Fires of Heaven, published by Shanti Arts, 2020, can be purchased here. by James Sale James B. Nicola is one of America’s brightest poetry stars. His poetry is restless, searching, and soaring. There is, perhaps, no overarching "poetics," except to the pragmatic, which works; in other words, Nicola is not a partisan free-verser or formalist poet exactly; he is able to switch from one form to formlessness with ease, and with varying degrees of success too. As I commented in my review of his last two books, "my own suspicion is that Nicola is someone who is not the best judge of his own best work"; instead, he gets it out. We have 105 poems in this collection but I could wish it were pruned a little more, since some of the poems seem really slight, and that detracts from the fact that many are magnificent. As the title indicates, his primary concern is one of spirituality, his own, and he explores this within the context of the modern world. One of the epigraphs to the book is a quotation from Robert Francis: "…Some measure of faith is needed by us all. Pure doubt is death." This seems to me to encapsulate the underlying dynamic of the whole collection; and furthermore, notice the phrase, "some measure." There is a guardedness about Nicola’s attitude to faith---he wants it, but he simply can’t commit. He goes, therefore, as far as it is humanly possible to believing, yet without belief; and the yardstick which time and again comes back to haunt him is the exploration of his childhood when he did believe, but lost it. The ambiguities of his attitude towards God are clearly seen even in the title of his poem, "Mixed Praise." God is full of contradictions, as his first two lines indicate: . If God makes deluges and droughts,I don’t think I can fathom God. . But the poem turns out to be not just about the twists and turns of God, but about love and the beloved: . But then you return, and I’m insanewith joy. And no hunger, drought,or deluge can make me not praise God. . That’s a very powerful statement, indeed an extremely perceptive one too: what children have, what atheists tend to want to deny---namely, some aspect of the sheer riff of life that almost forces praise from us despite ourselves. The philosophers may deny it, but the true poet---James B. Nicola---has to acknowledge it, because … poets feel it. One almost sublime poem, "One Time," in the middle, picks up and explores this idea even further. Before commenting on content, it is worth mentioning it’s unique and unusual tripartite structure---not formal poetry exactly, but not free verse either. Mimetically, as ambivalent in form as his own attitude to the Creator. But having come across a "quaint cathedral," and then a "city of the dead," he finally encounters a "triple rainbow" which grabs his, and the "multitude’s" attention---the "work of someone other than man"---and from this awareness: . … my soul dropped down, unintentionally,to my knees, then on all fours, and finallyprostate on the groundas if in supplicationbut with nothing more I could think ofto ask for. . This is deeply beautiful---a religion without a creed, an overwhelming sense of the mystery that Wordsworth, perhaps, alluded to. The language is simple, but entirely convincing, and the experience seems faithfully rendered. Nicola here is at his best. As he is in poems like "Chimes," which is worth quoting in full. His mastery is shown in the tight formal structure: the ballad form, the 4-3 iambic beat (though note the abrupt, because short, first foot in the final line) with perfect rhymes. Yet all so simple, natural and unforced: . No chimes, no choir, no mourning rites;No marble twelve feet tall;For me they’ll merely dim the lightsAnd silence may be all: Or strike a rusted, tongueless bellAnd crack it when I’m dead.The pearly gates part just as well---Better, some have said. . But he can be mischievous too, since he is prolific and so technically adroit; and so we range from the one word joke, or is that pun, in the title of "Heaven, Whateveritis," to the four page deliberation in rhyming, iambic seven stress (heptameter) lines of "Exegesis on a Church Sign." In the former case we realize that he is saying either: . Heaven, whatever it is, so we are not sure . Or . Heaven, whatever-itis, so it’s a human form of disease! . .In the latter case, we end with: . …. Though, since I hope it pleases,The prosecutor’s guilty of an irony sublime:To lure and then distract you, I’ve set the thing in rhyme. . Wonderful! This is of course a classic Sir Philip Sydney type of apology for poetry: ultimately, the entertainment precedes the learning and the poet unashamedly uses rhyme to achieve this effect. How glorious that somebody as contemporary and modern as Nicola rejoices in using rhyme--- and uses it so effectively---and is not dismissive like some snooty post-modernist. Nicola is a highly imaginative poet and there is so much technical ability displayed in this collection that nearly any other poet could learn much by scanning his verses. Given my early caveat that Nicola needs to prune more ---sometimes his poems are too cerebral and excessive---nevertheless, this is a brilliant collection from a poet continually stretching himself, exploring new areas and dimensions of life, and with something important to say as he wrestles with the mystery. I strongly recommend this collection. . .