When Nikky Finney won the National Book Award in 2011 for her collection of poems, Head Off & Split, I spent a few hours rereading her work and trying to summarize my response to it. I was left with reactions that seemed at first like startling contradictions. Finney’s poems engage the whole weight of history, particularly African American history, yet at the same time they are often deeply personal. Some poems in the collection are political, sometimes enraged, yet a celebratory poem can appear on the very next page. At times the language of the poems is very direct and plainspoken, but the very next line can be textured by sound and might even feel a bit “difficult” because of that texture.

In addition, Finney’s poems range all across the continent, yet they often seem deeply rooted in her coastal South Carolina childhood. The award-winning book begins with a prose piece that remembers a childhood moment: “The girl is sent for dinner fish. Inside the market she fills her aluminum bowl with ice-blue mackerel and mullet, according to her mother’s instruction. The fishmonger standing there, blood on his apron, whale knife in hand, asks, Head off and split? Translation: Do away with the watery gray eyes, the impolite razor-sharp fins, the succulent heart, tender roe, delicate sweet bones? Polite, dutiful, training to be mother, bride, kitchen frau. Her answer, Yes.” It is certainly a clear memory of a childhood moment, but it also feels ripe with metaphor; by the end of that piece, it is clear that Finney now understands the necessity of the whole fish. The girl returned as woman “wants what she has come for kept whole, all marrow and every organ accounted for, just as it was pulled from the sea.” The measure of Finney’s success as a poet is that this tale, both real and metaphoric, doesn’t feel strained or forced on the reader.

At the end of the book–after a paean to Rosa Parks, a moving elegy for Finney’s grandmother, an enraged poem about black New Orleanians abandoned on the roofs of their flooded homes after Katrina, a sequence that imagines Condoleezza Rice at her grand piano, a crown of sonnets on President Bush, and many others–Finney returns to that fishmonger and his gutted fish. Once again completely comfortable with the metaphors that life gives her, the poet first describes an older child returned to aging parents, then in a wonderfully surreal moment becomes that headless, gutted fish: “The exquisite tip of his knife/enters at the lip of my sternum.” As frightening as this may sound, Finney by the end of the poem has arrived at a much more nuanced and complicated place: “I am tossed into / the icy silver bowl A lifetime of waiting Hungering / to be called Delicious.”

Nikky Finney reads from Head Off & Split at UMMA on February 20.