Monday, June 13, 2011

Nikky Finney's George Bush Sonnet Sequence, Pt. 1

Look. I'll say it like this: one of the big events in the production of black poetry so far this year, in my mind at least, is Nikky Finney's "Plunder," a sequence of 19 sonnets focusing on George W. Bush that appear in her book Head Off & Split (2011). If we had a more fully formed ecology of writings about developments in African American poetry that kept track of things that happen each year, we'd certainly be obliged to mention "Plunder."   

For one, it's a big event to the extent that we rarely have such an expansive treatment by an African American poet of a contemporary governmental figure written in verse, and 19 interrelated sonnets no less. Finney's sequence of sonnets extends a practice that has become slightly more prevalent. So part of what makes her work important is not entirely based on being unique but notably connective to what some other poets are doing.

Here, I'm thinking about the crown of sonnets near the end of Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly (2005); Marilyn Nelson's A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005) is comprised of a crown of sonnets; and Natasha Trethewey's Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard (2006), closes with a crown of sonnets. There are interconnected sonnets in John Murillo's Up Jump the Boogie (2010), and then, of course, there's the sequence of 34 sonnets in Allison Joseph's book, my father's kites (2010).

Finney is in good company. If we continue seeing folks producing these sequences of sonnets over the next decade, we'll likely look back on this moment and point to Finney and those others as key initiators, connectors. Collectively, their work says something about concentrated interest among black poets in, to use Allison Joseph's wording, "this fourteen-line box."      

In addition to her connections to those other poets, there's something special about Nikky Finney's extensive sonnet-based treatment of Bush. She writes with grace and also with some different levels of contempt, sarcasm, and humor expressed toward  "#43," one of her clever ways of referencing how Bush was at one point likened to a professional athlete. With the use of #43, Finney puts a jersey on him.

The 19 sonnets of "Plunder" are loosely linked with a version of the last line of each sonnet slightly remixed to serve as the first line in the subsequent one. One poem closes with the words "He likes being home / on the White House range," and the next poem in the series opens with "Home on the range, a White House boy bucks / bad." So the metaphorical crown of sonnets is deliberately disjointed throughout the series.  

As I read through the poems, by the way, I found myself eagerly anticipating how Finney would connect the closing and opening lines, how she would remix previous lines to serve as a new beginning. I was pleased, looking back on the reading experience, that her approach could invoke that feeling of anticipation.

Poet Amiri Baraka is perhaps by far the most well-known black poet to offer sharp critiques of George Bush. Baraka has been at times hilarious and harsh, always provocative. In one of his more tame low coup about the forty-third president, "Memo to Bush 2," for example, Baraka notes that "The Main Thing Wrong w/You is You Ain't in Jail." 

You rarely see links drawn between Nikky Finney and Amiri Baraka, but their poetic treatments on Bush bind them. Sure, Finney's critiques are more understated by comparison, but there's no mistaking the militancy of her poetic project.

Throughout the series of sonnets, Finney performs in the role of poetic reporter, closely observing Bush delivering his last State of the Union address, watching him at his Texas Ranch, and working to uncover his inner thoughts over a period of time. The poems we are presented with are clearly the result of some detailed and thorough observations and investigations. 

The appearance of Finney's book and series of poems now, a few years after Bush left office, suggests that she hasn't forgotten, we shouldn't forget. And maybe that's one of the more notable features of Finney's work; it's a memorable demonstration by a contemporary black poet on what it means to capture a modern president in an expansive series of sonnets. 

In the coming weeks and months, I'll try to say more about "Plunder." Like I said, it's one of the big events in African American poetry this year.    

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