Poem of the Week | February 24, 2014

This week we feature a new poem by Valerie Nieman. A 2013-2014 North Carolina poetry fellow, Nieman is the author of one poetry collection, Wake Wake Wake, as well as a short story collection and three novels. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, New Letters, Blackbird, and many other journals as well as several anthologies. Her latest novel, Blood Clay, was the 2012 winner of the Eric Hoffer Award in General Fiction and a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Prize. Nieman graduated from West Virginia University and holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University and serves as poetry editor of Prime Number magazine.

Author’s note:

“Like Mother” is from a novel-in-verse, The Leopard Lady Speaks, the story of a biracial orphan born in Appalachia and raised in servitude until she finds a life on the road with a carnival. Self-educated, her voice is a blend of Appalachian and African-American dialects with the elegant phrasing of the King James Bible. In this work in progress, I seek to highlight places and people now fading into the past – remote mountain communities, Afro-lachian peoples, and the world of the traveling ten-in-one show.


Like Mother

“Aint it just like that kind
to be fertile as cats,” the mister said to the missus
in the parlor room of the house.


I cottoned they was talking about me
an’ my belly, like I didn’t know
how that come to pass.


The missus took me by the hand to a root-worker
down by the river. She had yarbs hanging
all over her shack, and one lamed-up old dog.


“Papooseroot,” she says. “It grows in the forest.
But you best know what all you’re getting
or it’ll kill the both ya.”


She made up a bitters for me
from plants as grow in the deep of the woods,
lank things and dangerous.


“Drank this of an evening,” she says, “and say
th’ow it away, th’ow it away, th’ow it away.
There will commence a flow of blood by and by.”


Th’ow it away, she tells me, they be others.
The next one mos’ kindly let hisself out,
running away – just like I did right thereafter,


putting my hopes like solid money
on the first kind face as come along,
figuring it better than what I knowd on that farm.


Short but no way sweet, that companioning,
but long enough to spark a child. I counted my days
as the show headed down to winter quarters.


I axt and I found: a doctor in a dark office
that I come to through the back, and left the same,
bent over creeping through the alleys.


Then once, it was in York State, I begged a tonic
from a woman run a bawdy house, a work of night
an’ pulled shades, like the blood gathered up in the body.


Well, I come to being solitary, and well satisfied
in that, ’til Shelby. And for love, for love, they was no child
to be made. Fate in the lines on the side of my palm,


the children marked to me, one two three four:
what was throwd away not to be give again,
no more ’lowed to my account.


As for that first? I dreamt him live, many a night,
dreamt him standing by my cot, an’ he wore
a dent in his chin like the mister and all his get.