Response: The World Is Round


Nikky Finney’s collection of poems, The World is Round, was recommended in the comments thread of a blog post, thus proving that the comments thread of a blog post is not always a morass of despair. Sometimes it’s where you find the most interesting things.

Image spotted at Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind - click through to read.

Image spotted at Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind – click through to read.

My gut reaction to this volume is, simply, respect. Finney’s work has a grace and a presence, firmly rooted in the body of her lived experience, which the speaker of “The World is Round: the breast of the garment measured” makes clear:

…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.

The speaker’s / speakers’ bodily experiences are rooted in family and community. Poems such as “Coda,” “The New Medicine,” and “Mean Nina” explore the landscape of family relationships, and how the speaker positions herself there. “Mean Nina” was, for me, the most poignant of these, the story of a family member with a reputation for fierceness, now dying slowly in a nursing home. Her power, even in illness, is electrifying:

On Sundays aunt Nina prays out loud for lightning

to come, to strike them all down. She clarifies, this

is not further evidence of more meanness, just

everlasting belief in the power of prayer. There are

many kinds of believers.

The long prose poem, “Hurricane Beulah,” is a similar reminiscence, colored with more love and affection. Unlike Aunt Nina, who was mostly loved from a distance, grandmother Beulah is a close, loving presence…though no less a force of nature. Even in death her presence is close:

I was my grandmother’s heart. We belonged to each

other. She had taught me to believe in things unseen. Even

before the long car was out of sight I was there on the porch

waiting for a sign from her that she was alright. Standing

there in the middle of her ocean of brilliant pansies and

begonias, I watched pine and oak sway like summoned

dancers then bend loyally like servants. And just before the

birth of her favorite time of day, with a soft suddenness, I

felt the warm, heavy wind of the Great Mother lift the plain

dutiful life of another mother to the beyond.

Other poems in the collection, such as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” “Hate,” and “Easy Bake” make it clear that the speaker’s body is also rooted in a series of cultural experiences, many of which violated not just her body but the bodies of people like her. In “My Old Kentucky Home: where the darkies are gay,” the speaker tries to imagine what an archaeologist of the future will think of our culture’s treatment of the Black body:

He will recall several times during the report

that the society back then as a whole was highly

technologically advanced. He will say that it does

not really make sense. He will look perplexed, take

off his glasses and finally put his notes away.

Even in the future, Finney seems to be saying, the things we have done will seem just as senseless and unjust as they do right now to the bodies that are suffering them.

There are other declarations of the body here: what it means to be both queer and Black, to be Gullah, firm, strong declarations of a speaker who stands strong in herself and her identity. All of it awesome, powerful stuff. And then you get to “The Making of Paper” and you just have to lay down the book in respect, because here is a poem filled with so much love and sisterhood, the likes of which I have never seen. Dedicated to Toni Cade Bambara, it begins with the recollection of a time when Bambara asked Finney, during a telephone conversation, for paper and pens. The poem’s response is electric:

For the record let me state

I would hunt down a tree for you,

Stalk it until it fell

all loud and out of breath

in the forest.

And, later:

paper is coming Toni Cade


in the name

of your sweet Black writing life…

If you only pick up this collection for one poem–and really, you should try them all–start with “The Making of Paper.”

When I put this collection down I was humbled by the power of so many things I don’t know, can never know, can only pay attention to and give respect to. But then again, a reader doesn’t have to know. The reader’s job is to listen and learn, and bear witness. Highly recommended for readers who want to be awestruck by something amazing-beautiful.


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