Archive for May 19th, 2023


[featuring three poems by Valerie Neiman]
What you see, that is what survives.
What you remember is all there is.

Don’t you want to save the world?
+++++++++++ from Catechism by Valerie Neiman

Yesterday I walked and tried to remember. Here beside my foot, what is the name of this so familiar leaf? Distinctive, like no other leaf, for that reason alone I should remember it. Surely I have seen it before and known it. Surely the other things I’ve seen and learned for the first time today have not pushed from my memory an equal number of things I learned yesterday, cargo jettisoned?

Later I found a photo of the leaf and immediately knew it and where and when I’d first learned it, Jumpseed or Virginia Knotweed, Isaac’s Trail (MST), August 2022. It was in bloom then and I recall a definite small joy in learning it – the leaf, after all, is distinctive. Old friend, it is good to see you in your Spring garb.

Lately I’ve been chiding myself for always walking the same trails every week, sometimes every day. Branch out, see something new! But these woods are never quite the same today as they were yesterday. I notice the same things in different light or at a new stage of growth; I see and hear things I’ve never noticed at all in years of passing this way. I suppose I’ll keep walking these trails until I’ve noticed everything. Or perhaps even longer, until memory no longer retains a thing and each day is indeed entirely new.

Except that’s not quite how it ends. There are all the people who’ve walked beside me on these trails, who’ve shared with me and with whom I’ve shared, if only the shapes of leaves. It’s not quite true that what you remember is all there is. What you share is all there is.

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Out of the Ordinary
My friend mourns the missing thrushes,
ee-o-lay that used to rise
like fireflies at the verge of oak woods.
Her memory saves a space for their song;
others, later, won’t notice the lack,
satisfied by the insistent mockingbird
(his repertoire a hundred songs or more,
including cell phone and cricket chirp),
reweaving a looser web of dawn chorus:
So one bird replaces a canopy of absent
warblers, as a synthesizer sets ghosts
in the chairs of an emptied orchestra.


Like scissored silhouette
of a child’s shadow, this becomes the is
of that isn’t. What is no longer,

like those ballads that bridged generations.
We no longer lift our quotidian voices
to pace work or ease the idle hours,

now that professionals provide
tunes at the ready, electronically
clipped and smoothed,

like purebred stock at the fair,
not one hair out of place,
not one note quavered.

Valerie Nieman
from Hotel Worthy, Press 53, Winston-Salem NC, © 2015
❦ ❦ ❦

Last week I was helping my wee mother take a little walk – tie her shoes, re-button the pink sweater, find her cane – and as I held her elbow to steady her across the threshold, she looked up and said, “You’re a good boy.” If you are also an oldest child, perhaps you, too, have spent a good chunk of your life doing whatever it took to hear those words (and no, I haven’t had to wait 70 years to hear them for the first time). But doesn’t every child, primogenitor or not, long to gain their parents’ favor? More than to be loved – to be worthy?

Valerie Nieman writes there on the left is the Hotel Worthy and I realize I’ve been trying to check in for years. Many of the poems in Hotel Worthy struggle with conflict – how to be worthy? Or how to be true to yourself? Is there some hallowed doorway that leads to both? Or is it true that The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is / to know every name of every part of the sailboat from gudgeon to headstay and . . .

The purpose of life is a shadow ducking behind a tree in a dark wood. Pursue, pursue! After spending several hours reading Val’s book straight through, I find myself returning to poems that especially entice me on, this one, that one, re-reading and discovering new connections, doorways opening into new places. The archaeologist’s surface stratum is scratched away to reveal a metaphor for human relationships and generations. So many metaphors, each one more true than the last. Valerie’s collection creates a lifeline and a world of knowing that emerges not as a tree, spreading from root to bole to branch, but as a web, nodes across time and place. I scribble a collection of her lines I want to hold on to and learn from. I smile when an awareness dawning in the poet dawns in me as well. I’m glad I accepted the invitation to check into this Hotel – you come, too!

Valerie Nieman is a graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, and teaches writing at North Carolina A&T State University and at other venues including John C. Campbell Folk School. Hotel Worthy is the second of her three poetry collections which Press 53 in Winston-Salem NC has published; the first is Wake Wake Wake and the third The Leopard Lady. Her Press 53 novel, Blood Clay, received the Eric Hoffer Award, and her fourth novel, To the Bones, was published in 2019 by West Virginia University Press.

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++ In archaeological sites, natural and human-generated material occur together
++ in layers. These layers, called strata, form a record of past events . . .

++++++++++++ – Research Laboratories of Archaeology, UNC

is what has been cut apart
and swallowed,
bite by terrible bite,
and laid down in the body’s lattice.
Small sharp things:
that glance across the table,
those unfinished gestures.
History waits in the antechamber
for the arrival of words:
no documents, no history.
But what’s down inside
the long galleries of the bones
all the while, without any light,
painting aurochs on the walls?
Now if you only want to pry
artifacts out of the generations
of mud, what can be salvaged
for love or for money,
hurry, then, with pick and shovel –
difficult to tell what it all
amounted to, once,
except that sometimes
in the upended clay the light
finds a carved head, a bit of gold,
or flaked edge of obsidian
that might (or not) have been employed
in a clenched fist.
The careful investigator,
with dental pick and bone brush,
would find the same shattered femurs,
the same engraved figures
(vulva and tectiform shelter),
but frame them
in time and meaning:
how high the icy water rose
that spring,
how the deer fled,
how we starved.
Valerie Nieman

from Hotel Worthy, Press 53, Winston-Salem NC, © 2015

❦ ❦ ❦

Dark Matter


Seaweed, scoured from the deep, scatters
its beads upon the beach. Everything broken.
I gather twists and bits, small lives blasted
and holed, shoved aside by the waves, a slattern’s
house(un)keeping, fires heaped with trash,
any salutary offerings to one goddess or another
scrabbled up by dirty hands, a smidge and a smatter
to feed a momentary appetite. So I kick along the tide
line and analogize, my disappearing domestic
bliss no match for weighty issues of war-shatter
everywhere east to west, eruptions staggering the world;
but still, but still, I accumulate little bomblets
of disaster and embrace them, the spatter
of heartsblood ready to fly when the least jounce
lets it all come apart, and so the personal
etc. holds little hands with the larger all the way up, dark matter
flinging this fine universe outward from one hot bang,
farther, colder, the space-between we imagine.

Valerie Nieman

from Hotel Worthy, Press 53, Winston-Salem NC, © 2015

❦ ❦ ❦

2020-06-11a Doughton Park Tree

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