It means “Sleepy Hollow” in Old Dutch. Yes, that Sleepy Hollow, as in the place Mr. Washington Irving put on the literary map, though for the past twenty years, the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center has been working hard to build on that legacy. The vision of poet and founder Margo Stever has indeed blossomed into an extraordinary place for the arts. Only a train ride away from Grand Central in Manhattan, the center is itself the (currently under construction) Philipse Manor railroad station. One of the HVWC’s defining projects is this small press imprint that publishes the work of emerging poets. A number of the authors in this series, like Dina Ben-Lev, Rachel Loden, David Tucker and Sean Nevin, have gone on to publish full-length books. Most likely the same journey awaits the recent chapbook competition winner Stephanie Lenox.

Making Love to Leopard Man
Though I’m not a needle, let me touch you.
Let me look into the pink secret of your ear.
Let me part, one by one, your reclusive, unmarked toes.
Trust me, you are not the first man I’ve known
who thought he was an animal, who’s sharpened
his claws without knowing what to do with them.
Like continents, your bruise-green spots drift apart.
Lying beside you, I watch the ink bleed slowly
into the tiny channels of skin, edges blurring
into your yellow sea. One-hundred-six islands
I’ve counted so far: that one looks like a storm cloud,
that one at your hip like the head of a woman.
You’re not the only one who knows how to make
the body an elaborate disguise. How I wish
the children who torment you would throw stones
at the ugly hut of my life and scatter like birds
when I glare at them. I want to bathe my scars
in the isle’s dirty river. I want fangs.
Let me show you how hermit crabs do it: tap
my borrowed shell until I uncurl like a raw finger,
exposing myself to salt. Out there, I could be eaten,
I could be carried by the current into the mouth
of prey. Hold me closer with your human claws.
For now, let’s pretend we have nothing to hide.
The title of this collection is not a metaphor, it’s a literal heart outside the body, a fatal condition known as ectopia cordis. But little Christopher Wall holds the record for being the longest known survivor born with an external vital organ. He is the speaker of the poem: “I’ve lived/ so long the doctors say I’ll die// like everyone else.” And so the nature of this collection—portraits of human oddities and curiosities fit for the sideshow of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. But don’t call them “freaks.” They prefer the term “prodigies.”
In the poem above, the inspiration is the appropriately surnamed Tom Leppard, the Brit who tattooed 99.9% of his body with the prints of a—well, does it need to be said? Lenox found Leppard, and many of the other citizens of this “misfit menagerie” within the pages of the Guinness World Records, but she takes each stunning discovery and celebrates, interestingly enough, the ordinariness of it because to gawk and stare and ridicule difference is the easy response. Complexity is in finding common ground, in connecting the humanity between watcher and wonder. “Making Love to Leopard Man” operates from the conceit that it’s not the inked skin what makes him special, but the man beneath. For more on this truth, see “Bernie Bares All,” about the world’s oldest male stripper.
Lenox’s poems are playful and inventive, yet her subjects preserve their dignity. She does not exploit or explain; she simply applies a redemptive lens to these “strange people” who, at the end of the day, don’t seem so foreign after all. In fact, they come across as all-too similar. The couplet in the opening poem summarizes the nurturing relationship between the poet and her poems:
Stay close to me, my lovelies, my silly metaphors.
I will put you in one basket, all my spoiled eggs.
Congrats to Stephanie Lenox, to Slapering Hol Press. And kudos to the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center for championing writers and writing for the last twenty years!

Originally Published: February 10th, 2008

Rigoberto González was born in Bakersfield, California and raised in Michoacán, Mexico. He is the author of several poetry books, including So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks (1999), a National Poetry Series selection; Other Fugitives and Other Strangers (2006); Black Blossoms (2011); and Unpeopled Eden (2013), winner of a Lambda Literary Award. He...

  1. February 11, 2008
     Richard Villar

    Hudson Valley is a great institution, and Jerri Lyn Fields is a dynamic ED who is pushing their programming in exciting new directions. Plus yeah, it's a restored Metro-North station. Can't go wrong.
    Slapering Rich.