The Leopard Lady Speaks
This leopard-skin come onto me
when I lost love,
(this is not for the marks to know)
when my man’s absence
set a hot kindle of distrust
that blowed back on me
as lack of faith
in what is more worthy
than some handful of spit and dust.
No wonder I lost
my natural color, trying to be
all things to him, and him not wanting
what I ever was or become or any between—
turning away like a spoiled child,
turning away like the sun eat up
by the moon, and not my doing
I scourged my soul,
turning myself inside out
to make him a better tent
against the weather of the world,
stretching myself across his failings
like a worn-through quilt
on a wide cold bed.
They weren’t enough left of me
to fill a thimble, then,
but I gathered myself back up
and stood, feet reasonable
to the earth, liver’n lights settling back
like I’d been dropped
from a high place,
and I was about satisfied,
but the letting-go of that man—
him of me then me of him—
left me streaked, specked, and spotted
like the flocks of Jacob,
and I opened my mouth to say
the true things that underprop the world.
I chose this poem because it first chose me. I was sitting with pen in hand, wait for lightning to strike, and it did — this voice arrived and kept visiting with me for many years until the entire story of Dinah (the Leopard Lady), the Professor, and their lives on the road with a mid-century carnival sideshow came into being. I didn’t so much write as excavate, make a space for her being.
Valerie Nieman’s third poetry collection, Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, includes work that first appeared in The Missouri Review, Chautauqua, and The Southern Poetry Review. “Steeped in sideshow tradition, and addressing issues of race, gender, self-concept, and creative expression, your book is beautifully written,” writes Lisa Schaefer, curator of The Coney Island Museum. Her fourth novel, To the Bones, a mystery/horror tale that takes on the coal industry and its effects on Appalachia, was published in 2019. Her poetry has appeared widely, from The Georgia Review to Crannog, and has been published in numerous anthologies, including Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. She has held state and NEA creative writing fellowships. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte and a former journalist, she teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University.
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