I love a poem that understands me. Most of the time, when I’m not reading poetry to inspire my own work, I read it as a reminder to appreciate the world, or some small space within it. Some days, I don’t want that. Some days, I want a poem that knows exactly how I feel.
The day I came upon Marianne Boruch’s poem “Nice,” from her collection Grace, Fallen From, I had been having a string of grumpy days. I was exhausted from and sick of being a participant in the world. Boruch’s poem begins:
I can be nice. I can put my body
flat, down straight, and pull
sleep from somewhere deep
in the brain, that no-weather
thing, that blank page-
Boruch understands the need to disappear, of wanting not to engage in the world. Her speaker drifts “to the cool room under / a blanket” and hides. Her speaker also knows, however, she can’t stay here forever.
I can love
humankind. I can do that.
I can close my eyes on the bright
windows my neighbors have
framing their big TVs. I can understand.
The speaker has learned to understand humankind rather than be angry at them. However, it’s not just the speaker’s understanding of how the nicest of us live in the world that I admire so much about this poem. Underneath the speaker’s reminders to be nice are tension and anger, the feeling of being fed up. This isn’t just pure anger, but something different: the poet relaying her very human feelings to the world.
Good doggy. Be nice now, be
nice. I can sacrifice muscle
and bone to sit longer, showing
interest (show interest, my mother warned
Boruch not only expresses the tediousness of being nice, but how ingrained being nice is, especially for women. As a little girl, the speaker is forced by her mother to show interest, which translates itself to politeness. Earlier in the poem, the speaker recalls her grandmother, a person who was so nice she wouldn’t comment on the decisions of others, becoming “the tallest person/in the room for a moment.” Niceness is something we learn. Toward the end of the poem, the speaker becomes a fish, spurred into this transformation by a forced social situation and the German word for nice, which is nett, as the speaker informs us.
I can put myself
in that net, drop down so close
to what is underwater
That the fish know me as small
The speaker is still being nice, just as she was taught, but here she’s taken on the mask of silence so that she doesn’t have to participate in the situation. She’s part of the room but not, and the poem ends:
One would hardly
guess how nice it is, those fish
suspended next to me, their mouths
opening and closing.
In the last three lines, “nice” takes on a new meaning: it is nice not to have to listen, to be suspended in the situation but not engaged, to watch the mouths of others open and close and not have to speak. Just as nice as it was at the outset of the poem to lie in bed, letting the brain go blank. Through Boruch’s poem, we can all feel a little better about the times we need to retreat.