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Alfred Nicol

Alfred Nicol is an American poet. He worked in the printing industry for twenty years after graduating from Dartmouth College, where he received the Academy of American Poets Prize. He now lives in West Newbury, Massachusetts and is a member of the Powow River Poets. He edited the Powow River Anthology, published by Ocean Publishing in 2006, and was the recipient of the 2004 Richard Wilbur Award for his first book of poems, Winter Light, published by The University of Evansville Press. Nicol’s other publications include Animal Psalms (Able Muse, 2016); Elegy for Everyone (Prospero’s World Press, 2009); and Brief Accident of Light: Poems of Newburyport, a collaboration with Rhina P. Espaillat (Kelsay Books, 2019). His poems have appeared in Poetry, The New England Review, Dark Horse, Commonweal, The Formalist, The Hopkins Review, and The Best American Poetry 2018.

“Dear reader, I’ve fallen in love with this book [Animal Psalms], and that will happen to you too. Read, for instance, the very last poem, “Nuts,” and read the great “How to Ignore an Invisible Man,” and you’re hooked forever. Read all the rest, these poems which have our numbers, and have his own too, that tell about our lives, and his, and the lives of snakes, and bees, and elephants, with such humor, and pity, and praise, for all of us, human and animal, in our situations. It’s impossible not to fall in love. The poet Rhina Espaillat has it just right when she says, ‘He uses language with a grace so effortless that it creates the illusion of having arranged itself, by itself.’” — David Ferry
“When Alfred Nicol titled his collection of poems Elegy for Everyone, he suggested the reflective tone and thematic substance of his compilation. Its range of ideas and moods is staggering. In poem after poem the author provides a feast for the mind. The manuscript runs to seventy pages, not one of which is dull or trivial. Nicol has created a work of complex vision and stylistic mastery. If one reads his book with the empathy and imagination it deserves, one is unlikely to forget its inhabitants who are often shadows of ourselves.” — Dr. Alfred Dorn

"Nicol is much more than a poet's poet; he is also a reader's poet, and his work, though dazzling, is not intended to simply dazzle but to convey, with charm and profundity, the experiences of our common life." — Rhina P. Espaillat

"On every page Nicol exhibits a genuine largeness of spirit and grace of mind. [Winter Light] is certainly among the finest new volumes of poetry I have read in years." — Jay Parini

"How different an aesthetic Nicol shows in the splendid Winter Light, as canny and moving a formalist collection as I have seen in years." — Sydney Lea

The Magician’s Bashful Daughter

The moon looks kindly on this slender reed.
Fair and fairylike, and like the moon
When, thin as air, it braves the afternoon,
Advancing while appearing to recede,
The bashful daughter of Le Grand David
Appears onstage to disappear, for soon
She’ll step inside the coffin-like cocoon
To be sawn through and not be seen to bleed.

Reopening the door, her father beams
With more than showman’s pride to find her sound.
Her slippered feet touch lightly on the ground.
She smiles, with braces on. How real she seems.
Oh but the moon is swift to make its round,
And she is only changefulness and dreams.

From Winter Light (2004), The University of Evansville Press; published in The Formalist

The Difference

Most menand I am not most men, but still
I have to tip my hat to what in them
Abides in memost men give up romance
At some point. If they haven’t learned to dance
Before they reach my age they never will.
The rose, such as it is, is off the stem,
But not the thorns. The thorns are what they were,
And love is crowded round with hurtful things.
What’s in the thicket loses its allure.
Most men are sleeping when the night-bird sings.
I’m just the same. What most men know I’d learn,
Except I know a rose whose flame I’m sure
Will never fade, and that is why I burn.

From Elegy for Everyone (2010), Prospero’s World Press; published in The Edge City Review

Hard Winter

She got a call, she tells me, from the vet,
Saying the cat is not responding well.
Though she speaks calmly, clearly she’s upset,
And clearly there’s much more she wants to tell.
The weather of her life has not been fair;
Her face shows she’s been out in it too long.
The taxi’s late. A raw, indifferent air
Goes brushing past. She’s spent with being strong.
“She sleeps in my bed. I…”—she’s nearing tears—
“Undo my shirt and hold her to my breast.
We’ve lived together now eleven years.”
I wince to hear such loneliness expressed,
My thoughts—kept to myself—unneighborly:
Turn, and look away. You frighten me.

From Elegy for Everyone (2010), Prospero’s World Press; published in The Formalist

Guinea Pig

A pet, domesticated overmuch,
Inhabiting interminable lulls,
Most pusillanimous of animals,
Inertia’s own, quiescent as the sands,
And shy to venture even round the hutch,
Her pleasure is a motor in my hands,
An instrument set racing with a touch.

A little thing of breath and heat compact,
Mildest of spirits, in a flask of fur,
Without even a sound as signature,
No bark or whinny, whistle or meow,
No word to instigate or to react,
She gently nods assent to here and now,
An answer well-considered and exact.

I’ll learn from this one how much not to do;
How large a silence to accumulate;
To serve with those who only stand and wait,
To change alfalfa, sawdust, water, salt,
For other needs as moderate and few;
To thrill when lifted; visited, exalt;
Nor ever speak till I be spoken through.

From Winter Light (2004), The University of Evansville Press; published in Commonweal

Old Haunt

The book that taught to dust shalt thou return
Collected dust, but I was quick to learn.
I thought that if I hastened my descent
I might avert some loss. So down I went

Among the catacombs of libraries,
Where Santayana questioned Socrates
In the hushed tone the newly dead assume
When they address their elders-in-the-tomb.

There I mixed in. Stiff and unathletic,
I fashioned a persona, The Ascetic,
That gained acceptance. All my gang were ghosts.
We raised an empty glass to make our toast.

Appearance didn’t matter where we met.
Observing the unspoken etiquette
Of disembodied voices, I kept still
And in the feast of silence had my fill.

It needed salt. But there was dust for that,
And at the empty table where we sat
Plenty enough, for we were slight of build.
There were no table crumbs, and nothing spilled.

We would indulge a taste for subtleties,
And contemplate in long soliloquies
The ease of being none too full or fond
Of anything or anyone. We’d bond,

These absences and I. Because I sensed
That what I felt they too experienced,
The opposite of a collector’s greed,
Something we shared of needing not to need.

From Elegy for Everyone (2010), Prospero’s World Press; published in Poetry


            “What happens to a dream deferred?”
                                 Langston Hughes


French for potatoes is les pommes de terre;
Earth-apples: crisp, but lumps not red, or spherical.
The soil is never burdened, like the air,
With song or mythic fruit that waxes lyrical.
And earth’s not water. No reflection’s there.
No orchard hangs inverted by some miracle.
Something subversive curls inside a term
That wants to bring the apple to the worm.


Hard to believe my father ever young.
An ill-advised furrow ploughed under revery.
But when he dreamed, he must have dreamed among
The pines beyond the granite-walled periphery
A dream selected like a stone and flung
Back on these rock-strewn fields as what could never be.
One simple stone took root where it was clear:
It’s possible to grow potatoes here.


A penitent in burlap, the brown root
Shrivels with neglect, its blind eyes fingering
The darkness. Prayer without a myth is mute.
My father, off to work without malingering,
Did not look up to see forbidden fruit
Or question the forbidding one with hungering.
His fate excluded any willful plot.
Potatoes kept for seed were left to rot.


How old he came to be, the patient one,
Happy alone, behind the toolshed puttering
In the least likely soil, out of the sun,
Dry needles raked away. The pale wings fluttering
Among potato leaves his dreamwork done
Alight and flicker like a candle guttering.
These are my father’s orchards, empty now.
The stones upon the hill resist the plough.

From Winter Light (2004), The University of Evansville Press; published in Measure

New Year

         “Even such is man”
                     Henry King, “Sic Vita”

Like an engaging lady’s whim,
Or like a tabby’s morning swim;
Like an accountant’s spending spree,
A starlet’s popularity,
A daughter’s mood, a boy’s regrets,
An open box of chocolates;
Like morning mist; like cradlesong:
My resolution lasts as long.

The cat keeps three paws on the deck;
The clerk, too, keeps himself in check;
The whim passes; the crowd moves on;
The boyfriend calls; the candy’s gone;
A boy forgets; the sun breaks through;
The baby sleeps: I stay with you.

From Winter Light (2004), The University of Evansville Press; published in The Formalist

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