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:

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If God makes deluges and droughts,
I don’t think I can fathom God.

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But the poem turns out to be not just about the twists and turns of God, but about love and the beloved:

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But then you return, and I’m insane
with joy. And no hunger, drought,
or deluge can make me not praise God.

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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:

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… my soul dropped down, unintentionally,
to my knees, then on all fours, and finally
prostate on the ground
as if in supplication
but with nothing more I could think of
to ask for.

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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:

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No chimes, no choir, no mourning rites;
No marble twelve feet tall;
For me they’ll merely dim the lights
And silence may be all:

Or strike a rusted, tongueless bell
And crack it when I’m dead.
The pearly gates part just as well—
Better, some have said.

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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:

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Heaven, whatever it is, so we are not sure

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Or

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Heaven, whatever-itis, so it’s a human form of disease!

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.In the latter case, we end with:

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…. 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.

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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.

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7 Responses

  1. Julian D. Woodruff

    Your review makes this sound like a very intriguing collection, James. Nicola would seem to sit on the cusp of belief (maybe a few doors down from the subjectivism of the famous hymn line “You ask me how I know He lives. He lives within my heart”); but I don’t get, in your review, the difference between his response to phenomena that seem to compel belief (e.g., the triple rainbow, which might be abstracted as beauty; a very different example might be seen in the adage “There are no atheists in the trenches”) and the will to believe. Is there any sense of the latter, or does the will hover in insignificance in the shadow of that triple rainbow?
    Thanks, in any case, for bringing Nicola and his work to our attention.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      This is a great question, Julian, and one that I think only the poet can answer, for whilst the poetry reveals some things – as a fingerprint does – it may not include all that we wish to know (the size of his toe for example!). Furthermore, every human being has blind spots about themselves: as St Francis of Assisi said, ‘What you are looking for is what is looking’. The soul cannot see itself directly. Hence why we can so easily criticise others but fail to see our own failings. I have sent the review link to JBN and he may reply. Meanwhile, we can but speculate. Aldous Huxley once said an interesting thing about atheism, keeping in mind he was an adamant one himself: ‘Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless’. Clearly, the poetry of JBN does see meaning, does see beauty, as you observe, but the will fully sees that the ‘crucifixion’ of its old self requires such an inordinate sacrifice – and so it hesitates on the fringe, on the very brink. Remember what CS Lewis said after his conversion to Christianity? He was the most reluctant convert in Christendom! However, this may not be JBN’s reason or reasons: you will find some very negative religious, childhood experiences depicted in some of the poems.

      Reply
      • Julian D. Woodruff

        Thanks, James. A lucid and learned reply.
        And NYC? Is there a future reading date there for you scheduled?

    • James Sale

      Thanks for this Julian. And since it is that day – happy Independence Day to all Americans, especially those reading the SCP pages! Regarding NYC, good question: Evan and I have agreed on the ‘theme’ for the show, but I need to confirm the date with him. I will try and do that this week so that we can give people as much notice as possible, as well as confirm a line-up of poets to read! All in hand, I would say. Hope to find you there!

      Reply
  2. Andrew Benson Brown

    This seems like an interesting mix. Just ordered a copy! Will be excited to read it and, as you say James, educate myself by scanning the verses.

    Reply
  3. James Sale

    I am sure that James B will be delighted Andrew! He is a very fine poet indeed, and as you like technical stuff, I am sure you will find plenty of meat here to consume! Next time I am in NY to do a live poetry reading, I hope James B will appear with me, as he did in Bryant Park in 2019; and who knows, perhaps Missouri’s most distinguished-to-be poet, Andrew Benson Brown, will join us? A consummation devoutly to be wished!

    Reply
    • Andrew Benson Brown

      Ha ha, yes I will definitely be there! Hopefully sooner rather than later!

      Reply

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