The OF Blog: 2011 National Book Award poetry nominee: Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split

Sunday, November 13, 2011

2011 National Book Award poetry nominee: Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split

By forty-two, you have pieced & sewn many things together in segregated Alabama.  You have heard "Nigger Gal" more times than you can stitch yourmanners down.  You have smelled fear cut throughthe air like sulfur iron from the paper mills.  The pants,shirts, and socks that you have darned perfectly, routinely,walk perfectly, routinely, by you. (Afternoon.  How do.)Those moving along so snug in your well-made, well-sewnclothes, spit routinely, narrowly missing your perfectlypressed sleeve.
taken from "Red Velvet"

Of the five finalists for the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, Nikky Finney's Head Off & Split is easily the most political.  In poems such as "Red Velvet" (quoted above) and "The Condoleeza Suite," Finney skewers not just old-time segregationist ideology, but also neo-Conservatives such as former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and President George W. Bush.  Finney pulls no punches, as evidenced in lines such as the ones quoted above, where she directly confronts the social hypocrisies of the day (and of today).

There are advantages to being so direct and concrete in verse.  There certainly is little chance that readers aware of the issues Finney addresses will miss the thrust of her poems.  Yet such directness can risk turning deftly-worded verse into sledgehammer lines that bludgeon readers into submission or flight.  Although there are a few occasions here and there where Finney goes to the well one too many times, for the most part, she varies the rhythm of her free verse and peppers them with indelible images, such one stanza of "Dancing with Strom":

The favorite son of South Carolina has already
danced with the giddy bride and the giddy bride's
mother.  More women await:  Easter dressy,
drenched in caramel, double exposed, triple cinched,
lined up, leggy, ready.

Lines such as these make Head Off & Split wonderful to read, as Finney certainly constructs powerful metaphors to support the points she makes in her poems.  However, there are limitations to having the vast majority of the poems being about political/racial issues.  Regardless of how powerfully Finney makes her points, the poems risk being bent to serve the purpose of the ideas rather than the ideas being subsumed into poems that can capture a multitude of moods and serve multiple purposes.  I found it difficult to say much more than "Finney makes her points with eloquent and moving lines" because there is no ambiguity to the verses that allows me to ponder what she might possibly have meant and whether or not my initial interpretations may have been correct.  Head Off & Split makes for a great initial read, but I am hesitant to state it would be as worthwhile on re-reads as the previous poetry finalists will be.

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