Book Review

April, it’s been written, is the cruelest month. By now, generations of undergraduates have been dutifully instructed as to Eliot’s parodic intentions in the opening line of The Waste Land, with its allusion to the beginning of the “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the root

(a passage also recited, remarkably, by Michael McClure during his cameo in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 concert film The Last Waltz.)

This British literature reference was felt to be obvious enough in its time that Eliot didn’t find it necessary to include a citation in his poem’s notorious notes, which seems amazing since contemporary students may not even know who Chaucer is. Artists confronted with a modernity of dislocation and amnesia, in the twenty-first century just as in the twentieth, continue to wrestle with the question of what we keep from the past, and what we do with it once we’ve kept it.

I feel the trace of this concern throughout April, the third collection of poetry by Sara Nicholson, and not just in the title—or, for that matter, the title poem, which includes citations from “Dover Beach” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” In fully contemporary diction, and without ostentatious erudition, April is nonetheless salted with tradition and, like Yeats’s poem, inquires as to the mystery of making art from all the scraps.

A tone of dereliction is set by the epigraph: “But I, a poor wretch, have need of everything.” It’s attributed to St. Teresa of Ávila, the first of several saints and holy people (mostly women) to appear in the book, and it brings to my mind the closing lines of Alice Notley’s poem “Lady Poverty”:

but now I seem to know that the name of a self is poverty
that the pronoun I means such and that starting so
poorly, I can live

In personal correspondence, the poet remarks:

My interest in saints and all that began with my interest in women’s writing in the Middle Ages, a period almost entirely absent of women’s voices. With a scarce few exceptions, those voices existed within a religious context, so to read only medieval secular writing—if we can make a neat distinction between secular and sacred, which we can’t—is to ignore 1000 years of writing by women. You could call it an intellectual interest, or maybe a search for a lineage. It happens to dovetail nicely with my interest (both personal and intellectual) in humility, degradation, and the annihilation of the self.

 Or, in the words of “Lives of the Saints,” from April:

Conviction, enthusiasm, passion, self-sacrifice, love without reservation, disregard for convention, generosity in abundance—in short, saintliness—would not get one very far today. In the Middle Ages, women were venerated for all sorts of acts which, today, would result in their commitment to an asylum: for stabbing their eyes out (St. Lucy), for self-starvation (St. Catherine), for eating the scabs and pus of the poor (St. Angela of Foligno), for living for years in a box (Christina of Markyate), for collecting in jars pieces of their own rotting flesh (St. Lidwina). Rather than condemn theirs as a barbarous age, we should instead reflect upon our own.

Nicholson, who wrote a dissertation on the uses of medieval literature by Berkeley Renaissance poets and their precursors, shows a commitment to reflecting on our age, and to animating history in order to speak the present through it—in creating, as one poem has it, “A Link to the Past” (the seeming solemnity of the title is undermined by the poem itself, as it gradually dawns on the reader that the “Link” in question is the animated protagonist of The Legend of Zelda video game franchise).

Take, for instance, one of April’s most accomplished poems, “The Goatherd and the Saint.” It begins by signaling its connection to the themes of abjection already mentioned: “Immiseration is a beautiful/word.” The presence, in the next few lines, of Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider indicates to a certain kind of reader that the narrator is in New York’s Frick Collection, housed in the mansion of notorious union-buster Henry Clay Frick:

In a state of anxious
Reckoning with
Our complicity, New York
Money laundered
By the spirit of the Old
Master paintings
I paid $22
To see.

The temporalities multiply because we’re also keeping company with the shade of Frank O’Hara, who in one of his most celebrated poems, “Having A Coke With You,” professes to his then-lover Vincent Warren:

                                                                                                            I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the
            first time

For all time, O’Hara has associated himself with Rembrandt’s masterpiece—a fact that Nicholson deploys with the kind of subtle allusion I’ve been talking about.

However, we’re really here to see Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert:

I’m in love with the way it seems to frown
Above the objets d’art
Arrayed about
The hall, stripping the last
Veneer of sentiment
From the neo-baroque flowering
Of these interiors,
The desert’s various blues
Made all the more
Austere by
Such a contrast.

“The Goatherd and the Saint” isn’t the only ekphrastic poem in the book (for instance there’s “The Archetype,” a tour of painterly presentations of Leda and the Swan from Correggio to Twombly), but to my taste it’s the most compelling, in part because the poet presents an unexpected ethical reading of Bellini’s canvas, highlighting not so much the saint as the quadruped to his left:

I’m in love
With the donkey at the edge
Of the cliff, the heron
Beside him.
They must have a place
Within the symbolic
Universe of
Bellini’s painting.

The Franciscan tradition records that its founding saint called his own body “brother donkey,” inaugurating an association between the man from Assisi and the beast of burden that continues down to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar.

And since we’re talking about saints, consider April’s substantial text entitled, well, “Lives of the Saints.” Written, so the subtitle tells us, in the first year of the pandemic, these aphoristic prose pieces at first bear little relation to the medieval vitae sanctorum from which they derive their name. The maxims seem to say more about the lives of contemporary artists, and to use holy people as models, or foils:

Saints and poets have always weaponized their humility. The lower they sink, the more arrogantly and egotistically they rise above us.  In the Convivio, Dante compares himself to a dog. He sits under a celestial banquet table, hungry for the scraps that fall from the plates of the angels. This is what I mean by arrogant humility: yes, he’s a dog, but at least he’s welcome at the feast.

Nicholson’s reading of Dante also recalls the episode of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7—another instance, perhaps, of arrogant humility!

A repeated section heading in “Lives of the Saints” announces “On self-sufficiency.” Of course, this is precisely what Christian saints do not have, since they depend entirely on the mercy of God. The absence of grace in a secular world’s understanding of itself establishes the real limit of any metaphor seeking to stage an identity between saints and poets (who are, moreover, not especially renowned for their saintly behavior, especially toward one another). But in April, Nicholson tarries with what remains of the ancient lineaments—discipline, devotion, works of corporal mercy—perhaps still seeking what Dante was after: the scraps that fall from the plates of the angels.

About the Reviewer

David Brazil is a poet, translator, and novelist. His selected translations, profane hours, was published this year by Free Poetry. Other recent books include figurae (The Last Books) and Mnemosyne (Erotoplasty). Other essays and critical writings can be found at He lives in California with his wife Sarah and their sons Sam and Paul.