Head Off & Split NPR coverage of Head Off & Split: Poems by Nikky Finney. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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Head Off & Split


by Nikky Finney

Paperback, 97 pages, Northwestern University Press, List Price: $15.95 |


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NPR Summary

Nikky Finney's poetry explores people and events in African American life: from Rosa Parks to Condoleezza Rice to a woman waiting for rescue on a rooftop during Hurricane Katrina.

Read an excerpt of this book


Awards and Recognition

National Book Award (2011)

NPR stories about Head Off & Split

Nikky Finney is an award-winning poet and the Provost's Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Kentucky. Noah Adams/NPR hide caption

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The Beauty And Difficulty Of Poet Nikky Finney

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How Nikky Finney Found Her Own Path To Poetry

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Jesmyn Ward, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction for her book Salvage the Bones, poses at the National Book Awards Wednesday night. Tina Fineberg/AP hide caption

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Head Off & Split

Concerto no. 7: condoleezza {working out}

at the watergate

Condoleezza rises at four, stepping on the treadmill.

Her long fingers brace the two slim handles of accommodating steel.

She steadies her sleepy legs for the long day ahead. She doesn't get very far.

Her knees buckle wanting back last night's dream.

[dream #9]

She is fifteen and leaning forward from the bench, playing Mozart's piano concerto in D minor, alone, before the gawking, disbelieving, applauding crowd.

not [dream #2]

She is nine, and not in the church that explodes into dust, the heart pine floor giving way beneath her friend Denise, rocketing her up into the air like a jack-in-the-box

of a Black girl, wrapped in a Dixie cross.

She ups the speed on the treadmill, remembering, she has to be three times as good.

Don't mix up your dreams Condi.

She runs faster, back to the right, finally hitting her stride. Mozart returns to her side.

She is fifteen again, all smiles, and relocated to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains,

where she and the Steinway

are the only Black people in the room.

Segregation, Forever

(Three Black boys {strike oil} in the street [after the rain]:

a comic strip.)

There was a time when the shallow warm seas were filled with coral, starfish, and flower-like echinoderms, some were free swimming, but most were fixed by a stem, surrounded, by a circlet of arms.

fossils : a guide to prehistoric life

Three {Black boys} hurl like invertebrates

to reach the top of the earth wall first. They:

loose sea lilies cut on their hinge line, above thorax, below septum. They,

fly-float with the help of quick feet,

skating to peer a new precipice. Hoisted &

held by their own giggles. They:

counterpoint and twain, three Picassos,

without the matador's interfering prick or keening European brush. Oshun's

fingers, six million years long, suspend

each of their high notes. Three {Black boy}

bodies dervish and dangle, their ancient sound fills every sidewalk crack in the

new world. A Benin pointer aligns, then slingshots their heads and lips, while Kuba

thumbs drill then spread wide their toes,

the street Spidermans beneath them. Where

they twist and shout pyramids stretch

into one sheet of long black water. Carpets

of {Black boy} joy spill all the way down. Six plum- paneled perfect arms stretch, into six waving sails,

their open mouths, Simone-esque. A red

Jemima-joy rows them all the way to the end.

They play on the eleven thousandth runway named for Martin Luther King, Jr.

On approach they curve away like Onychaster, brittle beloved

animal flora, from the Mississippian.

I aperture into prickly, 345-million-year-old

net. They are the last great mammals to appear, before the last great rain. So far,

how we got here, why we stayed, no brownie box jubilation of historical life is ever lost on their feet.

My arms twist into barbed 1940s chicken wire,

the twenty-six lion-mouth alphabets of Ida B. Wells rise,

into bale and bill {of sale}, all along

my abdomen I roll out the patent pending

numbers of Black inventors. They dangle

like eastern star mason pendants in between

their wild fragrant street dance, then fall away like New Orleans' Mardi Gras beads;

the l's, the e's, even the p's, chain link, then

spill behind their Watusi-wide, Daddy Grace slide.

All three, together, remind me of the black rapids of 1919, Tennessee Valley, no warning,

just a freakish summer Sunday breach of river laying everything down, bringing

everything up. From here I know their rocketing

joy must go unrecognized. The Good News of their

pure monkeyshine chicanery must be put away now. All headlines and any waiting new world phylum

must never be reported or filed. Their Black boy joy,

on this slick well-named street, must remain untelevised.

I know history &

(you know) what happens next.

Excerpted from Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney. Copyright 2011 by Nikky Finney. Published 2011 by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.