Author: James B. Nicola

Director, Composer, Lyricist, Poet, Playwright at James B. Nicola


James B. Nicola’s poems have appeared in Fickle Muses, the Antioch, Southwest and Atlanta Reviews, Rattle, and Poetry East. His nonfiction book Playing the Audience won a Choice award. His two poetry collections, published by Word Poetry, are Manhattan Plaza (2014) and Stage to Page: Poems from the Theater (2016). He won a Dana Literary Award, a People’s Choice award (from Storyteller) and a Willow Review award; was nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and once for a Rhysling Award; and was featured poet at New Formalist. A Yale graduate as well as a composer, lyricist, and playwright, James has been giving both theater and poetry workshops at libraries, literary festivals, schools, and community centers all over the country. His children’s musical Chimes: A Christmas Vaudeville premiered in Fairbanks, Alaska, where Santa Claus was rumored to be in attendance on opening night. 



[In an enchanted wood]


In an enchanted wood of a remote, dark land

a Citadel’s been erected, and remains

unbothered, but for the occasional doves and bats

that brave the invisible bulwarks, by chance

more than mission. She—if a fortress is a she,

that is—chuckles intermittently

at legions marching past who do not see,

at knights stomping on reconnaissance

who do not see, at the renegade few

who see but to ford her moat and scale

her walls go ker-clunk ker-clunk ker-plash

unwilling to disburden themselves of armor

which makes her defenses effective,

the battlements inaccessible. Their falls

seem noble as the antics of court fools

or circus clowns. But still she has assumed

the reputation of a wit, a curmudgeon.


But were anyone to shed the heft

and armor of the world I bet

they’d be able to rise into her inner

sanctum, and steal the gold or whatever

treasures there are. Naked, free and light

they’d traipse through the keep and the dongeon, parade

through halls and dance atop the throne—

since there are no sentries, they’ll think they are alone—

until they hear a footstep, and then see. . . .


Have you guessed what the fort really is?

Like Atlantis, no one living knows if

it’s been lost or ever really was.

But sometimes in a twilight still and clear

I think I hear the faraway sound

of armor being dropped, and then, coming

nearer, ever nearer, on tiptoe yet,

a naked, intrepid, intrigued and intriguing



I once saw a head of Hellsgate

In a book of old English tales

     on an illustrated page

     (at the side of the stage

Of a touring troupe from Wales).

The face was betwisted and mottled

With sores and warts and moles

     and the biggest maw

     you ever saw

As if hungry for passing souls

In the back of a pub, or the tar pits,

Or the next, or the next-to-next town

     where you too would be sent

     if you didn’t repent:

And it looked like a long way down.

Since then, I’ve seen myriad movies

Full of horror, vice, grossness and gore

     where the portal to hell

     was a myth to dispel

Only to visit once more.

One night, in the rear of a tavern,

I overheard casual chatter

     about stealing, extortion,

     adultery, abortion. . .

I went out the back. (Does it matter

That on the back door was a door plaque

With a hells-mouth?) And then rose a laughter

     so piercing and scar-

     y I raced out of there—

I hear it yet, now, decades after.

He’s a boy, he’s a boor, he’s a bear, he is doomed and is not doomed

and is not dead

but living in a heaven of hell where

he must pick the berries, shake down the nuts,

tell stories around the fire, and


as we must imagine him

strong enough of spirit to reraise

any boulder, singing gladly

with wild honey

and like viscosities

dripping down his face.

In crosswords we recall Gaea, Clio,

the long-named Mnemosyne (as a clue),

and even (when squeezed to two letters) Io.

(The Times, though, disallows words of just two.)


This artifice of circumstance, contrived

that we invoke some dead divinity

once worshiped (now thought never to have lived)

in festival, thought, and ceremony,


seems fair use. It’s neither swearing nor prayer,

but supplication, spurred by hint and stricture,

to parse the matrix, squiggling to fill bare

boxes with meaning, altering the picture


of given perpindiculars—as Chaos

spawned Cosmos, once, by checkering a Void.

How frequently our answer, still, is Eos,

The Dawn; how rarely is it ever God.

It must have been difficult having him for a father,
the way he kept dabbling in science, design,
and invention. O, wasn’t he young once?
Didn’t he once, prematurely, want to fly?

Only I think of this. My friend does not.
He only remembers the day he left
the car keys on the counter, and his fif-
teen-year-old took them when his friends were over—
unsupervised, which turns a dare into the act.

The parents of the other boys in the car
are suing him now.

He had never thought his son was the kind
you would have to hide the car keys from.

He’d forgotten that when he was a boy
himself, he’d almost blown up the house
with his chemistry set.

And now his son has learned to fly,
and dissolved into the spindrift, if not the sky,
and my friend has boarded up the house
on the hill like the labyrinth in Crete.

If only the windows there had been sealed,
Icarus would still be alive today.

My friend never leaves his labyrinth.

But I think about when I was fifteen,
and there were the car keys on the counter,
and in the basement, hanging on the wall,
the machete from the Philippines my own
father had brought back from the war, that taught
me what the sternum was even before
I learned the word for sternum. And I think
about how difficult it is and always
has been, to have Daedalus for a father.

Remember, if you’ve come upon this note
     And wish to work the maze to claim the prize,
That there’s a monster girded by this moat
     Who’s slain about a hundred other guys.

But if you will not fight, and even die
     For me, although I much prefer you kill,
Then I would just as soon you pass me by—
     But pass this on to someone else who will.