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Head Off & Split

Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split is a collection of 27 poems arranged in 3 sections titled, “The Hard • Headed,” “The Head • over • Heels,” and “The Head • Waters.” The first and last poems stand outside these sections and bookend the collection on a thematic level. The theme of this stunning collection of poems is emotional evisceration which is symbolized by the central image suggested by the title: a beheaded and gutted fish.

Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split is a collection of 27 poems arranged in 3 sections titled, “The Hard • Headed,” “The Head • over • Heels,” and “The Head • Waters.” The first and last poems stand outside these sections and bookend the collection on a thematic level. The theme of this stunning collection of poems is emotional evisceration which is symbolized by the central image suggested by the title: a beheaded and gutted fish.

In the first piece of the collection, “Resurrection of the Errand Girl: An Introduction,” the poet introduces us to this image in the story of a girl who is fetching fish for her family at the market. When the fishmonger asks, “Head off & split?”, Errand Girl politely answers “Yes” but she seems disturbed by what mysterious treasures are being cut away. Errand Girl grows up to be a woman who knows better than to answer yes to this question: “This time she wants what she was once sent for left whole, just as it was pulled from the sea, everything born to it still in place.” In the final piece of the collection, “Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica,” the poet advises, “Careful to the very end what you deny, dismiss, & cut away.”

For the poet and the speaker of these poems, it is necessary to keep the guts, to look deeply into them, to hold them up for others to see and accept that they are parts of us we cannot deny. This seems to be the basic underpinning of the political subject matter Finney launches into in the first section of the book. She begins with a portrait of Rosa Parks, in “Red Velvet,” then moves to tell the story of victims of the Hurricane Katrina Massacre in “Left,” and finishes off this section with cunning indictments of both George W. in “Plunder,” and one of his henchman in “The Condoleezza Suite.” In each of these poems the politics is not masked but underscored by nearly-painful attention to personal detail.

The second section of the book explores territory that is less globally political and more personal to the speaker: Sex, Love, Family. In “Orangerie,” Finney writes,

The arc of your boneless back flags above me
We are blind discoverers, the nine seas pool
between us, blue curves, maritime, sheath of
surrender, limbed night.

The personal is as urgent, as worthy of palpably rich language as the political in Finney’s work.

The final section of the book becomes an exploration of where personal and political overlap. Personal decisions become minor political victories and major political statements in the story these poems tell. In the title poem, Errand Girl is all grown up and leaving her parents behind after spending Christmas with them. The poet then launches into a surreal account of the speaker herself being cut open and gutted by the fishmonger then sold off, in parts, to excited customers:

The fishmonger lays me on the table    He chooses a

smaller knife for the rest of my drive    The skin of my
torso is peeled back to reveal    What is left What it will

take for me to leave them behind    The 803rd time
How can I drive back to my life ahead    Each time the

leaving hardens the soft tissue of my birth    This time
he says    He will only take the head and the pearl green
eyes    Next time he says The lungs The heart sac
The liver Will all have to go along    What can you do

in this life without the parts you need    To feel the bend
in the road?    I am head off & split    Perfectly served

From beginning to end, Head Off & Split offers the reader politically fierce and personally fearless candidness. Finney puts all of her cards (or guts and parts) on the table and invites us to read them with her. At every level and at every turn, Finney’s poetry is cutting, breathtaking and masterfully precise. As if the content and the language were not compelling enough, Finney also manages to be a formally acrobatic poet. “Resurrection of Errand Girl…” is a prose poem. “Plunder” is a kind of extended crown of sonnets. The title poem, “Head Off & Split” does away completely with punctuation and also manages to move into magical realism. Finney allows her tone and material to dictate the form of each piece leaving us with a formally eclectic collection tightly bound by its thematic preoccupations. This is a stunning book; the sort that reminds the reader of some of poetry’s highest aspirations.

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