Sunday Oct 25

Nieman-Poetry Valerie Nieman’s second poetry collection, Hotel Worthy, from which these poems were selected, will be published in spring 2015. She has held North Carolina Arts Council and NEA creative writing fellowships. She is the author of three novels: Blood Clay, honored with the Eric Hoffer Prize in General Fiction; Survivors; and a recently reissued science fiction title, Neena Gathering. She also has published a collection of short stories, Fidelities. Her awards include the Greg Grummer, Nazim Hikmet, and Byron Herbert Reece poetry prizes. She graduated from West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte. A longtime newspaper reporter and editor, she now teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University and is the poetry editor of Prime Number magazine.


Before your memory fades—
what did you see?
            Grass moving in the wind, birds, young pines
            like bottlebrushes, squirrels.
No, no, you must
remember better—
what did you see?
            Bull nettle sharp with glassy needles,
            partridge berry,
            Venus’ looking-glass in endless self-reflection.
Good, good.
            And persimmon blossoms
            scattered like confetti, sassafras.
            White-tailed deer, a herd
            divided by my presence.
            Mockingbirds, towhees,
            fetterbush, poison oak, grape.
What grape?
            Muscadine, I guess.
Or scuppernong?
            And butterflies in the deep woods
            like flying shadows. Swallowtails.
Pipevine? Spicebush?
            I do not know.
            Some kind of peaflower, I remember, white and pink.
            Some kind of oak, the leaves rounded. White oak.
But what about the smallest,
the shrinking and timid and camouflaged?
            Those I didn’t see.
Not the jewel-backed beetles
nor the worms in the galls
nor the agaric just starting to swell
nor the small herbs among the grasses
nor the voles in the pine straw?
            No. But I can tally
            meadow rue and dewberry,
            a fox squirrel black as burned pine trunks,
a blue-tailed skink, pipsissewa.

But did you see Eustis Lake Beard Tongue,
(it should be in blossom now, pink blossom)
or trailing arbutus,
or painted buntings?
Not the buntings?
            No. None.
Then they are gone.
What you see, that is what survives.
What you remember is all there is.
Don’t you want to save the world?

Lore II: Tap’s Tips

Lost, you can follow water down
to civilization—a bridge, a mill, a town—because
water makes wealth.

Dry leaves are a comforter
for the forlorn—tunneled into, they trap heat
and life. In snow country, hemlock boughs
bent over your single bed may be sealed by snowfall.

You can daub your shoes with mink oil,
waterproof your coat
and hat, dip matches in paraffin
and seal them in a tube.

But not having planned to enter the trail,
nor to lose it,
you have made no provision.
No matches, no hook, no coil of line, no knife.

You eat what the season allows: fiddleheads,
the pith of cattails, cress, dandelion greens,
morels if they are not false, strawberries,
blackberries, blueberries, fox grapes,

feral apples, hickory nuts, walnuts, Indian potatoes,
bird eggs, turtle eggs, frogs, dace, crayfish,
a nest of hairless mice,
yellow clay, clean snow, a pane of ice.

Honey cleanses wounds
but so do maggots.

Consider that the ones who love you
will not look long enough.

Father Showed Us the Aurora Borealis

On lawn chairs sunk
to the webbed seats in snow,

we sat bundled in blankets,
faces tilted to the unrolling scroll:

Colors of a hummingbird gorget,
parrot fish, shallow seas,

mandevilla, bougainvillea,

tropicalities weaving
in the airless

ineffable between
earth and moon,

glories we couldn’t
yet compass,

our eyes since birth
whetted against sun

on snow, a palette
of twig and bone,

knowing only north.


Across the road from our bleak farmless farmhouse
was once another, crumpled into its cellar-stones
under an orchard of apples, pears, and plums.

We shook fruit down from summer ’til snow,
gifts from householders faltered, fizzled, ruined, dead—
trees they had planted outlasting their other works.

Greengage plums glowing on black-knotted boughs.
Bartlett pears, bruised and buzzing with yellowjackets.
Pale cheeks of Maiden Blush apples, washed crimson.
Concord grapes clustering under a crawl of vines.

Last to be gathered: Wolf River apples
large and lopsided, not much to recommend
them until put to the fire, cored and filled with brown

sugar, butter and cinnamon, propped
on uneven buttocks for baking. Taken from the oven,
their steam clouded kitchen windows dark with November.

When the garden was in rags, when the sun
slid toward its deepest sleep, we ate.
If we thought to thank those who had planted—
eh, well, we did not know their names.

Watch the sun come up on your own life

The nature of the tourist
is that she has nothing to do

despite the itineraries,
no place to settle.

It’s all about glutting
the eyes, nose, ears,

sucking in all this
foreignness, even

the diesel exhaust
along famous boulevards

where one glance
up would present her

with a mother scrubbing
a child’s neck, a youth

naked from the shower,
an old man inspecting

a worrisome mole –
moments when light

reaches deeply into familiar
rooms and we pay heed

to our dutiful bodies
newly not the same.