which we now derive our values. There is no God, but from the void creativity springs fully-armoured (rather like Pallas Athene from the mind of Zeus) and does its work: there, see, the values it creates across the world.

But before exploring this further, let me return to the word I used to describe these collections: operas. Nicola’s poetry is strident, intense, breathless, precipitate, overwhelming, structured, overwrought, narcissistic, masterful, technical, profound, shallow, brilliant and annoying! You see, I am not an opera buff, but I do think there are passages in opera—say, Puccini—which contain some of the most sublime music ever written. But personally I find sitting through a whole opera somewhat wearing; so it is here. Indeed, for both collections I really wish that the 88 poems had been reduced to 44, or even 33. Everything is at such a pitch with Nicola that I found it exhausting to read through the whole thing. That said, however, Nicola is able to raise his game and, despite not having an off switch, write some truly wonderful poems.

The central theme of Wind in the Cave is essentially homosexual love affairs. From my perspective it would seem that Nicola does not know the difference between the word love and the word lust, as ‘Love’ propels him from one passionate encounter to another. But if one is not put off by the subject matter, Nicola produces some extraordinary poems of vibrant power. For example, his villanelle ‘The river’s frozen solid’ is so ingenious: its syntax is so flexible, its rhyming effortless, and there is a startling conceit in the last line with the word ‘alive’. A masterful performance. In fact, tight structures bring out the best of Nicola: his villanelle, ‘Achilles’, is also skilful and classical to boot. And there is everywhere evident what I would call technical excellence: he uses rhythm, rhyme, assonance, allusion to stunning effect. Also, he can find just the right word: for example, in ‘Cavern’ we encounter ‘the carapacial heart’—love that word, carapacial (notice an almost subliminal, unstated rhyme with ‘glacial’)! But if his diction can be precisely right, so too can his phrases and clauses—he has a knack for coining great one-liners: ‘the snakes of guile invisible to him’ (from ‘Boxes’) or ‘suffering the lightning and enlightening / of breaths intermingled on the verge of touch’ (from ‘Dagger’).

But Nicola is a poet—and I infer a man, too—of excess. Sometimes the technical ability runs riot. Take rhyming, for instance, a topic of major concern to readers of the poems on the SCP’s website. It is so easy to rhyme badly; and we know that rhyming, and finding rhymes that are original and arresting, can be very difficult. Nicola is quite brilliant at rhyming, but some of his poems go, in my view, too far with it. This is especially the case when he ‘creates’ a rhyme by breaking words up with the enjambment of the turn: for example, in the fine poem ‘Cotton Candy Cancer’ we have:  ‘It’s not / so hard to imagine. What you have is cot—/ ton candy cancer’. Or, ‘And I thought That / was what I wanted. But That doesn’t mat- / ter, nor what I did want.’ (from ‘This’). Notice, too, here his penchant for using capital letters with small adjectival words: this becomes This, and that becomes That. I can see some justification for doing this some of the time, but I can also see that often Nicola is straining for effect—straining to create a sort of significance or even transcendence that may not really be there. Put another way, he doesn’t always earn the philosophical profundity he desires, so instead takes a linguistic short cut to the result. But, then, it’s pretty obvious too that Nicola is very easily tempted!

If we move on to his second collection reviewed here, Out of Nothing, subtitled Poems of Art and Artists, we truly have an extraordinary book: the sort of book you want to have in your collection, fabulous production values, stacked full with wonderful images of art from Nicola’s travels in America and Europe, and with the poems to complement the images. The whole thing is a joy to have, hold and read. And our whole focus now shifts from the angst-ridden pursuit of erotic encounters to the in-depth contemplation of art and meaning.

Perhaps this would be a good place to contrast what I see as the essential strengths of Nicola set alongside his weaknesses. The two poems, ‘Things’ and ‘The Mean Time’ are set beside each other in the text pages 26 and 27. The former to me seems to be a mildly amusing, but ultimately trivial play on words; the latter another series of play on words, but this time with a deeply serious purpose that is brilliantly realised.

Things

A thing
that’s not a thing
is the thing
that is The Thing.

But a thing
that is a thing
is the thing
whereby the thing

that’s not a thing –
that is, the thing
that is The Thing –
is thung.

Ultimately, I find this kind of wordplay, and the pretentious use of capitals, mildly irritating. I am reminded, to paraphrase, of Dr Johnson famously observing that Shakespeare was content to lose all decorum for the sake of a pun, and to regard himself well-satisfied in doing so! Contrast it with:

The Mean Time

If nothing else, Art takes us through the mean time
and gives us Something about which to speak
when there is nothing, nothing, Nothing really,
save the saving appreciation of Technique.

For those who will not bear and cannot bear it
there’s only Something, and the bitter Rest.
So we imagine sweetly and imagine
we too might be miraculously blessed.

Here is something else: here the capitals work, here there is some really pathos in the puns of ‘mean time’ and the appalling ‘bitter Rest’—so loaded with ambiguity. And—as a Christian myself and not wanting to patronise Nicola and secularists generally—but this really is as good as it gets: how they miraculously seek (and assert in their art) a blessing despite the fact there is, for them, really ‘Nothing’. There is in this poem tremendous power, insight and existential tension of the first order.

Thus, though I may not agree with Nicola’s existentialism, I do recognise his power as a poet to portray the essence of his beliefs through the verbal techniques that he brings to bear. There is, then, much to learn about poetry, and much to enjoy too, given my caveat about ‘overmuch’ and excess. Of the two collections, if I had to recommend one, it would be the later collection: Out of Nothing. There is so much in this that will delight connoisseurs of both poetry and the arts. We have here a really interesting poet and my own suspicion is that Nicola is someone who is not the best judge of his own best work. Sometimes that is necessary—poets simply need to get it out. But I think a ‘Selected’—but not selected by him!—would seriously be a good choice in terms of creating a wider audience for his most outstanding work.

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3 Responses

  1. James A. Tweedie

    James, Many thanks for putting the spotlight on one of our namesakes, James B. Nicola. I have enjoyed the work he has been kind enough to contribute to SCP in the past, both formal/classical and whimsical. Your review encouraged me to seek out other poems available on the internet. Never once was I disappointed. Although I can see where reading 88 poems back to back might be daunting, I would also agree with you that his work exemplifies the the highest level of classical poetic craft to which we all aspire. If, as you say, Mr. Nicola is “entirely secular in his outlook and beliefs,” I nevertheless sense (as do you, apparently) something transcendent, perhaps even inspired, hovering in and around his words. I also found–and commend–an insightful interview with Mr. Nicola at the Ekphrastic Review concerning the two collections you reviewed.

    http://www.ekphrastic.net/the-ekphrastic-review/the-ekphrastic-review-talks-with-james-b-nicola-on-out-of-nothing-poems-of-art-and-artists

    I hope Mr. Nicola will continue to share his work with us here at SCP.

    Reply
  2. James Sale

    Thanks James, yes: I agree with your comments, and thanks for the link to Ekphrastic, although I didn’t read it before my review; indeed, prefer not to: in a way I like to let the poetry speak without reference to other people’s ideas about it – especially the authors’! But James B Nicola is a very fine poet and I hope the review proves useful.

    Reply

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