"The size of West Virginia"

by Valerie Nieman (Finalist) Issue: Spring 2018
Few know the Mountain State but all
recognize it, easiest puzzle-piece of the states,
its awkward panhandles and pendulous gut
lolling into East Virginia.

A vast aquifer "lake" lies trapped under southeastern
Greenland, larger than the size of West Virginia.

It’s a convenient scale for journalists,
standard candle like the Cepheid Variables
or Type Ia Supernovae that allow
for dead reckoning on distant stars.

As of July 15th, fires have blackened nearly 21,000
square miles. (That's nearly the size of West Virginia.)  

Cold-shouldered by its neighbors,
this place makes itself so handy –
a homely measuring stick
for the strange, hidden, elsewhere, lost.

Each year, the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer
maps an area of the seafloor the size of West Virginia.

Is this size of West Virginia calculated
by the erratic path around its borders, a man
pushing a squealing wheel along the banks
of the beautiful Ohio, dark-hearted Buffalo?

Costa Rica has 51,100 square kilometers of land,
which is slightly less than the size of West Virginia.

Only the Mason-Dixon Line draws string-
straight across rough terrain, imagining it flat,
speaking the same language as draglines
that tear the tops off mountains.

The net forest loss rose to 6.5 million hectares per year
the equivalent to clear cutting an area the size of West Virginia.

Maybe a razor could slice it fine, trace
the topography of each ridge, carve a green
ribbon of West Virginia like Dido’s ox hide
expansive enough to bound the nation.

The 26 counties of the Irish republic
a little more than the size of West Virginia.

Measurement tells us where we’ve been, where
we are headed. Allegheny peaks shift red at dawn;
blue, blue shadows sift into depeopled towns.
Hear the long Doppler moan of a coal train always leaving.

Valerie Nieman

Valerie Nieman’s second poetry collection, Hotel Worthy, was published in 2015She has held fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council, the NEA, the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Her awards include the Greg Grummer, Nazim Hikmet, and Byron Herbert Reece poetry prizes, and her work has been selected for several anthologies including Eyes Burning at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia. Nieman is the author of three novels, the most recent being Blood Clay, and a collection of short stories. She graduated from West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, and teaches writing at North Carolina A&T State University.