James B. Nicola, Out of Nothing: Poems of Art and Artists, Shanti Arts Publishing, Brunswick, Maine 2018, IBSN 978-1-947067-32-5, 180 pages, $34.95
James Nicola’s book of poetry “Out of Nothing: Poems of Art and Artists,” is a compilation of 80 poems accompanied by 60 images of famous pieces of art, from sculptures by Michelangelo to the impressionistic paintings of Claude Monet. Through poetry, Nicola ponders the human relationship to art, and the concept of “art” itself. One of the first poems asks “Where does art start?”
Where does art
What makes a dart
The hand, the head, the heart?
Perhaps all art
is from the part
impossible to chart
Except as art
Many of Nicola’s poems put himself in conversation with the art, questioning its creation, or the intention of the artist themselves. Or, sometimes, Nicola gives art a voice of its own. His poems shift through a variety of perspectives—from mere observers of art, to the art itself. The poem “Sebastian” gives a voice to the subject of Guido Reni’s painting, Saint Sebastian, that flips the reader’s initial impressions on their head, turning Saint Sebastian into a miserable figure who is well aware of the eyes on him, down to the customers who buy prints of the painting in the gift shop, who he calls “sales to profit from my pains.” Take this excerpt:
Stop staring at me. Please. You know it’s rude,
don’t you? Your glances pierce and make a mar-
tyr of me worse than any arrows, now.
I’m trying to remain composed, but — Ow.
Move on. Move on. What kind of person are
you? Ow! Were I alive and left for nude
you’d look away, remembering I’m a saint,
in spite of the provocativeness of paint.
The actual Roman soldiers that slew
me moved on, and the empire fell! But you
linger too long, relish the foaming view
of me too much. Why, Citizen? Why? Why!
Don’t you have anything better to do
than parse my wounds and watch my skin turn blue? . . .
Like the speaker in “Sebastian,” one of the things Nicola does best is this personification and characterization of his subjects—building onto art by giving it an accompanying voice in print. The poems don’t merely describe the art, but they expand into pieces that are able to stand on their own.
Nicola’s view of art expands to include architecture, and he brings the reader with him on some travels of his own; from the sound of squeaky footsteps on the floors of the Vatican to the Broome County Courthouse in New York. His poem “Justice” bleeds with empathy for the almost-forgotten female sculpture that stands atop this courthouse:
The civic dome stands still, but dark, tonight.
I stand below, squint upward, apprehensive.
Electricity has gotten too expensive
but due to passing cars and sallow light
from banks, the coliseum, the dollar store,
I can make out its four directions’ faces
in iron and her scales, two empty dishes
still poised but hardly noticed anymore.
She stands atop the dome, but since she’s blind
and not alive but sculpted from a mud
impressed to stone, she shouldn’t note the flood-
lights’ darkness, or the cold, or shouldn’t mind —
and I can see she doesn’t. But I sigh
for her old glory days and almost shout
Look up! The Lady’s lamplight has gone out!
to every pair of headlights whizzing by.
My personal favorite of Nicola’s poems happens to do an excellent job of tying together the collection. “So, the Modern” places the human condition against the teachings of Nature, who remains blissfully unaware of its impact on mankind.
When I call the sky, the ocean, the world, Life
or Being itself — when I call these my Teachers,
you call me on it and say that that’s a lie
in that it’s a metaphor. Nature does not want
to teach, but is, and wants only to continue —
But even that is imputing human desire
to the senseless sense of nature. This is much
like how we find an aim in modern art.
But to tell plain truth one can’t use metaphor.
For if the facts are: I have learned so much
from looking at and flying in the sky,
from sailing on and swimming in the sea,
as from breathing in, walking on, growing up from the earth,
splendificating nature as my world,
it is also so that none of these teachers gave
a whit whether I learned a thing or not,
only that I continue — But even that
is something I can only hope is So.
Well so it is with a contemporary painting
or sculpture, or poem, or dance, or piece of music.
What it wants to be, what I want it to be,
more than it is, that is, is what I impute
to it, not what is necessarily there.
Of course I’d be hard pressed to say that jazz
or the jitterbug is sad. No, they simply must
have been born from joy, as Munch’s Scream must
have been shrieked, at least the first time, from raw anguish.
(Later, of course, from remembrance of that sound.)
So Nature’s wellspring and purpose has to be —
Well, whatever you say, Sir, in the end.
And God must be a modern after all.
Nicola’s collection of poems paired with the beautiful full-colored photographs of art make for a unique reading experience, presenting the reader with a new perspective that can’t be taught in an art history class.
© James B. Nicola and Lena Fultz
James B. Nicola’s poems have appeared in LRR; the Antioch, Southwest and Atlanta Reviews; Rattle; Tar River; and Poetry East. His first three full-length collections are Manhattan Plaza (2014), Stage to Page (2016), and Wind in the Cave (2017). He has received a Dana Literary Award, two Willow Review awards, four Pushcart Prize nominations, and a People’s Choice award from Storyteller magazine. His nonfiction book Playing the Audience won a Choice award.
Lena Fultz is currently a senior studying English and Creative Writing as an undergraduate at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. She previously attended Frederick Community College, where her fiction was published in the Tuscarora Review and won the Editor’s Choice award. She plans to attend graduate school in the near future.