Head Off and Split

Head Off and Split

by Nikky Finney


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Winner, 2011 National Book Award for Poetry
Winner, 2012 GLCS Award for Poetry
Winner, 2012 SIBA Book Award for Poetry
Nominee, 2012 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry

The poems in Nikky Finney's breathtaking new collection Head Off & Split sustain a sensitive and intense dialogue with emblematic figures and events in African American life: from civil rights matriarch Rosa Parks to former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, from a brazen girl strung out on lightning to a terrified woman abandoned on a rooftop during Hurricane Katrina. Finney's poetic voice is defined by an intimacy that holds a soft yet exacting eye on the erotic, on uncanny political and family events, like her mother's wedding waltz with South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, and then again on the heartbreaking hilarity of an American president's final State of the Union address. 

Artful and intense, Finney's poems ask us to be mindful of what we fraction, fragment, cut off, dice, dishonor, or throw away, powerfully evoking both the lawless and the sublime.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810152168
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 02/01/2011
Pages: 80
Sales rank: 426,624
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Nikky Finney was born at the rim of the Atlantic Ocean, in South Carolina, in 1957. The daughter of activists and educators, she began writing in the midst of the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements. With these instrumental eras circling her, Finney's work provides first-person literary accounts to some of the most important events in American history.

In 1985, and at the age of 26, Finney's debut collection of poetry, On Wings Made of Gauze, was published by William Morrow (a division of HaperCollins). Finney's next full-length collection of poetry and portraits, RICE (Sister Vision Press, 1995), was awarded the PEN America-Open Book Award, which was followed by a collection of short stories entitled Heartwood (University Press of Kentucky, 1998). Her next full-length poetry collection, The World Is Round (Inner Light Books, 2003) was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Award sponsored by the Independent Booksellers Association. In 2007, Finney edited the anthology, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (University of Georgia Press/Cave Canem), which has become an essential compilation of contemporary African American writers. Her fourth full-length collection of poetry, Head Off & Split, is a National Book Award Winner. 

Finney and her work have been featured on Russell Simmons DEF Poetry (HBO series), renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson's feature The Meaning of Food (a PBS production) and National Public Radio. Her work has been praised by Walter Mosley, Nikki Giovanni, Gloria Naylor and the late CBS/60 Minutes news anchor Ed Bradley. Finney has held distinguished posts at Berea College as the Goode Chair in the Humanities and Smith College as the Grace Hazard Conklin Writer-in-Residence.

Finney is currently a Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University Kentucky. She is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets

Read an Excerpt



Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2011 Nikky Finney
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-5216-8

Chapter One

The Hard • Headed

    Red Velvet
    (for Rosa Parks, 1913–2005)

    People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was
    tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no
    more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day.
    No—the only thing I was—was tired of giving in.


    Montgomery, Alabama, 1955

    The setting:
A rolling box with wheels
    The players: Mr. Joe Singleton, Rev. Scott,
    Miss Louise Bennett, Mrs. Rosa Parks,
    Jacob & Junie (fraternal twins, fourteen)

    The game: Pay your Indian Head to the driver,
    then get off the bus.
    Then, walk to the door at the end of the bus.
    Then, reboard the bus through the Black back door.
    (Then, push repeat for fifty years.)

    Sometimes, the driver pulled off,
    before the paid-in-full customer
    could get to the one open door.

    Fed up with buses driving off—without them—
    just as her foot lifted up, grazing, the steel step:

    She was not a child. She was in her forties.
    A seamstress. A woman devoted to
    handmade things.

    She had grown up in a place:
    where only white people had power,
    where only white people passed good jobs on
    to other white people,
    where only white people loaned money
    to other white people,
    where only white people were considered human
    by other white people,
    where only the children of white people had new
    books on the first day of school,
    where only white people could drive to the store
    at midnight for milk
    (without having to watch the rearview).


    A seamstress brings fabric and thread, collars & hems,
    buttonholes, together. She is one who knows her way
    around velvet.

    Arching herself over a river of cloth she feels for the bias,
    but doesn't cut, not until the straight pins are in place,
    marking everything; in time, everything will come together.

    Nine months after, December 1, 1955, Claudette
    Colvin, fifteen, arrested for keeping her seat; before that,
    Mary Louise Smith. The time to act, held by two pins.


    The Montgomery seamstress waits and waits for
    the Cleveland Avenue bus. She climbs aboard,
    row five. The fifth row is the first row of the Colored
    section. The bus driver, who tried to put her off that day,
    had put her off twelve years before. But twelve years
    before she was only twenty-eight, still a child to the
    heavy work of resistance.

    By forty-two, you have pieced & sewn many things
    together in segregated Alabama. You have heard
    "Nigger Gal" more times than you can stitch your
    manners down. You have smelled fear cut through
    the 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-sewn
    clothes, spit routinely, narrowly missing your perfectly
    pressed sleeve.

    By forty-two, your biases are flat, your seams are interlocked,
    your patience with fools, razor thin.

    By forty-two, your heart is heavy with slavery, lynching,
    and the lessons of being "good." You have heard
    7,844 Sunday sermons on how God made every
    woman in his image. You do a lot of thinking with
    a thimble on your thumb. You have hemmed
    8,230 skirts for nice, well-meaning white women
    in Montgomery. You have let the hem out of
    18,809 pant legs for growing white boys. You have
    pricked your finger 45,203 times. Held your peace.


    December 1, 1955: You didn't notice who was
    driving the bus. Not until you got on. Later you
    would remember, "All I wanted was to get home."
    The bus driver, who put you off when you were
    twenty-eight, would never be given the pleasure
    of putting you off anything ever again. When he
    asks you to move you cross your feet at the ankle.

    Well—I'm going to have you arrested.

    And you, you with your forty-two years, with your
    21,199 perfect zippers, you with your beautiful
    nation of perfect seams marching all in place, all
    around Montgomery, Alabama, on the backs &
    hips of Black & white alike, answer him back,

    Well—You may go on and do so.

    You are arrested on a Thursday. That night in
    Montgomery, Dr. King led the chant, "There
    comes a time when people just get tired." (He
    wasn't quite right, but he was King.) He asked
    you to stand so your people can see you. You
    stand. Veritas! You do not speak. The indelible
    blue ink still on your thumb saying, Enough!
    You think about the qualities of velvet: strength
    & sway. How mighty it holds the thread and
    won't let go. You pull your purse in close,
    the blue lights map out your thumb, blazing
    the dark auditorium.

    On Courthouse Monday, the sun day dew
    sweating the grass, you walk up the sidewalk
    in a long-sleeved black dress, your white collar
    and deep perfect cuffs holding you high and
    starched in the Alabama air. A trim black velvet
    hat, a gray coat, white gloves. You hold your
    purse close: everything valuable is kept near
    the belly, just like you had seen your own mother
    do. You are pristine. Persnickety. Particular.
    A seamstress. Every thing about you gathered
    up and in place. A girl in the crowd, taught not to
    shout, shouts, "Oh! She's so sweet looking! Oh!
    They done messed with the wrong one now."

    You cannot keep messing with a sweet-looking
    Black woman who knows her way around velvet.
    A woman who can take cotton and gabardine,
    seersucker and silk, swirl tapestry, and hang
    boiled wool for the house curtains, to the very
    millimeter. A woman made of all this is never to
    be taken for granted, never to be asked to move
    to the back of anything, never ever to be arrested.

    A woman who believes she is worthy of every
    thing possible. Godly. Grace. Good. Whether you
    believe it or not, she has not come to Earth to play
    Ring Around Your Rosie on your rolling
    circus game of public transportation.

    A woman who understands the simplicity pattern,
    who wears a circle bracelet of straight pins there,
    on the tiny bend of her wrist. A nimble, on-the-dot
    woman, who has the help of all things, needle sharp,
    silver, dedicated, electric, can pull cloth and others
    her way, through the tiny openings she and others
    before her have made.

    A fastened woman
    can be messed with, one too many times.

    With straight pins poised in the corner
    of her slightly parted lips, waiting to mark
    the stitch, her fingers tacking,
    looping the blood red wale,
    through her softly clenched teeth
    she will tell you, without ever looking
    your way,

    You do what you need to do &
    So will I.


    Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!

    The woman with cheerleading legs
    has been left for dead. She hot paces a roof,
    four days, three nights, her leaping fingers,
    helium arms rise & fall, pulling at the week-old
    baby in the bassinet, pointing to the
    eighty-two-year-old grandmother, fanning & raspy
    in the New Orleans Saints folding chair.

    Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!

    Three times a day the helicopter flies
    by in a low crawl. The grandmother insists on
    not being helpless, so she waves a white handkerchief
    that she puts on and takes off her head
    toward the cameraman and the pilot who
    remembers well the art of his mirrored-eyed
    posture in his low-flying helicopter: Bong Son,
    Dong Ha, Pleiku, Chu Lai. He makes a slow
    Vietcong dip & dive, a move known in Rescue
    as the Observation Pass.

    The roof is surrounded by broken-levee
    water. The people are dark but not broken. Starving,
    abandoned, dehydrated, brown & cumulous,
    but not broken. The four-hundred-year-old
    anniversary of observation begins, again—

    Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!
    Catch a—

    The woman with pom-pom legs waves
    her uneven homemade sign:

    Pleas Help Pleas

    and even if the e has been left off the Pleas e

    do you know simply
    by looking at her
    that it has been left off
    because she can't spell
    (and therefore is not worth saving)
    or was it because the water was rising so fast
    there wasn't time?

    Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!
    Catch a— a—

    The low-flying helicopter does not know
    the answer. It catches all of this on patriotic tape,
    but does not land, and does not drop dictionary,
    or ladder.

    Regulations require an e be at the end
    of any Pleas e before any national response
    can be taken.

    Therefore, it takes four days before
    the national council of observers will consider
    dropping one bottle of water, or one case
    of dehydrated baby formula, on the roof
    where the e has rolled off into the flood,

    (but obviously not splashed
    loud enough)
    where four days later not the mother,
    not the baby girl,
    but the determined hanky waver,
    whom they were both named for,
    (and after) has now been covered up
    with a green plastic window awning,
    pushed over to the side
    right where the missing e was last seen.

    My mother said to pick
    The very best one!

    What else would you call it,
    Mr. Every-Child-Left-Behind.

    Anyone you know
    ever left off or put on
    an e by mistake?

    Potato Po tato e

    In the future observation helicopters
    will leave the well-observed South and fly
    in Kanye-West-Was-Finally-Right formation.
    They will arrive over burning San Diego.

    The fires there will be put out so well.
    The people there will wait in a civilized manner.
    And they will receive foie gras and free massage
    for all their trouble, while their houses don't
    flood, but instead burn calmly to the ground.

    The grandmothers were right
    about everything.

    People who outlived bullwhips & Bull
    Connor, historically afraid of water and routinely
    fed to crocodiles, left in the sun on the sticky tar-heat
    of roofs to roast like pigs, surrounded by
    forty feet of churning water, in the summer
    of 2005, while the richest country in the world
    played the old observation game, studied
    the situation: wondered by committee what to do;
    counted, in private, by long historical division;
    speculated whether or not some people are surely
    born ready, accustomed to flood, famine, fear.

    My mother said to pick
    The very best one
    And you are not it!

    After all, it was only po' New Orleans,
    old bastard city of funny spellers. Nonswimmers
    with squeeze-box accordion accents. Who would
    be left alive to care?

    My Time Up with You

    [A rickety porch somewhere in east Texas.]

    the air is calamity

    The TV camera steadies against the wind, shining
    the only good light left on the old woman's face.

    Ain't going nowhere. Ain't moving. Not from this house.

    The young man does not drop head or microphone.

    Go save somebody else. Everybody at 621 already saved.

    With her cane she points to the bright orange house numbers.
    The young reporter does not speak. The sheriff deputy's
    face is ruddy, puffing. He is nearly eating his car radio;

    We ARE trying to get out. Roger, we are trying to get out now! Over.

    The young "tom brokaw" situates the camera on her face.
    Mayree Monroe is chewing down an old bone, taken out
    of her mama's mouth. A bone that won't go down.

    You say Rita coming? Well, she just gonna have to come on.

    Miss Monroe hands the sky everything in her pockets.

    Come on Rita girl. Come on gal, get yourself on Mayree's list.

    Her eyes & words fall to Mr. Tall Handsome, camera-keeping
    up with her every move;

    Iss gonna be me and Rita tonight, Baby!

    He hoists the great silver eye off his shoulder. Looking
    behind, on guard to the loud laughing wind. No time.
    He's got to make her understand.

    One hour ago when they arrived for this little
    human-interest story, he didn't think it would
    take this long. How could it take this long? All
    up and down the street: Whipping clotheslines.
    Spanking trash cans. Snapping live wires.
    Twenty-foot vaulted trees. Downspouts playing
    steel pan with the trembling ground. Every wild
    thing prone to stillness now. Miss Monroe's screen
    cracks then pops. The top hinge lunges wild, free.

    Miss Monroe, please come with us, everybody has been
    evacuated—but you. We need to get in the car now and go.
    We really need to go. If we leave without you no one will
    come back for you—not even when you change your mind.

    He means well. He has a kind voice. Wearing
    those You Can Trust Me I Served In The Peace
    Corps eyes. He has seen the inside of a church
    twice, walking all the way to the front both
    times, surprising even his mother as he dropped
    to his knees.

    The old woman, three times his age, points, then
    claps her hands like a much younger woman.
    When she does her top teeth shift, slip. She stands.
    Using both hands she smoothes down the cotton
    fabric from hipline to another invisible mark just
    above her knee. She does this in one fluid motion.
    This is the oldest signal in the Western Hemisphere
    between an old Black woman and whosoever
    her company happens to be.

    My time up with you her standing-up legs and
    smoothing-down hand signals say. But the young
    "tom brokaw" has not studied his field guide
    to Black women.


Excerpted from HEAD OFF & SPLIT by NIKKY FINNEY Copyright © 2011 by Nikky Finney. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Resurrection of the Errand Girl: An Introduction

The Hard - Headed
Red Velvet
My Time Up with You
The Condoleezza Suite
    Concerto no. 5: Condoleezza & Intransigence
    Concerto no. 7: Condoleezza {working out} at the Watergate
    Concerto no. 11: Condoleezza and the Chickering
    Concerto no. 12: Condoleezza Visits NYC {during hurricane season}

The Head - over - Heels
Thunderbolt of Jove
The Aureole
Shaker: Wilma Rudolph Appears While Riding the Althea Gibson
Highway Home
The Clitoris
Brown Girl Levitation, 1962-1989

The Head - Waters
Dancing with Strom
Segregation, Forever
Negroes with Guns
Hash Marks
Men Who Give Milk 1
Alice Butler
Penguin, Mullet, Bread
Liberty Street Seafood
Head Off & Split

Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica

What People are Saying About This

Nikki Giovanni

"Nikky Finney has been a fine poet much too long to say that this latest treasure is her promise coming into being. She exploded with so much talent with On Wings Made of Gauze and beautifully matured with Rice, yet Head Off & Split takes the promise of youth with the control of adulthood to bring her greatest exploration. Honest, searing, searching. We all, especially now, need this book of poems; we all, especially now, need this poet."—Nikki Giovanni, author of Bicycles

Kwame Dawes

"With Head Off & Split, Nikky Finney establishes herself as one of the most eloquent, urgent, fearless and necessary poets writing in America today. What makes this book as important as anything published in the last decade is the irresistible music, the formal dexterity and the imaginative leaps she makes with metaphor and language in these simply stunning poems. This is a very, very important achievement."—Kwame Dawes, author of Hope's Hospice

Bruce Weigl

"Beginning with the sweepingly inclusive and powerful 'Red Velvet,' a Middle Passage poem for our times, Nikky Finney takes the reader to a wonderfully alive world where the musical possibilities of language overflow with surprise and innovation. Finney has an ear to go along with the wild-ness of her imagination, which sweeps through history like a pair of wings. Her carefully modulated free verse is always purposeful in its desire to move the reader in a way that allows us intimate access to necessary observations about ourselves. These poems, in other words, have the power to save us."—Bruce Weigl, author of What Saves Us

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