From New Letters
No One Gets Out of There Alive
If you haven’t seen much poetry about West Virginia, there’s a good reason. The canon of West Virginia poetry comprises only a few poets, most notably James Wright. A handful of contemporary poets includes Louise McNeill, Irene McKinney, Maggie Anderson, and James Harms.
It’s time to add another name near the top of that list—Valerie Nieman. Nieman’s poetry has none of the celebration of Appalachia that characterizes much of the other contemporary poetry about West Virginia. Yes, there are characteristic landscapes, flora, and fauna, and, of course, coal miners. But her poems make no attempt to romanticize the reality of life in West Virginia. Her gaze does not avert from bleeding feet or hissing lungs.
Nieman’s poetry bears the taste of wild game, like the deer, rabbit, and small mammals that mark her pages, and the recipe makes her poetry a pleasure to consume.
Some people cannot abide wild
meat, the resinous aroma,
in the palms of their hands
. . . Still, those of us who eat
have a duty to know—to hunker down
and smell fresh droppings gleaming
like berries on the path,
hear the snort of the lead doe
warning into flight
a band of yearlings.
For Nieman, the land is a living element, at times revered, at times hostile. People and animals cross paths often, eat each other or each other’s parts or waste products, sometimes merge identities. In “Expedition,” the narrator roams across the land, eventually becoming the land itself, but along the way,
she ate lethargic ants
and grubs with useless fat-man’s legs,
peeled the bark from cherry trees
and chewed the green lining, like the frayed
lining of her coat.
In “The Increase of the Earth,” a narrator eats the soil itself, despite the death and decay that creates it.
A body’s gonna eat a peck a dirt,
dirt draws itself up out of the places where men spat,
from the feathers of wild birds shot over fields
. . . from the slops of dishwater thrown,
bones of mice and legs of cows
that the dogs carry about after the slaughtering,
all into the red clay
I put the spoon in my mouth
and chew the dirt like it was gristle to my teeth.
Nieman’s characters take what they can get from the land, and sometimes they give back to the land. In “Farm Wife,” the gift is blood.
. . . see the lines
at the backs of her bare heels
like cracks parched in clay,
. . . the blood of her weariness
drips from her broken feet
and sows itself among the ripened corn.
In “Pissing in the Woods,” the narrator, during the act in the title, adds back to the soil as
[my] spray veers
runs down my leg
twisting a path
fragrance on its way
As her urine becomes part of the landscape, she becomes a doe.
I leave a marker
like the doe
by the pond
for the buck that follows
tastes her need.
You can’t write about West Virginia without writing about its coal mines and its miners. In “A Moment’s Peace,” a miner lies dying in bed: “A miner’s life goes on / as long as he feels / the shift of the earth around him.” The title refers to the peace a dying miner seeks from his hovering wife who is
urging my own shallow
sucking at the bottled oxygen
the labor of thirty dark years
waged all over again
in my tunneled lungs
Nieman’s dying miner recalls his rescue from a roof collapse that buried him up to his waist. In the ensuing years, the very land the miner dug into became a part of his body, and this miner knows death doesn’t like being cheated.
It’s been here
waiting a long time now,
in the useless hollows of my lungs:
black lung, they say, and emphysema,
the word like air hissing out
a punctured chest.
When the day’s mail arrives, delivered by “a friend like any man whose cap light / shines on you in a close place,” the miner’s wife discovers an errant letter, and in the neighborly West Virginia way, she must run the letter over to its proper recipient, fretting all the way. The miner seizes the opportunity for a moment’s peace.
I’ve been portioning out
my breath, waiting.
The house’s quiet, absolutely
quiet; it eases like a church
when the parishioners have gone . . .
I see a bird’s shadow move across
the window glass.
I see the shadows of the trees
across the floor . . .
I see my breath move across
the bits of dust
and then they swim undisturbed.
Just like that Nieman will take your breath away, and you will see that Wake Wake Wake has nothing to do with sleeping.
By Tom Lombardo
From Main Street Rag, Winter 2006/2007
Valerie Nieman’s Wake Wake Wake is her first, full-length collection of poetry, though she has published two chapbooks, How We Live and Slipping Out of Old Eve, two novels, Survivors and Neena Gathering, and one short story collection, Fidelities. Nieman’s versatility is admirable and evident in these poems which range from formal (the lovely “A Gift of Collected Sonnets”) to the form poem (“Pissing in the Woods,” which looks something like a stream).
Nieman is from West Virginia (as am I) and her poetry reflects the harsh beauty found in that still-wild state. The collection is divided into three sections, What Has Passed, A Watch By Night, and Stir Up, as Passions, or Evoke, as an Echo. In the first section, Nieman explores her memories of mother, land, neighbors, and the natural world. Her poems are gritty and as down to earth as digging toes into slick creek slime. Listen: Ridge farm, early spring:/ I nose along the wet/ belly of the land,/ the hummocked fields,/ dead grass furrowed/ by voles and frost.// Here: A waft of skunk,/ maybe the urine/ of a fox,/ or flesh leaking/ from the nibbled arc/ of a fungus.
No nostalgic view of nature is found here. Instead, Nieman’s love of the world is discovered in her deep attention to its details, which she embraces with the ferocity of a new mother, even when those details include the messy business of birth and death and anything in between.
Besides great descriptions of the mountain world, Nieman’s poems can be humorous and quite lively. Take the first line in “Farm Wife,” for example. You can tell a country woman/by her feet. I love that! The rest of the poem follows the woman’s feet through the seasons of farming life, ending with By harvest the blood of her weariness/drips from her broken feet/and sows itself amidst the ripened corn.
Nieman doesn’t sugar-coat anything in these poems, and her unvarnished truth-telling adds strength and character to these words, a quality I welcome.
In the second section, the poems become character studies: a stranger describing the way the land used to look, a man talking about his life with his woman, someone coveting a dead neighbor’s ladder. My favorite, though, isn’t about people; instead, it’s about trees, “Night Alone”: The trees, remembering/ that they are sky/go back to it,/sky emptying/snow among the branches,/the branches lifting/up their dark selves,/the burned-work/of sun and air,/the living cinder,/until sky and tree/are the same,/are night,/and my shuttle/soul lies down.
The final section is a collage of images and narratives about people who live in the Appalachian Mountains and die there. This section is a fine way to end the collection—it’s almost a slideshow of West Virginia life.
Nieman’s collection is a worthy one and the cover is sumptuous, too.
By Anne Barnhill