Poetry can be so many things in the right hands. It can elevate the senses, challenge perceptions, or increase understanding of complex topics. Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split , which won the National Book Award for poetry in 2011, does all that and more with poems grounded in reality, yet also stretching the limits of imagination in regards to imagery and symbolism.
The collection of twenty-six poems cover topics as diverse as a woman’s visit to the fish market as a child and an adult, a daughter leaving home after visiting aging parents, and a dance event featuring a prominent Southern senator noted for his segregationist stance in life and biracial daughter in death. The book’s opening poem “Red Velvet” paid homage to Rosa Parks leading up to her refusal to give up her seat. Finney applies her poetic styling to other famous people. “Plunder” evokes the image of George Bush leaving office while four poems address former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, including one told from a pair of shoes invoking her infamous shopping trip during Hurricane Katrina. The use of real-world inspirations helps the book soar. Finney also deals with smaller life moments in an equally gifted way.
Finney’s strong suit in this collection is her sense of setting. She utilizes familiar locations such as a tucked-away hotel, a weathered Texas front porch, and a field of cattails under a nighttime sky to tell stories of falling in love. Her prose also elevates topics involving the wisdom of an elder who refuses to let a force of nature uproot her from her home, and a man teaching his daughter to shoot. The complexity of her word choices makes these and other topics come alive. While the majority of the poems soar with vivid imagery, there are some that simply skim the surface. In certain poems, Finney seems to stretch out descriptions and concepts where one might get lost trying to follow where she is going. A result, a reader may need to go back over a poem to savor the brilliance. In other cases, the poem is simple to understand.
Even with a few dips in the flow of the collection, Finney’s work is phenomenal. In the opening reflection of the book, she evokes a scene of a young girl being sent to the fish market with a specific method to dress the fish-head off and split. By the end of the reflection, she is a woman who wants her fish whole to fully experience it. Finney’s collection is one that readers need to experience fully to be satisfied.
Reviewer: La Toya Hankins
La Toya Hankins is the author of SBF Seeking, and K-Rho: The Sweet Taste of Sisterhood. She is a native of North Carolina and currently resides in Durham, NC. Hankins considers writer and fellow Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. member Zora Neale Hurston as her role model for her ability to capture the essence of the African American Southern experience and living the motto, “I don’t weep at the world, I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” You can connect with LaToya on Facebook and Twitter.