Green Hills Literary Lantern


James B. Nicola, Manhattan Plaza

James B. Nicola’s Manhattan Plaza (Word Poetry; 2014) takes its readers on an increasingly intimate tour of the author’s own New York City. From the outset of its preface, Nicola’s book investigates the exchanges and tensions between public and private life as encapsulated in the name Manhattan Plaza. “The word plaza refers to a public square . . . Manhattan Plaza is also the name of a residential complex west of Times Square,” explains Nicola, and the poetic landscape he subsequently paints explores urban sprawl and private memory alike. Indeed, as the work’s narrators lead us on walks through the streets and halls of Manhattan, it becomes clear that this place reflects its people, and the people their place. Exhibiting en plein air clarity of description and a consistent, sometimes playful bounce of verbal rhythm, Nicola’s verse illustrates the pulse and breath of life within the Manhattan Plaza community. In so doing, Nicola adopts the mantle of facilitator, guide, and keen observer: he reminds us that a city, like a person, is not static, but a journey of impressions, habits, wounds, and memories.

Nicola begins his book’s journey with “If you live,” a poetic quip that ushers the reader out of the country and into the city, where things and people lose their simple explanations:

If you live in the country, you stand

a better chance that if

you run into a man with a scythe,

he’s just a farmer.

This introductory flourish quickly establishes Nicola’s voice and humor as both a relatable and insightful guide, and he promptly embarks with the reader into the titular community. The subsequent stroll around the city is divided into 6 parts, which delineate a progression in terms of depth of awareness of the intricacies of city and community. In the first section “The City,” we see New York from above and below as an abstract and even overwhelming entity that can make casual observers feel “gelatinous” and “toppled upside-down.” This move serves to show readers the vastness of potential that is New York. In “Turning the Corner”, Nicola writes,

            There never is an end. Each city street

            you go down joins another, and there is

            a chance, depending on the turn, you’ll meet

            your future. There’s romance, there’s business,

            inconsequence or ignorance…

As our knowledgeable guide, Nicola does not get lost in the vastness of the city: he instead utilizes a degree of specificity in his poems that illustrates both the reality and variety of life in the area. As we explore, we encounter many day-to-day moments such as “Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge” and street observations as seen in “Rovers.” Often these personal moments intersect with history, and Nicola includes addendums reminiscent of museum placards to orient his readers to the stories behind a location. We thus receive a view of the city in turbid motion, rather than as a static snapshot, and the ripples of history subsequently appear in the dispositions and perspectives of the city’s residents.


Through this combination, Nicola illustrates the echoes of lives past and present in New York City and shifts the reader’s focus to consider the city in greater depth. In section two, Nicola examines “The People,” the eclectic dramatis personae which bring energy to the city and poetry alike. Streets and stanzas populated with shadowy philosophizers, a street-side Santa, the best man in the world, and even Dorothy Parker make for vivid encounters and oblique rumination. Section three builds to unite people and place by studying “The Neighborhood,” which in turn leads us to consider the more specific communities of “The Buildings” in section four. In section five, Nicola further refines his focus to “The Residents” with whom he interacts while living in the Manhattan Plaza community.


Throughout this cycle’s progression, Nicola intertwines poetics of place with an empathetic examination of those around him. The resulting journey showcases layers of Nicola’s community with an ever-increasing intimacy, culminating with the sixth and final section “Come In.” Nicola invites us into his home, and one must wonder if that’s not what he has been doing from the very beginning. The book’s final pages are filled with hospitality, vulnerability, and reflection, mingling a confessional style with surveys of places and people. Nicola’s integrative style allows him to render abstractions–of history, of the city–personal. Perhaps one of Nicola’s greatest accomplishments in adopting this style is his investigation of the lingering wounds wrought by the September 11th terrorist attacks on the nation, the city, and himself:

See a light scud dead south, blink,

Try my utmost not to think

But wincing with a second’s yelp

I cannot help


But imagine.

Nicola’s verse throughout Manhattan Plaza thus illustrates a vast scope that spans New York City, but it maintains a personal and relatable tone throughout. Although the descriptions of so many unfamiliar places and people will not necessarily make readers feel at home, it certainly allows us to visit someone else’s.

Shawn Bodden is a recent graduate of Truman State University where he studied English, Linguistics and Russian. He is from St. Louis, Missouri and is participating in the 2013 Fulbright Program to teach English in the Republic of Georgia. He is a regular reviewer for GHLL.