Poetry winner of the National Book Award is Nikky Finney for Head Off & Split, from TriQuarterly, an imprint of Northwestern University Press. My friend Damaris Hill had been telling me to read Nikky Finney for a couple years, and so I did. Her work is tough and strong. The poem “Sign Language, “ from The World is Round (Innerlight Publishing, 2003), shows the vivid, visceral images she uses—here, the image of two hearts torn out of two lovers’ chests. She addresses the reader directly—no safe distances here—with “tell me what is the difference.” This is unforgettable.
For the man who jumped out in front of the woman with his
arm raised like a machete screaming Abomination! as she
walked the streets of San Francisco holding her lover’s hand
for the first time in public.
There is a woman who goes to sleep
every night wishing she had broken
your sternum reached up inside your
chest momentarily borrowing your
heart to hold before your screaming
face and with her other hand still
clutching her lover’s broke next into
her own sternum plucking next her
own heart dangling them both there
sterling silver sign language for you
tell me what is the difference.
Finney is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Kentucky and lives in Lexington. She’s also on the faculty at Cave Canem, the writer’s center for African-American poets, and a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets. She was born in Conway, S.C. an educated at Talladega College and Atlanta University. Writes Walter Mosely, “She has flung me into an afterbirth of stars and made my stiff bones as loose as jelly.” Caribbean poet Lorna Goodison notes, Finney “calls us to consider and value again the blessings found in community, the strong bonds of family and the transcendent and inexplicable ways of the spirit.” Her narrative poems include characters as diverse as Jacques Cousteau and Saartjie Baartman (the so-called Hottentot Venus), young women defined by violence and old women killing time in a thrift store.