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Head Off & Split

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  1,125 ratings  ·  105 reviews
Winner of 2011 National Book Award for Poetry
Winner of 2012 GLCS Award for Poetry
Winner of 2012 SIBA Book Award for Poetry
Nominee for 2012 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry

The poems in Nikky Finney’s breathtaking new collection Head Off & Split sustain a sensitive and intense dialogue with emblematic figures and events in African American life: from
Paperback, 102 pages
Published January 27th 2011 by Triquarterly (first published 2010)
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 ·  1,125 ratings  ·  105 reviews

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Craig Werner
Jan 17, 2012 rated it did not like it
Back in the early 80s, my friend Geoff and I went to a play at the Provincetown Playhouse in downtown New York. An NYU group (sorry, Riah) was presenting a "Brechtian" political satire directed at Reagan's presidency. By the time it was over, I was on the verge of signing up as a Republican as a protest against the self-righteous smug simplistic (continue to fill in adjectives as long as you feel like it) posturing.

This book of poetry makes me feel much the same way. On a very abstract level, I
Feb 07, 2015 rated it really liked it

Nikky Finney’s poems remind me of all the things I love about poetry: The linguistic skill of the writer, a willingness to cover interesting topics and most important, doing it in a way everyone can understand and appreciate. Like Langson Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Haki Madhabuti, Lucille Clifton the tradition continues. Political, Poignant, Passionate and Personal, a very enjoyable book.
Favorite poem - "Alice Butler"
Ms. Finney received the National Book Award in 2011 for this vol
Mar 10, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
My response to this book, a local book club selection, was lukewarm. Finney is certainly an accomplished poet, capable of subtlety, complexity, and wonderful word play. However, this book has shown me how political poetry often doesn't work. I can understand writing a poem or poems about a politician or political event. In fact, I don't think that is done often enough. But that poem will have a short shelf life. Thus, I have no interest in reading a 19 sonnet sequence about George Bush. The musi ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Nikky Finney writes poems that are political and sometimes funny. Take, for instance, the poems making up The Condoleeza Suite. If only!

My favorites were the very first poem about the errand girl, with this beautiful line:
"She would rather be the one deciding what she keeps and what she throws away."
(Okay, better in context, but there you go).

My other favorite was Cattails, about the lengths we go to for love, even when it isn't asked for.
Leslie Reese
Jun 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry, favorites
So good. I think I'll just return to the beginning and read it all over again.
Dec 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I am amazed by the deft characterization of many of these persona poems. In just the first few poems, we enter the lives of a seemingly-biographical woman buying fish, Rosa Parks as a seamstress, neglected victims of Hurricane Katrina, and a woman brave in the face of Rita, all of whom come across vividly. I was less interested in the view given of G.W. Bush giving a speech as a cowboy or the "Condoleezza Rice Suite" poems about her love of piano and tailored suits: in both cases, the parody or ...more
Jul 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Update 02/10:

Video review here:

Immediate thoughts:
I finished this book 4 days ago and I still can't put how I feel about it into words. So I'm just going to leave these here for now:

Nikky Finney reads "Left"

Nikky Finney's National Book Award for Poetry (2011) acceptance speech:

Lindsey Z
Feb 29, 2020 rated it liked it
"Left" is my favorite poem in the collection (about the racist response to Hurricane Katrina by the US government), and I highly recommend it as a one off poem. Finney is her sharpest as a poet when she's bringing to light the racism within our political system. She's at her most delicate as a poet when she's writing about her family (especially her grandmother), but we didn't get many of those poems in this collection. I wasn't particularly compelled by the "fish" thread that ran throughout thi ...more
C. Varn
Dec 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Written in the middle of the Obama years, Finney's collection is largely rooted in the politics of the 90s and the early 2000s. Thus it runs a lot of risks, political poetry often doesn't age well, and it was dated even when it was released, and yet there is a rooted a black woman's common sense from the South that makes feel both more and less dated. The first poem of the collection, "Red Velvet," focusing on Rosa Parks, hits hard, and her works on Condoleezza Rice, play with an ambiguity that ...more
Feb 14, 2015 rated it really liked it
Eloquent is the first word that comes to mind when perusing this collection of poems. The second word is lyrical, as most of her poems have that music like quality. This book of poems is smart, funny, creative, candid and historical.
"Nine months after, December 1, 1955, Claudette
Colvin, fifteen, arrested for keeping her seat; before that,
Mary Louise Smith. The time to act, held by two pins."

That comes from a poem for Rosa Parks entitled Red Velvet. How about this line from the Condoleezza suite,
Sherry Lee
Jul 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Last lines of the final poem in Head Off & Split:

“Grow until you die, but before you do, leave your final kiss: Lay mint or orange eucalyptus garland, double tuck those lips. Careful to the very end what you deny, dismiss, & cut away.”
Feb 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
I don't read a lot of ground up poetry, so I'm not super surprised to say I didn't understand a lot of this. I'm glad I read it, I was challenged, but I honestly didn't understand some of them.
May 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry
Head Off & Split basically sums up my feelings about this book. Several poems including Red Velvet, Left, Penguin Mullet Bread and Liberty Street Seafood blew my mind wide open. They are masterpieces - as good as anything you'll find in contemporary American poetry - that speak in original musical language and convey a world of meaning. Many others just made me want to split. The Condoleeza Suite and Plunder (a 19-part poem about Bush's final State of the Union speech) seemed to squander Finney' ...more
I did not understand most of the poetry in this book. I wish I did. It won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2011! But I have never been able to comprehend this sort of poetry (I don't even know what "sort" of poetry it is) and I suppose it will forever be outside my realm of comprehension. I wish I could give it more stars, but two is appropriate for how I felt: it was an okay read for me.

I think I understood part one, "The Hard-Headed." Those poems seemed to be mostly historical/history (t
Dec 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
It's been a long time since I've read poetry, and this collection inspires me to get back into it.

This collection is beautiful because it's complex without being overly confusing or wordy. I hate poetry that sounds pretty but you have no clue what was said. The subject matter here is simple, but at the same time it's not simple at all.

The best poem, undoubtedly, is the first in the collection, Red Velvet, about Rosa Parks. And I thought, "Okay, this may be a whole political collection, but I wou
Esther Bradley-detally
Jun 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I sent her a note today; this, after reading 2 pieces outloud to friend and husband yesterday. Steve Pulley - gratitude from the bottom of my heart; I'm including the whole note, because it reveals my passion:

A writer friend visited yesterday, speaking of Head Off & Split and you, Nikky Finney. I sat next to him and read out loud to my husband one or two of the lines in your poems. Then I stopped. I started reading whole poems to the group. My friend's eyes filled with tears and sometimes laught
Feb 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
Nikky Finney won the National Book Award for poetry with this collection of exceptional poems. "Red Velvet" is the consummate tribute to Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement, while "Left" is the most eloquent final word on the Katrina "massacre". "Head Off & Split" will tilt your comfort zone and tickle the poetic senses. It is heart breaking yet redemptive. ...more
Bruce Wasserman
Feb 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone- it is powerfully evocative poetry
Nikki is a masterful poet and Head Off and Split is like the cream that rises to the top of a glass bottle of unpasteurized milk... it's just so darned good you want more and more. An amazing collection from a truly incredible poet.
Gerry LaFemina
Jan 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: poetry
This book knocked me out--politically and socially charged poems that don't feel dogmatic, that feel highly personal. That's hard to write, but Finney has a great ear and a spot on eye as well as sense of where the heart and rhetoric intersect. A terrific book!
Crystal Wilkinson
Jan 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is the best volume of poetry that Nikky Finney has written. Simply beautiful and such important work.
Ann Tracy
Feb 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Simply amazing. Justly deserved National Book Award for Poetry.
Carolyn Tassie
Aug 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Phenomenal poetry. Hearing her read her poetry increased its value tenfold, if that is possible. I would give it 10 stars if Goodreads would allow.
Amber Rookstool
Dec 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
In Nikky Finny’s National Book Award collection, Head Off and Split, she captures the distress of people Appalachia, specifically the Black community, and teaches us how the life breeds strong, resilient characters.

Although Montgomery is not in Appalachia, Finney begins the volume with a dedication for Rosa Parks, which evokes elements of history, politics, and Finney’s personal life; yet however strong this poem seems, her second poem, “Left,” resonates more because of her elaborate repetition
Oct 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Head Off & Split, a collection of poems written by Nikky Finney, won the 2011 National Book Award, and deservedly so. Immediately, the book opens with a powerful introduction poem, titled “Resurrection of the Errand Girl: An Introduction.” With this poem, Finney showcases her storytelling ability, and at the same time sets up her collection of poems beautifully.
…She understands
sharpness & duty. She knows what a blade can reveal & destroy. She has come
to use life’s points and edges to uncover
Tony Brewer
Sep 14, 2020 rated it liked it
I loved a lot of this, especially the final poem "Head Off & Split" and "Plunder." I felt like a lot of it was well written but pretty on-the-nose, as other, fewer-starred reviews have noted. It often felt removed from the subjects, academic. I like it though and I would have rated it higher but reading it now in 2020, it felt dated and locked in its time. (I feel similarly about poems I wrote during the Bush era.) Difficult to read something generous toward Condi up against poems about Rosa, et ...more
Anna-Catherine Kueng
Feb 23, 2018 rated it it was ok
I wish I could give this collection a higher rating, but if I'm being honest, I can't. There were some poems that were beautiful and breathtaking, but I feel like others fell short. I think my latter opinion is partially because I did not understand some of the allusions, historical references, etc. Also, I feel like a lot of the poems read like poems that are just written by poets who are trying so hard to sound poetic. I think simplicity is key when covering complex topics.

However, the whole
Jun 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
Published in 2011, the book has a few political poems that seem old and out of place, the Condolezza poems especially. I do admit that at the beginning of "Plunder" I thought of our current disaster, instead of George W. Bush. Both leaders floundered or flounder for public approval, hope or hoped they could say, "...How very American, how very undivided/we are..."
Finney's language can be flat when necessary, but mostly it's rich and complex. I loved the bookend poems -- "Resurrection of the Err
Feb 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
My parents met Finney some time back and had her sign this book for me. It kind of hid away on my shelf until recently and I now regret not having read it sooner. Head Off & Split was such a powerful collection of poems. Beautiful language, inspiring. I love it. ...more
Keith Taylor
Mar 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Finney is an extraordinarily ambitious poet with an exquisite ear. She deserves the awards. Here's a little thing I wrote about her a few years back:
Jun 12, 2020 added it
Shelves: black-voices
“History does not keep books on the / handiwork of slaves. But the enslaved / who built this Big House, long before / I arrived for this big wedding, knew / the power of a porch.”

-from poem “ What the Negro gave America Chapter 9,206”
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Nikky Finney was born at the rim of the Atlantic Ocean, in South Carolina, in 1957. The daughter of activists and educators, she began writing in the midst of the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements. With these instrumental eras circling her, Finney's work provides first-person literary accounts to some of the most important events in American history.

In 1985, and at the age of 26, Finney's debu

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