The past is both oppressor and inspiration in this collection, winner of a National Book Award.
This is a book about memory and the mind, a collection that autopsies this country's shameful history of oppressing, enslaving and exploiting African-Americans. Nikky Finney picks through the past selectively, and with flicks of the blade that are personal, political, poetic and always musical, gives us back the present moment with an intensity that makes us feel as if, until reading her volume, we have been unfed.
The collection's title emerges from a fishmonger's question. Do you want your fish with its head cut off and flesh hacked off the bone?
The book's first poem, "Resurrection of the Errand Girl: An Introduction," recounts a scene from Finney's youth.
"Do away with the watery gray eyes, the / impolite razor-sharp fins, the succulent heart, tender roes, delicate sweet bones? / Polite, duti- ful, training to the mother, bride, kitchen frau. Her answer, Yes."
Later, in the same poem, she describes going to the market again, this time as an adult and getting the fish whole. "She would rather be the / one deciding what she keeps and what she throws away."
"Head Off & Split" comes in three sections. The first features a series of poems about a sequence of "hard-headed" black women, from Rosa Parks to the poet's grandmother to Condoleezza Rice, who Finney reminds us grew up benefiting from Parks' principled bravery.
Finney has a spookily good mastery of many registers, sounds, styles. "Red Velvet," her poem about Parks, is cinematic and poetic at once.
Repetitions build and elide within it, as Finney stitches a telling reminder back into our historical understanding of how a middle-aged seamstress in Alabama changed the history of race relations.
The poems in "Head Off & Split" are unabashedly political, but also erotic, personal and narrative-driven. The book's middle section, titled "The Head Over Heels," sings sweetly and passionately about the powers (and primacy) of love, in this case the love between two women.
The collection's final section, "The Head Waters," is its strongest.
All the notes struck by Finney's flashing blade harmonize into one unspooling melody that washes through a series of poems.
Finney finishes with her title poem, a vast, crescendoing work that brings us back to the fishmongers. Clearly, the things that Finney must forget to live freely as a woman, as a daughter, as a lover of women and as a black woman, gut her. And yet the cruel, terrible, wonderful things she must remember to live deeply sustain her.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of "The Tyranny of E-mail."