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About this poet

Nikky Finney was born on the coast of South Carolina in 1957 to a family of politicians and activists. She began writing poetry as a young girl, during a childhood marked by the civil rights struggle, and subsequently attended Talladega College in Alabama.

Finney's first book of poetry, On Wings Made of Gauze (W. Morrow, 1985), followed by Rice (Sister Vision, 1995), Heartwood (University of Kentucky Press, 1997), and The World is Round (InnerLight Publishing, 2003). In 2011, her collection Head Off & Split (Northwestern University Press, 2011) was awarded the National Book Award.

As a photographer and performance artist, Finney worked to engage her political and artistic selves, before finding a unique fusion of the two in her poetry. She is deeply invested in the Black Arts movement, and is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, a group of multiracial poets devoted to giving voice to the diversity of Appalachia. Finney is also on the Board of Cave Canem.

In addition to the National Book Award, Finney has received a PEN American Open Book Award and the Benjamin Franklin Award for Poetry. She has taught at the University of Kentucky, is currently a professor at the University of South Carolina.

Cattails

Nikky Finney, 1957

One woman drives across five states just to see her. The woman being driven to has no idea anyone's headed her way. The driving woman crosses three bridges & seven lakes just to get to her door. She stops along the highway, wades into the soggy ground, cuts down coral-eyed cattails, carries them to her car as if they might be sherbet orange, long-stemmed, Confederate roses, sheared for Sherman himself. For two days she drives toward the woman in Kentucky, sleeping in rest areas with her seat lowered all the way back, doors locked. When she reaches the state line it's misting. The tired pedal-to-the-metal woman finally calls ahead. I'm here, she says. Who's this? The woman being driven to, who has never checked her oil, asks. The driving woman reminds her of the recent writing workshop where they shared love for all things out-of-doors and lyrical. Come, have lunch with me, the driving woman invites. They eat spinach salads with different kinds of dressing. They talk about driving, the third thing they both love and how fast clouds can change from state line to state line. The didn't-know-she-was-coming woman stares at she who has just arrived. She tries to read the mighty spinach leaves in her bowl, privately marveling at the driving woman's muscled spontaneity. She can hardly believe this almost stranger has made it across five states just to have lunch with her. She wonders where this mad driving woman will sleep tonight. She is of two driving minds. One convertible. One hardtop. The driving woman shows her pictures of her children. Beautiful, the other does not say. Before long words run out of petrol. The woman who is home, but without pictures of her own, announces she must go. The driving woman frets & flames, May I walk you to your car? They walk. The driver changes two lanes in third gear, fast. The trunk opens. The Mario Andretti look-alike fills the other woman's arms with sable-sheared cattails. Five feet high & badly in need of sunlight & proudly stolen from across five states. The woman with no children of her own pulls their twenty pounds in close, resting them over her Peter-Panning heart. Her lungs empty out, then fill, then fill again with the surge of birth & surprise. For two years, until their velvet bodies begin (and end) to fall to pieces, every time the driven-to woman passes the bouquet of them, there, in the vase by the front door, she is reminded of what falling in love, without permission, smells like. Each time she reaches for her keys, she recalls what you must be willing to turn into for love: spiny oyster mushroom, damson, salt marsh, cedar, creosote, new bud of pomegranate, Aegean sage blue sea, fig, blueberry, marigold, leaf fall, fogs eye, dusty miller, thief-of-the-night.

From Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney. Copyright © 2011 by Nikky Finney. Reprinted with permission from TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern. All rights reserved.

From Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney. Copyright © 2011 by Nikky Finney. Reprinted with permission from TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern. All rights reserved.

Nikky Finney

Nikky Finney

In addition to the National Book Award, Finney has received a PEN American Open Book Award and the Benjamin Franklin Award for Poetry

by this poet

poem

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
poem
   Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!
       —Rudyard Kipling, "A Counting-Out Song,"
in Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides, 1923

           The woman with cheerleading legs
has been left for dead. She hot paces a roof,
four days, three nights, her leaping fingers,
helium
poem
Sundown, the day nearly eaten away, 

the Boxcar Willies peep. Their
inside-eyes push black and plump

against walls of pumpkin skin. I step 
into dying backyard light. Both hands 

steal into the swollen summer air, 
a blind reach into a blaze of acid, 

ghost bloom of nacre & breast. 
One Atlantan Cherokee