Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Head Off and Split: Poems by Nikky Finney

What to say about poetry so irresistible that I am drawn back into the pages every time I attempt to write about it here? Nikky Finney's Head Off & Split is wise and fierce and tender and playful. Her words make me weep. They also make me smile. They make me want to raise my fist and shout, "Yes!"

I love the way Finney shows how history, politics and landscape have shaped her African American self and the lives of her female relatives. Anger simmers through some of the pieces, while others are infused with warmth and wonder. The poems in the middle section are openly lesbian.

In the prose poem Cattails, one woman drives a long distance to unexpectedly woo another. "The didn't-know-she-was-coming woman stares at she who has just arrived. She tries to read the mighty spinach leaves in her bowl, privately marveling at the driving woman's muscled spontaneity. She can hardly believe this almost stranger has made it across five states just to have lunch with her. She wonders where this mad driving woman will sleep tonight. She is of two driving minds. One convertible. One hardtop."

Finney's word play is delightful: "Easter dressy" women (Dancing with Strom); "the long solemncholy wait" (Thunderbolt of Jove); "Her humming heart in mighty step with the bee wings of the July air." (Brown Girl Levitation, 1962 - 1989). Finney's dexterity and intellect remind me of Margaret Atwood's style.

The title comes from a term used by fishmongers, a query about how a customer might like her fish prepared before it is taken home to be cooked. "Head off and split? Translation: Do away with the watery gray eyes, the impolite razor-sharp fins, the succulent heart, tender roe, delicate sweet bones?" (Resurrection of the Errand Girl: An Introduction). The warning that is the central theme of this collection is clearly stated in the final poem: "Careful to the very end what you deny, dismiss and cut away." (Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica).

Head Off & Split won the National Book Award in 2011. It's the first of Finney's work that I've read, but I am now firmly a fan and eager to read her other books. Fortunately, two of her older poetry volumes have been released in new editions, so they should be readily available. For more about this remarkable poet and her books, check out Nikky Finney's website.


Claire G said...

Sounds wonderful. And I can get the book at Auckland Libraries. Yay!

Lindy said...

Let me know what you think, okay?