Review of Head Off & Split

Head Off and Split by Nikky Finney
Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, February 2011
Paperback: 97pp; $15.95
Review by JodiAnn Stevenson
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.
Read the entire review here.

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