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James B. Nicola: Collector Of Souls

Image: Unsplash, downloaded ( 06.01.2023.

The Chemical & the Civilized

Chance fancy fully felt finally flares

up fatally, unless some civilizing

soon squelches Chance’s flare-up of the fancy.

Isn’t that what Civilization is?

We would not be inert, though, and were made

to combine into compounds. Some to last,

others concocted to be volatile

and fast react again. The bottled brews

and phialed philtres, also known as souls

of radicals or revolutionaries,

were rowed in racks of Gilbert® chemistry sets

then safely shelved in comfortable homes

erected in an age of middle classes,

then, after adolescence, learned to move

in cars, trains, buses, airplanes, and to work

sealed up in skyscrapers and cubicles,

only to return at ends of days to spend

the night once more en-bottled, not embattled,

folded into chemistry kits and locked.

But is that what civilization is,

or only what civilization was?

For in far-off, less technical domains,

and here at home, as middle classes die,

an ardor has alit on rainbow dusts

impressionable as ions, which combine.

And now the Chemist’s spreading shoulders wide

across the sea of troubles. Volatile

and agitated ions leaping up

in eager anger, ready to react,

must be rebunged and filed—Chance be destroyed—

or won’t they be



On Meeting Someone Wonderful for the First or Second Time

I’ve been a collector of souls

but never a capturer. And there

are some I’ve never met, but read

or seen and heard. They, like the Holy Ghost,

can spread as cool flames can, igniting me

as with a soft and supple warmth and light,

and have from time to time inspired a heart

to drive a mind and hand so that I have

a part of them no longer them but lit

by them, herein, as if they were around.

Have you ever met or seen or read

a soul like that? imagined a wooded walk

with Henry David, or honey gathering

with Emily? The soul may be a character

from fiction: I’ve imagined Adam Bede

as my employer, as I’ve wondered what

it might be like to hear his belovèd preach

or, years after The End, to meet their issue,

industrious, fair and kind, black curly hair.

From time to time I’ve sat down in a spot

and seen a stranger walk in, and sit near,

and sometimes conversation has been struck

somehow; and sometimes we would never speak,

but I would think of desultory paths

intersecting with an introduction,

in another life. I’ve met the best

souls in the world this way, though rarely now.

But this week, I met one for the first time,

another for the second (by the river,

our exercise routes crossing). Gender does

not matter, at this point, for they are souls

which—who, had we been college students, say,

at dinner, and plopped down next to each other,

both new, and struck up strangers' conversation

as you’re allowed to do when you are young,

I might have thought no more than Gee, I think

if everyone’s like this, I’ll like it here.

The first time I thought this was the first day

of freshman year, of someone who became

my best friend after fraught and faithful years.

But now I’m hungry to collect, if not

capture, two souls whose emails I've tracked down.

And every day’s like Freshman week again

with hope that makes the hunger almost holy.

The Dining Hall's no meager meeting room,

however, but wide as the whole world—two

worlds—three—theirs, mine—where just to talk requires

some technological innovation

plus the pluck and resilience of a whole new age.

About the Author: James B. Nicola’s poems have appeared in the Antioch, Southwest and Atlanta Reviews; Rattle; and Barrow Street. His seven full-length collections (2014-22) are Manhattan Plaza, Stage to Page, Wind in the Cave, Out of Nothing: Poems of Art and Artists, Quickening, Fires of Heaven, and Turns & Twists (just out). His nonfiction book Playing the Audience won a Choice award. His poetry has received a Dana Literary Award, two Willow Review awards, Storyteller's People's Choice award, one Best of Net, one Rhysling, and eight Pushcart nominations—for which he feels both stunned and grateful. A graduate of Yale, he hosts the Hell's Kitchen International Writers' Round Table at his library branch in Manhattan: walk-ins welcome.


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The image of Quasimodo is by French artist Louis Steinheil, which appeared in  the 1844 edition of Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" published by Perrotin of Paris.


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