Manhattan Plaza by James B. Nicola
Published by Word Poetry
Release Date: Summer 2014
Reviewed by April Salzano
In his ambitious six part poetry collection forthcoming from Word Poetry, James Nicola invites us on a journey through Manhattan Plaza, welcoming us in the collection’s preface to his home. The subject of Nicola’s debut collection is not a far off place in the imagination, but one grounded solidly in the real world with real inhabitants. The concrete here is literal, the view, populated with a kind of human spirit that for all its Americanism, also exhibits traits so universal, it often aches. Utilizing free verse and a proud peppering of rhyme and meter, Nicola guides us through his part of the city. In the middle of a crowded, chaotic bliss, we find a narrator who has assigned himself the task of true observation of his small corner of the universe. Though the collection is dedicated to the people of Manhattan Plaza, Nicola cordially invites all readers to “share not only some of New Yorkers’ common, public experiences, but…some intimate ones, too.”
Much like the formal invitation into the author’s home, Nicola attempts to prepare us for the journey we are about to take—reader alongside speaker, two "like-minded observers," together bearing witness to the inner workings of Manhattan. We travel like blood through veins of a body that remains (at times sadly) unaware of our presence. In “Turning the Corner,” we find we are in a place where “There never is an end. Each city street/you go down joins another.” Though this can be said of any city, the speaker reminds us that what is important on this particular tour is the question we must ask ourselves of the very nature of observation itself: “will you traffic to forget,/or to experience the turn, the new?” The simple act of turning a corner takes on the significance of the job of the poet, whose duty is to bear witness. But as much as he advocates the importance of truly seeing, Nicola also warns us of the danger inherent in the role of the bard. Through this gazing, frequently voyeuristic and exploitive, at other moments painfully tender, but always with a sense of obligatory honesty, the reader too has no choice but to be forever transformed. The lines from "Another One about a Shoulder and a Shower" capture that sense of duty, that fulfilled promise to help us “turn the corner” and finally see what he is showing us. "...even as/I watch, or rather as I invent/a scenario wherein I watch” Sometimes that scenario is public -- the Staten Island ferry crash of 2003, the final journey of the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 2004, and other times as personal as a pastry shop or subway ride, but always the journey is more important than the destination, which is the chance to restore meaning to a city where "everything is strange and new." The public and the personal intersect, just as the author promises in the preface, most poignantly in his handling of 9/11. In the poem “Now in New York,” we are reminded of the lasting impact of that day, shown the “new ghosts that haunt,” from a local’s perspective. In the haunting final line of “Always,” which the author indicates was written less than two hours before the first attack on the North Tower, Nicola says of his fellow New Yorkers: “We’re always falling off and going on.”
The poet's self-instilled duty to restore meaning through observation is most profound, or most obviously stated, in the first section of the work, “the city,” which is also the longest portion of the collection, serving as a necessary framework. The next four sections, logically subdivided into “the people,” which brings us ordinary souls and best men, park bench-Santa’s and waiters; “the neighborhood,” where we salute landmarks and rituals; “the buildings,” where we find lesser known attractions and “three thousand/neighbors/each going home” via the public spaces of elevators and apartments, and where “Even in the stillness there is dance;” and “the residents,” where Nicola employs more formal elements of poetry to portray the seemingly ordinary people whose lives intersect his own. We meet a bipolar woman, a one-legged lady, a mixed couple, and a soap star. Together these aspects of the city form his corner of New York itself and fulfill the poet’s promise to show us around a bit.
In the final section “come in,” the tone is a bit more playful in places, a kind of celebration of all the things that make up the other four sections. It is here that the speaker seems a bit less ordered and celebrates the disarray that is his life in his small apartment where he imposes “exile” on himself for an hour a day to block out the beautiful madness that makes up his home in Hell’s Kitchen. The more serious tone and sense of obligation to see the world for what it is, to question, to answer, to imagine, returns in “Enough,” in particular. In this, the final poem in the collection, the ever-present theme of obligation is perhaps most strong:
the yawning tongues
of even surly oaks
wake my eyes each May to all the
greatening greens and gods and skies—
Are they enough?
And coffee in the morning
Times crossword, favorite pen on Sundays, with friends
splittings’ pains and
sweet successes’ joys
This poem forms an overview of the collection, a final commentary on the internal and external dialogue woven throughout. The speaker questions if what he has is enough to comprise a sense of happiness. “It is/It is/It/is!” he answers with a note of jubilation after a long journey through the city. At the conclusion of the collection, I was left homesick for a place I have never had the pleasure of calling home.