Wind in the Cave by James B. Nicola, Finishing Line Press, 2017, 105 pages, 18.99
Review by Jennifer Martelli
In his poem, “Different,” James B. Nicola writes
If the timing were different—
our season in sync, or more so:
If the spacing were different—
you living here, I living there:
Or if the situation were other than what it was—
our stirring not in such an official cauldron,
its leaden lid bolted down with proper clamps:
And if the words had been different—
fewer, or freer:
Nicola’s collection, Wind in the Cave, explores the concepts of absence, time, and love within the constraints of form, where the words chafe in a deliciously “Gerard Manley Hopkins” way. These are poems to a you, sometimes specific—lover, father, reader—at other times, the you is divine or the self. I found myself reading some of the poems out loud for the joy of form and for Nicola’s mastery of words within an archaic constraint. There is a sense of completeness to these poems that speak to an emptiness: the forms read as prayers.
Throughout Wind in the Cave, Nicola employs formal structures as a means of constraining emotion. Nicola’s villanelle, “Achilles,” adheres to the rules of that old-world obsessive form, while conjuring the ancient love story of Achilles and Patroklos
and come back—incomplete. Come back to bed
and let us slay that fatal notion, my
Love Soldier. And, Patroklos, should you need
to enlist, I’ll be invulnerable. (But bleed.)
In his sonnet, “Beast,” Nicola grapples with the concept of boundaries and constraints. Again, the space created by the poet is not only a formal structure, but an emotional one:
I’ve put him in a cage. He won’t attack.
Come in! It’s safe. I’m sure it’s safe. Come in.
You want to see him? It? Him? You want to
See me? Come in, then. Make way. Passing through.
Nicola’s use of the poetic form creates tension by breaking—or yearning to break—these constraints, whether actual, emotional, or cultural. As if repudiating form, Nicola writes in “Boxes,”
One day I will burst out of, or burst, all
These boxes, but must meanwhile box the dream
So wrapped and shiny, that I tuck it in
the back of a dark closet and can live.
The body, too, becomes an ever-changing boundary. In his poems, “The river’s frozen solid” and “Pilot Light,” Nicola confronts the edges of the physical self as they are transformed by emotion and by age. The agent of change in “Pilot Light” is heat, “I thought a week’s proximity would dowse / the pilot light that you’d left on in me . . . .” In “The river’s frozen solid,” “you and I” transform from water to ice, and back,
And you and I are aqueous, although
I don’t mistake you, as you once mistook
me, for a river frozen solid. (No,
for steel!) But all year, blood and hormones flow . . . .
The genius in so many of these poems is Nicola’s ability to transcend time and form, or perhaps to contain this movement, to preserve it. The other, the you, are specific yet amorphous; the diction formal, yet steeped in pop culture; the emotions guarded, yet needy. In “At Last,” he writes
Alpha and Omega
Night and day
My everything, a walking poem
A harbor. A gentleman
Wild as the unknown seas.
Had you met him, you’d
Have told me he’s perfect . . . .
The poet’s ability both to look at the frightening aspects of life, while juxtaposing with frivolous imagery, is another way to transcend emotional boundaries. In “Cotton Candy Cancer,” Nicola’s poem that wrestles with loss and memory, he writes
There are many ways to try to convey
the soughing of the wind in the cave (the cave
being the emptiness inside, a metaphor.
Now is as good a time to make that clear
as any). Here’s one. You remember walking
down the boardwalk, overdosing on
cotton candy with a beloved one . . . .
. . . . What you have is cot-
ton candy cancer, and it eats away
your insides, but by sorry bit,
and you and I have to live with it.
Like a Rorschach inkblot, the boundaries define the speaker and the reader. In his poems “I Saw You” and “Strange Day,” Nicola examines this concept of shape and the emptiness the shape can hold. In “I Saw You,” the speaker states,
I saw your cold reflection
breathe half the night in, on the verge of talk—
ing, then walk on. And once more I was free.
I’m pretty sure you didn’t notice me.
Definitions prove to be inaccurate, tricky reflections in “Strange Day,”
I think I took the dearness
And thought you a reflection
Not a refraction;
While you mistook my patience—deflection,
After one bright night’s moment of nearness—
For openness to distance . . . .
James B. Nicola’s Wind in the Cave is a study of shapes: the poem, the body, the heart. It is a love story, a story of emptiness, begging to be filled. With work that obsessively ponders “the feeling of emptiness, the void, / the space,” the poet remains tethered—by meticulous craft—to this earth. Nicola asks us,
a wind in the cave, or
a worm in the soil?
You tell me.