Alfred Nicol


Poem to Read at an Open Mic

If all prospect of happiness
Were hanging on
The singer’s voice; if summer’s wide salon
Assigned the one whose song best pleased the crowd
A higher social rank, and gave him less
Whose song was not as lusty or as loud;

We’d emulate the chickadee’s
Two plaintive notes.
We’d sing as though our hearts were in our throats.
The chickadee has everything to lose.
His social world is ordered by degrees,
Rewarding service rendered to the muse.

The Alpha bird, the Beta bird,
The lower letters—
Each ventures forth in song to best his betters
Or, barring that, at least to hold his own
In daily contest where each voice is heard
To greet the sun with its distinctive tone;

And, chief among the auditors,
The singer’s mate
Remarks if he be first or second rate.
Or if his notes slide farther down the scale
She listens for a phrasing she prefers.
The singer of the species is the male:

Needing a man whom she can call
A chickadee,
This “chick,” we’ll call her, leaves the family tree
To meet her husband’s rival for a tryst,
Some thirty second fling. She has a ball
And flits back to the nest before she’s missed.

Some few chicks of her own ensue
From this alliance.
A recent issue of the journal Science
Reports that DNA analysis
Has shown that, scandalously, one or two
In every clutch is brought to life like this.

You’ll ask what prompts this kind of study.
Who first suspected
Nestling harmony might prove affected?
Is there a moral here? What can it mean?
That laurels must be given everybody
Lest love of song should make us libertine?

But glory cast so far would dim.
No two alike,
And every one impatient for the mic,
No poet wants to miss his chance to shine.
––A word, before you go out on a limb:
Your poems had better be as good as mine.

This poem first appeared in Iambs & Trochees.

Alfred Nicol collaborated with Rhina Espaillat and illustrator Kate Sullivan to create the chapbook Brief Accident of Light: Poems of Newburyport (Kelsay Books, 2019). Nicol’s most recent full-length collection of poetry,  Animal Psalms, was published in 2016 by Able Muse Press. He has published two other collections, Elegy for Everyone (2010), and Winter Light, which received the 2004 Richard Wilbur Award. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The New England Review, Dark Horse, Commonweal, The Formalist, The Hopkins Review, The Best American Poetry 2018 and many other literary journals and anthologies.