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The World Is Round, Nikky Finney’s third volume of poetry, collects the wisps of memory we carry with us throughout our earthly lives and weaves them into deft and nuanced poems that emphasize understanding the cycles of life. The settings offer a view into the kaleidoscope of human experience: the sweetness and shock of family life, the omnipresent wash of memory, and the ebullience of warm Southern air. The World Is Round carries with it an implicit challenge—to the author as a poet, and to the reader as a ...
The World Is Round, Nikky Finney’s third volume of poetry, collects the wisps of memory we carry with us throughout our earthly lives and weaves them into deft and nuanced poems that emphasize understanding the cycles of life. The settings offer a view into the kaleidoscope of human experience: the sweetness and shock of family life, the omnipresent wash of memory, and the ebullience of warm Southern air. The World Is Round carries with it an implicit challenge—to the author as a poet, and to the reader as a fellow human—to see the characters and details and events of our lives with clarity, fearlessness, and love. The result is poems that range the gamut of human reach and resilience, fury and frailty. The poet’s vision of community requires understanding and tolerance from every breathing soul. Finney illuminates the cruelties of the sometimes gawking, narrow-minded world and makes a plea for compassion inspired by our common humanity.
The World Is Round: The Breast of
the Garment Measured
I began this side of life as infant photographer
focusing with the moving middle eye, the round
umbilical cord, where it melded into the body center
like a vacuum sucking in the sights.
Not with any eye but with skin did I see this,
do I remember now, the skin can so remember.
This picture that I first took of touch, here in the studio
body of birth, first photograph of feeling, anchored by
something other than the liquid albumen world where
I had lived from the first.
Something round, made of me and her and him.
Something akin to one large ballooning finger, here,
at the full lips of my belly's button where I could feel
the warmth of food; milky brown thick sugar passing
from her body's oven into my own whole-wheat capsule.
Too quick and the vacuum cord yanked, tugged me yet
another way and I twist-twirled around in my curved world,
falling back asleep, genuflected by her soft snaking octopus
arm. Only one hour old and I remember unlatching my eyes
to see the tiny incubating opening where I'd already lived
for a week, the warm stale air pouring in on me, not with my
mind but with full body camera do I remember this.
The perfect circular opening, round just like the cord,
round like the camera's eye, that I would one day accidentally
flutter inside, discovering silky stems of wildebeest poems
growing, sour sweet filigree weeds.
I always return to the glove of her body, the touch of her
chord to my middle, my middle to her chord, that opening
where I first fell in love with the breast of the garment, first
recognized what fit, though I could not yet safely wear it down
the daylight street. I can't show you any photographs of this
to prove what I'm telling you is true. I am remembering
this not with my mind but with my body, the body can so
remember what long ago left the accidental scene of the eye.
A woman has to be a daughter before she can be any kind of a woman. If she doesn't have that in mind, if she doesn't know how to relate to her ancestors, to her tribe, she is not good for much.
The Squatting Sun
6:38, flying east, I witness birth,
pushing out of the blushing vaginal rim
like some wide cherry-dropped child.
All the colors that make red have come
to the only straight line on the earth.
Ghostly, I blink, my eyes tweak her nipples,
she releases and the head does not wait
for my awe.
I thought I knew what red looked like.
Believed I had seen this daily drama before;
the earth in morning-mother motion,
the first bowl of earth-breath sipped,
but never had I been asked
inside the sun's womb so deep.
What I see has so much to do
with the permission to look.
My egg-white eyes labor to midwife
this moment out all the way.
The baby day pushes clean,
a quarter rim of cherry-spilled earth
lands in a head-back wail
inside my ladling pupils,
the first rising brightness, its long
equatorial head bursts, then crests;
new life passed on
to a pan of waiting salted water.
We are four to a bed So close our hips must come
with hinges A ticking of brown family Thrown
across the cotton and feather mattress of winter
Tucked Deep inside the house my grandfather raised
up from the red earth straight into the woolly air
The black and white photograph isn't supposed
to predict the future But my mother looks like my
unborn brother And even at three I am different
My tiny Black girl eyes are a queer shade of green
At five my older brother stands there on the end
Already buttoned into my father's sense of place
We are so close in this cherry bed Our lightly
touching hips must surely be hinged Even the
children have them Daddy has moved into place
next to Mama Mama has moved in next to me
I am the only one awake The only one with a wall
The whole house has fallen The movie begins
Uncle Billy is just home from Vietnam He is the
baby In the ruddy speckled flicker he stands before
us with a new camera that the war bought him I call
Uncle Billy The Bonneville Man Just like Pop Leo
he can fix anything Unlike him He will only drive
a car if it's long and pretty
Thirty years later The Bonneville Man will die with
AIDS Alone in another bed without hinges A dozen
headlights polka dot the night screen wall Every long
pretty car he ever owned drives by to pay its last
respects He snaps the picture of us all Horns blow
out in a scatter like blue Cadillac whales
We are a charm bracelet of a family bedding down for
the night We are in the outback of my mother's
country We have been laid flat for the sake of photography
The elder aborigines bump room-to-rafter watching us
amazed They whisper how much we resemble
early black-and-white TV.
By midnight more of us have joined more of us We
lop around the old four poster in a three-dimensional
ring like a Black family cutout doll We are joined
at the hip inside the old home house We have been hinged
together in a place pulled from the red ribs of ancient
Indian land Newberry
We are southern North American Africans When we
sleep together the rubbing of our bones makes for
a better crop Daddy's hip bone click-clacks into place
next to mama And a new brother seven years ten pounds
and eight ounces away from birth snuggles in next to me
The new tenant brother takes up space I thought was
all mine But Mama says not to move him She says
he's the last one She says he will always need more
of her The Silver Queen has already been harvested
The second reel begins
Somebody down the road passes a new baby over
a new grave freshly packed with seashells The simmering
dust is spinning off the blue corn silk The ochre wind
patty-cakes the glass until dawn I know better than to sing
along Mama would only turn and shush me Tell me
to stop playing with myself
This is why I always sleep by the wall For company
So the movie will always have a screen So the screen
will always have a witness Now all I have to do is live
Big brother there on the end turns I follow Tumbling
in an arc of bones Our hinges shift but never release
My feet and body begin to rise I leave the floor without
warning There is a white dog out in the woods howling
Pop Leo will shoot the white dog between the eyes tomorrow
then drag him back to the clearing near the arrowhead ground
He will never explain to me what madness is And how we all
can go I am the only one awake to see the end For twenty years
something or someone will come and lift me to the ceiling and back
whenever it wishes I will come to know this as brown girl levitation
The black snakes are tunneling under the hay in the barn
for warmth I see the mice go still in terror at the long
dragon vessels nearing They are born knowing they can
be swallowed whole Like them I have wondered how long
it takes to die when you are eaten and made to watch
I am counting Practicing my numbers At the cow trough
that Pop built fifty years ago with heavy two-handed
pieces of limestone The spigot is dripping nineteen drops
per minute Eleven Twelve Fifteen I work hard on learning
my numbers in case there is ever a test The water drips all
night Even though I used two hands to shut it off like I was told
Except for the howling of something white farther off
in the woods that has lost someone it resembles I am
attached at the waist to my brothers by my mother
but I know I am free to fly I am a lee little long legged girl
A southern mixture of red velvet rice and everything nice
I have no memory of winter as a child
A peacock is still something I have never seen before
But in two hours over breakfast Aunt Willa will lie
and say she has Her sapphire words will glitter
like a tickling rain rolling off the curly tin roof of the barn
where Mama used to dry apples as a child I will see
Aunt Willa's saucy words leave her mouth and hit
the frying air like that of a howling dog or a torpedoing snake
I will remember last spring at the county fair When
Aunt Willa slithered toward us waving her turquoise
green tongue like a fan of exotic feathers I do not
remember Daddy snoring back when we slept in this
warm ring of soft brown bones Only now do I understand
that my random levitations and landings had everything to
do with four little girls from Birmingham and a bomb
The all-night rubbing of bones has turned the inside
tips of my fingers alabaster The homemade cotton sheets
have been dusted on both sides with self-rising flour
I need help hearing the many broken whispers coming
through the walls up from the land The dead skin
of my grandfather dropped for years into this dirt
like drum and bugle seed Back then I believed bombs
came wrapped in Black churches
I always wanted a sister Another girl to remember
the land Another girl to help rewind the film back
onto the reel Like shelves of brown Britannica
Pop Leo's arms always knew the answer to everything
No visible timepieces were ever kept in this house
that he built and she made So we would never think
Any minute I will smell her perfect fig biscuits being
pulled from the wood burning stove He will pour
his black coffee out his cup and into his saucer He will
drop his full Cherokee lips to the cool of the rim He
will tilt himself back into a sip so long it will seem to pray
As the baby light comes inviting the day I will hear him
wishing his throat was a mile long Finally I am falling asleep
I am the only girl I know the hinges we have worn
all night made of soft shell salmon bones will fall away
at the first shock of light I know when the red rooster
finally steps it will be like High John the Conqueror
into the morning broom-swept yard
Only then Will we unhook as a mule team from
the gingerbread night Only then will we one by one
make our way into the icebox bathroom Only then
in the face bowl will our image appear Only then
will we wash our privates by ourselves
The New Medicine
I go home just to touch them.
Rent a car that is newer than my own
for the long drive there,
to be sure I arrive without delay.
First the purple Tennessee mountains
blur the wide hips of the windshield,
then the blue tar-heeled air
pours a southern smelling salt across my skin.
On the pedal my foot feels relentless,
I take the eight hours in one bite.
Before long the fat five hundred miles
eat all the sun out of the sky.
I am left a mere daughter
driving on sheer blacktop desire
to put my hands on them again.
That night I slump,
in a mother-daughter nest of repose,
repossessed once again
on her loud flowery couch.
My long fingers, delirious, spread,
lost in between her bare brown feet;
that underneath are sleeping jellyfish,
on top, squirming fiddler crabs.
She talks and I stare, the garden
of tiny lines around her mouth,
new rows, new rosebuds, in but a month.
I finger every bunion I can find,
lingering pumpkin prayers in between
the smooth hollows of a foot
belonging to us both.
I never drive home to see them,
never arrive anxious to twist toward
their echoing laughter,
I travel mile after mile just to touch them.
I could find him in my sleep if I had to
but I only have to push the screen
to enter my father's morning territory.
One tiny acre of back porch land
where he always sits in the last
of the earth's night melanin.
He and his companion cigarettes have spent
fifty years of mornings together,
his sweet morning raspiness as predictable
as Sunday morning salmon and grits.
My fingers move like a honeyed light
for the back of his head. I move in behind his chair,
reach-drape my arms across his chest.
Bending, I berth his cheek with mine.
Our father-daughter chin hairs
yin yang graze, like two of the same kind
of cat. My hands fold, braid out across his chest,
in an old sweetgrass weave, that if unraveled
would spill the story: how we own each other's heart.
I lean back into the wall, one hand falls down loose
across his neck bone, the other takes to his jaw and
stays, rubbing his prickly chin there until the sun
brilliantly permissions me to go.
I go home just to touch them.
Their black crystal lives genie rub against me,
polishing. Long before reports appeared of touch
being the new medicine of the new millennium.
Before touch suddenly became in and all the rage,
moving in beside echinacea and New Age healing.
Before they invested millions in New England clinical trials,
needing to study it all up close.
Before handing puppies to prisoners as salvation
and kittens to old folks in nursing homes. Before telephone
commercials sold everyone on the many intrinsic benefits
of it and long distance.
By camel, bus, train, or foot; I traveled.
My empty hands begging, breathless,
twin compasses spinning before me
for the unpanned gold of their skin.
For the oldest brother's patty-cake back hug,
for the youngest brother's full lip kiss,
for my grandmother's forward bent body
pushed snug into my waist.
So snug, that days later, I find her still there.
In the bog of the bathroom mirror, pushed tight,
her silhouette still floating, still cameo-ed
just above my navel.
I never drive to see them. Never drive to
listen, as they whisper, shout out my name.
But I will do anything just to touch them.
My hands, whenever they are near, renamed
Cassiopeia, twin fraternal lanterns of every
seafaring daughter, clothed in gauzy winding
memory paper, she always pointing out to me
the copper coordinates of wherever they may be.
Excerpted from THE WORLD IS ROUND by NIKKY FINNEY. Copyright © 2013 Nikky Finney. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
The world is round : the breast of the garment measured
— The squatting sun
— The new medicine
— Lobengula : her wall-bound child
— Mean Nina
— The running of the bulls
— The undersea world of Jacques Cousteau
— Ain't too proud to beg
— Hurricane Beulah
— The greatest show on Earth
— Shark bite
— Sign language
— The new cotton
— The girlfriend's train
— Easy bake
— Labor strike
— My old Kentucky home : where the darkies are gay
— Afro-Gregorian chant
— Frog legs
— The turtle suite poems
— A hero ain't nothing but a sandwich
— The making of paper
— Fishing among the learned