Rice: Poems

Rice: Poems


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810152328
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 07/31/2013
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Nikiky finney holds the John H. Bennett Jr. Chair of Southern LetterS and Creative Writing at the University of South Carolina. She is editor of the anthology The Ringing Ear: Black poets Lean South and the author of a short story collectioN, Heartwood. Her fourth collection of poetry, Head Off & Split, won the National Book Award for Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2011).

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Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2013 Nikky Finney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-5232-8


      The Blackened Alphabet

    While others sleep
    My black skillet sizzles
    Alphabets dance and I hit the return key
    On my tired but ever-jumping eyes
    I want more I hold out for some more
    While others just now turn over
    Shut down alarms
    I am on I am on
    I am pencilfrying
    Sweet black alphabets
    In an all-night oil

      Irons at Her Feet

    from the coals
    of her bedroom fired place
    onto the tip
    of my grandmother's
    december winter stick

    for fifteen years
    hot irons traveled
    into waiting flannel wraps
    and were shuttled
    up under covers
    and in between quilts
    where three babies lay shivering
    in country quarter
    nighttime air

    hot irons
    wrapped and pushed
    up close
    to frosting toes
    irons instead of lip kisses
    is what she remembers

    irons instead of caramel-colored fingers
    that should have swaddled shoulders
    like they swaddle hoes
    and quiltin' needles
    and spongy cow tits

    every time
    i am back home
    i tip into her room
    tip again into her saucering cheeks
    and in her half sleep
    my mother reads her winters
    aloud to me

    her persimmon whispers are deliriously sweet
    to this only daughter's ear

    when you are home
    she says
    the irons come back
    every night
    i know the warm is coming

      Yellow Jaundice

    After the horizon
    of my mother's eyes
    and my father's
    pinkish proudest first girl smile
    I must have seen trees first

    There in a semicircle
    5 3 hundred year old
    live oaks
    drench draped
    in hot august moss
    in the beige sandy yard
    where nothing else grew
    no grass
    just sand
    and eventually me

    5 3 hundred year old
    live oaks
    on racepath avenue
    southern coastal
    nineteen hundred and fifty-seven

    When papa pulled the black valiant
    all the way up to the house porch
    so she wouldn't have far to walk
    nor yellow-jaundiced new me
    much sun to feel

    I was home for the first time
    riding high bone in mama's lap

    Long before vertical or horizontal vision
    I could see in the round
    my mother's navel opening
    as milky global eye

    Still I love a circled-up window
    still I see it round first
    the bending circling trees catch me
    before anything
    From my first days
    this madagascan nose pointed for
    the atlantic-african sea
    like babylips poking out
    hungry for the milky nipple
    I could hear calling
    spitting out the ancestor crabs
    from my incubating window

    As I grew these other eyes
    and could finally look above
    and below me
    after His and Her face
    that I shall always know best
    I surely must have high-glimpsed these ones first

    5 3 hundred year old
    live oaks
    baobab standing
    in a wide-arcing circle
    a family of old wood
    standing shoulder to shoulder to shoulder
    at different sky heights
    their feet immemorial stuck in seashell socks
    in beige and white sand
    where nothing else grew
    but eventually me

    I walk through and sleep in
    that village of woody bones
    the days and nights of childhood
    still deeply rooted there

    I hear their splintered venerable chanting
    and step across the snake roots
    that buckled up and ran from out of the ground
    and cycloned scars around my legs
    like age rings on top my skin

    5 3 hundred year old live oaks

    Sometimes I am still there
    waiting for mother to get out of the car
    pushing for her to get up out of the car
    I want to look out again
    for the first time and claim
    my horizontal vision my vertical view
    and walk that village path of old trees
    that stood calling for me so long
    to be home for the first time

    My how they must have sung
    tree songs
    for me
    the first time she put me down
    and watched me take
    my first steps in that wavy ocean soil

    Could she have cautioned
    about the snake roots
    that would from then on be in my way
    that buckled up and ran out of the ground
    all over the yard

    5 3 hundred year old live oaks

    Or would she simply push me from the dock
    armored in a cowrie-shell ship
    my pockets full of everything I would ever need
    and wave me well

    She did not know even then
    as I stumbled back to the hamper of her arms
    even as I fell into my first bruises
    but rose again
    to the venerable wooden cheers and chanting
    my tiny lips streaming cranberry
    my coming-in tooth crooked and gapped for life
    my tiny face wearing one complete coat of sand
    not as mask but mussel

    She did not know
    as she let me fall
    and watched me rise
    this rising up
    this falling back
    this roundness
    would be my life's work
    first taught to me by her
    last written and witnessed by wood

      The Goodfellows Club

      for FX Walker II

      You are only kissing thirty
      the younger son of near-extinct men
      the likes of which
      we won't never see again
      the last of them kind
      that rolled off the Old Man pan just so
      mens I can't save
      in no other way but this way

    There are ones who know the difference
    between everything
    and just anything
    who taught a son
    schooled a daughter
    by old grey firelight
    passed from stick to smoky stick

    Why they must be in their 50s by now

    I know you seen 'em
    but don't know if you knew
    how much you was looking at

    Athletes never fallen
    who always played for the game
    not the shiny quarter rolling towards them
    on the ground
    (quarterbacks couldn't sneak back then)

    There was what you were expected to do
    (because of what you had been given)
    and there was nothing else
    your work
    whatever it was
    was the everything about you

    That's who you the last of
    and times ain't changing they gone
    ain't no more where you come from

    Why they must be in their 60s by now

    Mens who loved poker and cards
    sweet on dominos
    and could pop your knuckle and their own
    just kindly placing a checker
    on the board
    they say Joe Louis's name
    like it's the sweet key to the kingdom
    keep big wooden radios that don't work
    covered up with a clean cloth like they do
    (or might again one day)
    Jack Johnson
    and a crying horn breaks they water
    quicker than a new blade
    from their medicine chest
    do their stubbly jaws

    They love womens and still take themselves
    a look that way
    their old necks might rivercrack
    into another line or two
    but they wouldn't yell out
    a rolled-down window
    no matter how pretty the face
    no matter how tight the skirt
    they'd smile and keep it to themselves
    or wait till Friday
    when they always congregate to talk
    and they'd walk away in a minute
    before ever lifting a finger wrong in her face

    Somethings you should still keep to yourself
    Somethings are still born private

    They cut hair
    work with the mail
    and sold their filling stations for pennies
    cause Junior got into State
    and needed this and that

    They sell insurance and mean it flew air squadrons and remember it
    love rice and gravy and meet once a year
    to wear something annual
    something anybody would want to polish or salute
    every time they set their wooden eye on it
    they congregate once a week for a trim
    at the red-striped swirling pole
    that still spins for them
    (don't you look for them in any mall)

    They call themselves Goodfellows
    The Gents
    and Sonny Boy
    and slap shoulders and palms

    Some still tap their pocket watches
    for the correct time
    they might kiss a brother's cheek
    if his cheek needed to be kissed
    never batting an eye
    they love each other
    in the loud of hazy unforgotten days

    Why they must be in their 70s by now

    They love a fried anything
    and won't eat without bread on the table
    poke they belly
    and you better run for cover
    cause they is all ice tea

    Football on Sunday
    but only after church
    (they ain't the deacon
    but they are the whole row)
    they keep their Seventh Day shirt on all day
    and somehow never get it dirty
    just loosen up the collar some
    to let you know they been to pray for you and back
    they love their coffee black
    their eggs fried right
    don't leave more than one yellow tear in the skillet
    if you do eggs for them
    shake down bushy black trees of pepper

    Short little big feet mens
    big high back giant reaching up mens
    with tarps and canopies for chests
    steering the same car
    for twenty-leven thousand years
    cause they don't make 'em like they used to
    and they never buy but one
    and forever patch up the best one ever
    and lean back when they drive her
    like they still only two minutes old
    and no you ain't seen nothing like it


    And rattling Ford trucks
    that all have a woman's name
    and old candy bars and dusty handy fixing salve
    that slide in the window
    at every wide turn
    and they don't marry but once
    and watch yourself
    when you say her sacred name

    Holding on steamy men
    who give their last buffalo red cent
    for family
    for a tradition
    men who believed in making land
    and keeping it to pass it on
    so the children would always have something

    Men who still pray so long before every meal
    that the food should be cold
    but it's not
    they whispertalk in adult
    to their infant chaps
    then laugh out crazy loud
    just like they can understand
    and I can't

    They pay for everything in cash
    and keep money hidden everywhere
    especially in trees they planted
    a dinosaur ago

    Never Owe Nobody
    mine always says to me
    last thing
    before he falls couch asleep
    I creep to cover him promising

    X is how some of them had to sign
    when they called up the vote
    X was all
    they X everything then
    just like you X'n' everything now

    Ain't no more

    Traveling mens
    who had already come cross one water
    and had to cross
    have to still sail a hundred oceans more
    to keep the village inside of them


    Who loved the railroad
    the sea and anything
    that kept them and their eyes moving on
    who were merchant marines
    and Pullman porters
    and flying JesseOwens

    Why they must be in their 80s by now

    You are one of their missing boys
    rolling off the Old Man pan
    before anyone told you to
    your edges browned
    and the insides just now bubbling

    "Is he ready, daughter?"
    "Oh he's close, he's real close now, he's almost."
    The old sweet kitchen women are asking for you
    and watching
    so stickily I let go
    I need to finish what I started

    You come from them that
    love the sound of church
    but might not stay for all that hollering
    they smoke a little
    drink a little
    work a lot
    they congregate up under trees and talk
    they stop and tip any head coverings
    when any nonmember in a skirt
    comes around

    of the Goodfellows Club

    Why they must be in their 90s by now

    Mason men with pyramid angled spines
    standing steadfast beside
    daughters of an Eastern Star
    these ones who defined a fraternity
    who first wrote the traditions
    when it meant what it meant
    who lay their hats
    in the chair beside them
    like favorite company
    that always goes where they go


    Who can stand still longer
    than the five-minute national average
    and stare at the same unmoving water all day
    mud philosophers
    patient as rain
    who pull in a fighting fin or two
    and be so satisfied
    and talk about it for a hundred years
    and tell a different story
    every time


    Whose laughter
    whose wondering eyes
    I would bottle
    but never sell
    then purposely taint the milk of millions
    if I could ever catch them
    unready for me
    but they talk
    only the good talk
    to each other
    and stop whenever womenfolk come around

      You are the last of these
      Black centennial poles
      holding the ground
      and everything standing on top of it
      who always say No to overcoats
      preferring to face the elements alone
      and just as sweet as sugar thrown up in the air
      in a coming-down-hard rain

      that's come down this one last time
      in one dark and peanut butter sweet
      Danville Brown
      missing Persian roll

    "Yes man, this one, he's done."


Excerpted from Rice 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Kwame Dawes ix

Preface xv

Acknowledgments xvii


The Blackened Alphabet 7

Irons at Her Feet 8

Yellow Jaundice 10

The Goodfellows Club 15

Cotton Tea 24

Harry and Jainey 26

Understudies 31

My Centipeding Self 39

Making Foots 42

Lightkeeper 45

In South Carolina: Where Black Schoolmarms Sleep 47

Black Orion 51

"God Ain't Makin' No More Land" 54


The Afterbirth, 1931 65

Mary Mary Quite Contrary 72

The Sound of Burning Hair 74

Dinosaur 77

Pluck 80

The Devil Is Beating His Wife 87

Eskimo 91

Acquanetta of Hollywood 94

I Have Been Somewhere 102

The Butt of the Joke 103

South Africa: When a Woman Is a Rock 109

The Ostrich 112

Brown Country 113

He Never Had It Made 121


The Turtle Ball 129

Tenderheaded 134

Living On What 138

Mae/I 140

Love Marrow 3 144

Mute 146

Permittable Thunder 148

The Vertigo 157

The Mapmaker 164

The Savoy, 1926 166

Daguerre of Negras 172

Woman Holdin' Up All Deeze Folks 176

Rule Number One 180

The End of It 182

A Woman with Keys 184

The Rice 186

List of Photographs 189

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