Again, a piece that occupies a quizzical niche: Nicholl’s “Errors in Cross Circulation,” featured in the summer issue of Salamander, is poised to the point of being deadly sere. Is it the subject alone that causes the poem to shrink?
The poem’s potential is far more evident early than late. The speaker’s restiveness in lines like ‘So I resort to pulling blinds’ and ‘Nothing to do but sleep’ creates an almost maddening tension beside his relative blasé (however pointed) reflectiveness: ‘I am trying to remember/how to cool a house’ succeeds, therefore, in stirring just enough motion to float the thought. I nearly love the attempt: its equipoise verges on the cybernetic, and thus the cats, the neighbor ‘spray[ing] his roof with water’ become movers in a potentially eerie hybridized scene.
Sci-fi milieu or no (and I likely invented it all), the narrative quickly unravels. Why this maddening rush downstairs when the house is effectively ‘chilled’? Our return to the speaker’s stark present is narrated with all the gusto of a cyborg: ‘And the ground cracks,/and the boys walk shirtless through town, /and plants wilt against the clay.’ While I’ve got a hunch that something might be bubbling beneath the veneer of this scene—yes, it was ‘seven years’ of famine in Genesis, not drought, and, yes, it’s possible that Nicholl overlooked compounding ‘cross-circulation’—even the discovery that some allusion is afoot would not change the facts: the relative ‘perfection’ of this poem is it’s undoing. This piece is tidy: solid (but not risky) vocabulary; thoughtful (but not risky) imagery; semi-obvious dyadic structure; enough reservation to avoid saying anything ‘telling.’ The result is so completely bloodless that the vaguely sexual ‘undress[ing]’ in the basement is washed in black-and-white. A father walks by this scene and pauses for a moment, returns to his bowl of soup.
One cannot escape the gambit of Poetry; risk is in the relationship, the attempt to channel unbending force. Like Bishop so often did, Nicholl creates a shadowbox, but it cannot recall the verve of living. It is not alive.