Tag Archives: sestina

Potcake Poet’s Choice: James B. Nicola, ‘Everybody’s Friendly, Just About…’

On my floor there lives a very nice old
man. Foreign. He’s going blind.
I don’t think he was necessarily an act-
or but a vestigial life percolates up from beneath
the lines in his face and accent. Lately, reaching
out to him has become exhausting. He’s too friendly

now and thrusts his face too close. . . . I was friendly
when I moved in the building. I thought old
meant interesting. Besides, singles are always reaching
out somehow, even when we appear blind
to the personalities and plights that lie beneath
the surface of a stranger’s smile, that casual act

on the elevator where everyone’s an act-
or in some way. Alas, I lack the stamina to feel friendly
always. . . . One time I was standing beneath
the shower in the health club, and another old
man poked his head in. The steam must have blind-
ed him to the soapy mess in my hair. He was just reaching

for whomever he could find for help. What’s wrong with reaching
out when you need help? He had been a famous act-
or, probably used to bothering others. I almost blurted, “Are you blind
or what?! I’m showering!” I felt unfriendly—
then hypocritical, for I knew the showers were old.
After I got his to work, I heard him singing beneath

the nozzle and the steam. Tone deaf. Of course beneath
it all, I was just cranky about his not reaching
out to some paid employee instead of me. Was I getting old
all of a sudden? Old and irritable. O, why resent act-
ing friendly simply because you don’t feel particularly friendly? . . .
Sometimes in the elevator, I’ll read. The book or magazine’s a blind,

but is it hypocrisy? I wonder. Then, when a certifiably blind
person gets on—with a walking stick—the person lying beneath
my literary subterfuge looks up, and, actually feeling friendly,
says hello, implying I could provide some assistance in reaching
a floor if so desired. No, this is not an act:
When they don’t ask for help, I don’t feel cranky or old.

When they do, rudely, I fear I’m going blind, reaching
out to souls beneath loud showers, trying too hard to act
friendly always, and turning prematurely old.

James B. Nicola writes: “If anyone cares to perform ‘Everyone’s Friendly, Just about….,’ you can either enhance the repeated end-of-line words (slightly), or try to ‘enjamb’ through them. In this way, you may notice it exploits the sestina form to serve as a bridge between the ‘poetic/special/heightened’ and the ‘conversational/ quotidien/ casual.’ The balance, or tension, between the two is a concern we have in the theater as well, with the actor’s craft. More than once have I coached an actor with: “For heaven’s sake, don’t let anyone catch you acting!” The poem is the first sestina of mine ever published. It is from my first poetry collection, Manhattan Plaza.”

James B. Nicola has authored six collections of poetry, the latest being Fires of Heaven: Poems of Faith and Sense. Decades of theater work culminated in the nonfiction book Playing the Audience: The Practical Guide to Live Performance, which won a Choice award. Residence: New York City; born: Worcester, Massachusetts.
https://sites.google.com/view/james-b-nicola

Potcake Poet’s Choice: N.S. Thompson, ‘The Women in Delft’

Johannes Van Der Meer, (Vermeer), 17th Century

We look at them expectantly: a room
With balance held, a string of pearls, a hand
Placed on the virginal, or there a letter
Clutched to the breast; these women keep
The gentle art of looking artfully
Revealed, yet hidden in the art of space.

They seem absorbed in it and yet leave space
For eyes to linger on them in that room
And wonder what the painter artfully
Kept in or out, things under hand
Or underhand? The surfaces still keep
Us guessing. What could be in that one’s letter

Or that one’s balance? And why does he let her
Appear to weigh up in that pregnant space
Such a wealth of meaning only to keep
It from us in that sunlit room?
Are we – the viewers – meant to have a hand
In them and come to see what artfully

Has been concealed? That View of Delft is artfully
Conceived yet not depicted to the letter
But deftly rearranged, the painter’s hand
Adding the unknown of space,
A brooding sky providing all the room
To rise above the secrets buildings keep…

Or take elsewhere that crenellated keep
Of brick (its outside walls so artfully
Salt-leached) allowing us again the room
To wonder if they hold that letter
Or else the string of pearls in all that space
Held in The Little Street. Whose was the hand

That let the children out of doors or hand
That pressed the collars, urging them to keep
The clothes clean, as she hurriedly made space
To meet the lover artfully
Returned from sea or merchant whose last letter
Had news that left her trembling in that room?

How artfully he let us have a hand
In them and keep us guessing in the space
Between a letter and a sunlit room.

N.S. Thompson writes: “I have always admired the sestina and for years thought about writing one before I finally did. What intrigued me was the way the six words at the ends of lines could be worked into a sensible whole; indeed, made into a resonant whole while yet showing the variety of meanings those words could take. It seemed the perfect vehicle for exhibiting, as it were, a gallery of pictures as we see in Vermeer’s several depictions of women going about their everyday activities, each different but forming a whole. A view of life that was both evident to the observer and yet at the same time hidden. What were those women thinking as they went about their business? What was fascinating was the mystery he created in the representation of everyday life.
The nearest analogy I can think of in visual terms to reading a sestina is the way a kaleidoscope works, even if there the succession of patterns there is endless, but the variation is surprising and pleasurable. It is also playful. There are little touches in the poem of such playfulness, as in “deftly” in the fourth stanza which is an anagram of Vermeer’s home town of Delft “adding the unknown”, which is the “y” (as in algebra).
And it took a long time to get right. I first produced a version after watching a television programme about Vermeer. I jotted down my six end words and quickly filled out the six stanzas, then the three last lines incorporating the six words again, hopefully with yet another semantic turn on them. I felt very pleased with myself until I read the result the next day. It then took several years of careful homing, plus several changes of end words until it finally seemed to be a natural expression that did not call attention to itself as a deliberate construct. This seems to me the necessary requirement of a sestina. Other repetitive forms can flaunt their patterns overtly, but for me the sestina has to be more subtle and almost disguise itself until the reader finally notices the form.”

N.S. Thompson lives near Oxford, UK. A poet, critic and translator, he is also the non-fiction editor for Able Muse. Two recent pamphlets are After War (New Walk Editions) and Ghost Hands (Melos Press), and he has a poem in the imminently available latest Potcake Chapbook, ‘Lost Love’. ‘The Women in Delft’ is published in the poet’s collection Mr Larkin on Photography and Other Poems (Red Squirrel Press, 2016).

Photo: “Vermeer” by pom’. is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.