Thursday, January 9, 2020

Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse
By Valerie Nieman
Press 53, 2018
ISBN 978-1-941209-89-9
78 pages

Review of Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse
by Rosemary Royston

I’ve had the chance to meet Valerie Nieman on a couple occasions, as we both live in write in Southern Appalachia and have crossed paths at various conferences and readings. I was delighted to have the opportunity to review The Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse. Two of the dominant temperaments working so well together in Nieman’s collection, as Gregory Orr so aptly described them, are story and imagination. The title lets the reader know she is about to embark on a life of a woman known as a “Leopard Lady,” and curiosity alone lures the reader to want to know why someone would have such a moniker. While the setting is clearly in Southern Appalachia, the final poem, “Ghost Riders (Coney Island Museum, 1980)” is the clue to what triggered Nieman’s imagination to conjure this collection of poems that are in the voices of two characters: the Leopard Lady (Book I) and the Professor (Book II), both of whom find themselves in the same traveling carnival. While the setting is certainly non-traditional, the themes are universal, and sound, diction, and image bring these poems to life. 

We are first introduced to the Leopard Lady in the opening poem where she is not yet named. What we learn, though, is that she is orphaned at birth – her “red-haired mother died” during childbirth and she sees her father “only in that mirror” that she holds up, her “skin as brown as a nut.” A mixed race child in the South in the mid-1930s, she is given over to the Gaston family (“grown old as Abraham n Sarah”), named Dinah, and sent out to earn money by helping to make sorghum. While the Gaston family proclaims to be a godly family, their true nature is revealed in “No More Haints” on how they see Dinah’s purpose in their family,

            The Gastons would send me out for wages,
            learning and earning they said, and they leaned on the latter,
            once I had grammar enough to read the Good Book,
and a body strong enough for chopping and toting.

However, the manual labor grows old and Dinah, who has since become pregnant and been sent to a root-worker for bitters to drink to purge her body of a fetus, finds herself jumping off a boxcar and starting a new life with a traveling carnival, honing her natural gift of second sight and learning to read palms. “The Hunt” offers in its final stanza a description of palmistry,
                        The hand is a forest
                        cut through with paths.
                        Along them runs a soul
                        like deer to water.

Dinah moves in and out of towns with the carnival and in and out of roles within the sideshow. And while her lifestyle is very different than that of most readers or the “rubes” who attend the shows, there are universal themes that are inescapable. No matter where she goes, Dinah is marked by the color of her skin. Her options are limited in society due to her mixed race, and once her palm-reader mentor, Mrs. Elderia, passes away, Dinah takes her place. But her name “ain’t strong,” according to the lot manager. It needs to match her dark skin so it should be Egyptian. Offered up are “Queen? Oracle? Sibyl?” and it is the Sibyl that Dinah takes as her palm-reading persona. This additional self is no different that the many selves the reader takes on in daily life, and Dinah’s personas grow as she does. In fact, we learn the etymology of her final name, The Leopard Lady, in “The Leopard Lady at the Market,” where she ponders over the two people who created her: a Black father and an Irish mother who is,
                        …working to get out, though,
                        showing herself.
                        That white woman what left me
                        is taking me back,
                        inch by inch.

While never explicitly named, Dinah likely suffers from vitiligo, where the pigmentation of her darker skin fades, turning white, leaving her spotted, hence her next carnie act as the Leopard Lady. But before she reveals her changing pigmentation to the carnival goers, she continues to tell fortunes, using her second sight, often spooking the farm boys who enter her tent. “The Leopard Lady Finds Lost Things” is a prime example of the power of diction that works throughout this collection, as the reader can both hear and see this scene, “So the wicker chair crick-cracks. One sets an overbig hand / on the crystal; a streak of sweat shows and gone.” // “It’s my watch, he says, I lost it but he got another question / under his skin like a warble-grub about to burst.” This farm boy, who has lost his watch making love to his girl at Alder Branch, “gapes like a catfish” when the Leopard Lady (now also called Lady Panthera due to her changing skin) tells him that, “Time secretly moves. / Bends the alder branch. / Seek under stone over sand.”

When it comes to lovers, Dinah chooses to ignore signs that are right in front of her, signs that she should easily see, and she loses the man she loved the most – Shelby, who always called her by her given name, “And so I broke my heart / and shoemaker’s children go barefoot.” It is this loss of Shelby that leads the reader into Book II: The Reveal, which opens with “The Ballyhoo,” where it is claimed that the Leopard Lady, “

Abandoned by her lover, she called on black arts
of voodoo, summoning Erzulie of the heart,
unholy Mambo Madam of love and vengeance,
to trade her suffering for a beast’s indifference.”

However, Petey, who was the previous spiel-giver of the inside show, left the carnival “high and dry in Shinnston,” and was soon replaced by a pale, book learned man named Jonathan, who is introduced in “Arrivals” and who becomes an equal voice in the second half of The Leopard Lady. A friendship and a platonic love grows between Jonathan aka The Professor and The Leopard Lady. While Dinah has read the Bible and Shakespeare, Jonathan has read these and more and they often discuss Bible verses and views, with Dinah holding her ground and not feeling any less than, even without the benefit of Jonathan’s formal education.  Jonathan’s ability to preach, which he is wise enough not to share, allows him to give an impromptu and very successful spiel for how Alfredo the Amazing Frog Boy came to be in “ The Professor: A Voice to Speak” – his “homiletics class/ had given [him] the gift to winnow out / ideas from the air with a sieve of words.” It is this speech that gets Jonathan hired to be the inside man for the carnie show.

Another universal theme that crops up in this collection is that of a class system. Whether we are in traditional society where race, gender, and economic status dictate a bias, there’s also a class system in the carnival. As captured in “Fearfully, Wonderfully,” those “shaped by God’s thumb” or the “born freaks” are at the top of the class system. Because Jonathan comes from outside and has an education, it is not until his own weakness is made visible to his colleagues that he gains their respect. In “The Professor: Abracadabra” he magically becomes one of them once the “spectacular scar” from his heart defect is revealed when he passes out:
                        …Their eyes are softer, now
                        that they have seen the scar. I am no more
                        the one who has the words, the Inside Man,
                        but one of them, stricken and marked.

This acceptance of Jonathan by his carnie brothers and sisters is the type of acceptance we all yearn for, as we all wish to belong to community. In the carnie system and in these poems we find acceptance no matter what our born defects or our self-inflicted mutations may be. It is easy to understand the appeal of traveling with a group of people who accept one another no matter the oddities.

Images are prevalent in Nieman’s poems. From the leopard spots on Dinah’s skin, the Professor’s scar, crows, and root working, one that stands out and ties together both the spiritual nature of the poems that runs through the collection and the limitations of women is found in “The Professor: Fairy Stones.” The poem turns on the image of a stone that the Professor keeps in his pocket. Once spotting it and asking what it is, Dinah “strokes its quartered arms / with nothing less than humble reverence.” The cross-shaped stone has two evolution stories, one scientific, the other more mysterious. Either it was formed from molten rock or, it was formed when “woodland sprites / cried at the news of Jesus’s death, their tears / freezing as crosses.” The fairy stone was a gift to the Professor from his Aunt Edwina, who wished “to be a priest herself,” yet, like Dinah, being a woman severely limited her options, with Dinah’s options being even more restrictive due to the mixed color of her skin. The collection is rife with Bible verses, allusions, and traditions from Southern Appalachia of making bitters, using yarbs, to the “gift of prophecy.” As superstitions go in the region, a bird flies under the carnival tent in “See You Down the Road,” predicting a death the next day, which happens to be that of Jonathan. Prior to passing away, Jonathan has given Dinah his fairy stone in “Gift” and tells her of the Buddhist theory of life as a wheel in “The Professor Tells about the Wheel,” where Dinah ponders, secure in her Christianity,
I know my soul is sealed
                        and glory-bound,
                        but I would surely like
                        off this earthly wheel
                        of sadness.

It is in Jonathan’s passing that he is able to liberate the Leopard Lady. Leaving her his savings, she merges into both her carnie persona and her true self as Madame Dinah, having the means to purchase a home and earn a living as “Madame Dinah, Palmist and Seer.” It is a sad irony that it takes Jonathan’s death to liberate Dinah, but The Leopard Lady is finally free to live on her own and support herself through her gifts, secure both financially and spiritually.

The final poem, “Ghost Riders (Coney Island Museum, 1980),” let’s the reader know where Nieman found the source for these poems and characters, and it also reminds the reader of the essence of Carl Sandburg’s “Cool Tombs,” where death is the great equalizer. In its final stanza, Nieman so beautifully shows the harsh reality of the ending of the cycle of life:

                        Down at the edge of the beach
                        sand and salt keep gnawing
                        at the other. We are none of us more
                        than a handful of spit and dust.
                        We live and then we are melted into air.

Rosemary Royston, author of Splitting the Soil (Finishing Line Press, 2014), resides in northeast Georgia with her family. Her poetry has been published in journals such as Split Rock Review, Southern Poetry Review, Appalachian Heritage, Poetry South, KUDZU, NANO Fiction, and *82 Review. She’s a lecturer and VP for Planning and Research at Young Harris College, where she teaches the occasional creative writing course.

1 comment:

  1. As a fan of both Nieman's and Royston's work, I may be prejudiced in my assessment of this review. I find it exceptionally well written and I am lured into wanting to reading Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse. Thank you, Rosemary.


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