Chiefly British, it can mean delicious, as when Greg refers to a nice mince pie. He means the opposite of the awful pie in “Dockery and Son,” where Larkin says: life is first boredom, then fear—after changing trains in the furnace fumes of Sheffield, the city where I spent my “junior year abroad” and first met Greg, among the better men I know.
Greg used nice for the sauces, puddings, sausages, and peas hefted onto our plates at the trucker’s café three blocks from the University. It catered mainly to students who, said the women serving us, were ducks—as in: What you having, ducks?—and sometimes doves. From Greg I learned to use my knife to plow food onto the back of my fork—an English-style avidity Keats called gusto.
Visiting Keats’s Hampstead house with Greg two summers ago, apart from a twitch in my spine while staring at the lock of hair, what I remember best is how nicely London alerts you to speed bumps coming up: humps for half a mile, as well as the Yorkshire lorry driver who hoisted Greg and me out of the sooty Sheffield rain nearly three decades before, addressing each of us as luv, without embarrassment, all the way to London. Nice—
as in kind, considerate to others, like Dan and Isobel, Greg and Gill’s teenagers, playing the word game “sausages” with Charlotte and Ethan; the eight of us packed into their minivan; cows and full-grown lambs like sponged paint on the Kentish hillsides; Greg and I attempting “The General Prologue” and getting no further than from every shires ende / Of Engelond to Canterbury they wende; Hilary and Gill doing most of the driving. A day when almost every word, said or unsaid, seemed benign….
In Chaucer’s time, nice could also mean foolish. Which may be why, in our day, the tough-minded deplore it. If someone described a poem as nice, we’d think insipid, wouldn’t we?—as in: thin, like those astonishingly narrow English beds I never got used to sleeping in. This evening, though, with its summer air damp after rain; my back lawn and its bordering woods greening what’s left of the light, I’ll take nice. And I’ll take benign over malignant—because, once dying became more tedious than frightening, her hospice bed broadening as she shrank, my sister called the taste of tapioca nice, and nice the smell of the roast beef she couldn’t eat. Sometimes we ate her meals as she slept, so they wouldn’t go to waste.
Anni Liu (Poetry Editor): After my first reading of this capacious yet tightly braided prose poem, I immediately read it again. Larkin’s “life is first boredom, then fear” near the opening is reversed to devastating effect: “dying became more tedious than frightening.” By the end, through all its facets of meanings and associations, the word “nice” returns to us newly full of insatiable longing for all the benign yet essential details of life.
This poem appeared in Indiana Review 25.1, Summer 2003
Steven Cramer is the author of The Eye that Desires to Look Upward (1987), The World Book (1992), Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand (1997), Goodbye to the Orchard (2004)—winner the Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club and an Honor Book in Poetry from the Massachusetts Center for the Book—and Clangings (2012). His poems have appeared in numerous journals, including AGNI, The Atlantic Monthly, Field, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New England Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry. Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and two fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, he founded and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University.