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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.

Left

Nikky Finney, 1957
   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 arms rise & fall, pulling at the week-
old baby in the bassinet, pointing to the eighty-
two-year-old grandmother, fanning & raspy
in the New Orleans Saints folding chair.

                      Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!

           Three times a day the helicopter flies
by in a low crawl. The grandmother insists on
not being helpless, so she waves a white hand-
kerchief that she puts on and takes off her head
toward the cameraman and the pilot who
remembers well the art of his mirrored-eyed
posture in his low-flying helicopter: Bong Son,
Dong Ha, Pleiku, Chu Lai. He makes a slow
Vietcong dip & dive, a move known in Rescue
as the Observation Pass.

           The roof is surrounded by broken-levee
water. The people are dark but not broken. Starv-
ing, abandoned, dehydrated, brown & cumulous,
but not broken. The four-hundred-year-old
anniversary of observation begins, again—

                      Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!
                      Catch a—

The woman with pom-pom legs waves
her uneven homemade sign:

                      Pleas Help   &hbsp;  Pleas

and even if the e has been left off the Pleas e

do you know simply 
by looking at her
that it has been left off
because she can't spell
(and therefore is not worth saving)
or was it because the water was rising so fast
there wasn't time?

                      Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!
                      Catch a— a—

           The low-flying helicopter does not know
the answer. It catches all this on patriotic tape,
but does not land, and does not drop dictionary,
or ladder.

           Regulations require an e be at the end
of any Pleas e before any national response
can be taken.

           Therefore, it takes four days before
the national council of observers will consider
dropping one bottle of water, or one case
of dehydrated baby formula, on the roof
where the e has rolled off into the flood,

                      (but obviously not splashed
loud enough)

where four days later not the mother,
not the baby girl,
but the determined hanky waver,
whom they were both named for,
(and after) has now been covered up
with a green plastic window awning,
pushed over to the side
right where the missing e was last seen.

                      My mother said to pick
                      The very best one!

What else would you call it,
Mr. Every-Child-Left-Behind.

Anyone you know
ever left off or put on
an e by mistake?

Potato   Po tato e

           In the future observation helicopters
will leave the well-observed South and fly
in Kanye-West-Was-Finally-Right formation.
They will arrive over burning San Diego.

           The fires there will be put out so well.
The people there will wait in a civilized manner.
And they will receive foie gras and free massage
for all their trouble, while there houses don't
flood, but instead burn calmly to the ground.

The grandmothers were right
about everything.

           People who outlived bullwhips & Bull
Connor, historically afraid of water and routinely
fed to crocodiles, left in the sun on the sticky tar-
heat of roofs to roast like pigs, surrounded by
forty feet of churning water, in the summer
of 2005, while the richest country in the world
played the old observation game, studied
the situation: wondered by committee what to do;
counted, in private, by long historical division;
speculated whether or not some people are surely
born ready, accustomed to flood, famine, fear.

                      My mother said to pick
                      The very best one
                      And you are not   it!

           After all, it was only po' New Orleans,
old bastard city of funny spellers. Nonswimmers
with squeeze-box accordion accents. Who would
be left alive to care?

From Head Off & Split: Poems, published by Triquarterly Books. Copyright © 2011 Nikky Finney. Used by permission of the publisher.

From Head Off & Split: Poems, published by Triquarterly Books. Copyright © 2011 Nikky Finney. Used by permission of the publisher.

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
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
poem

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