Nikky Finney:
“Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica”


Poetry Sunday columns this month will reprise previous features of black women poets and poems that take up questions of social justice. We share the outrage and heartbreak over the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other BIPOC and believe that a courageous dialogue about racial prejudice is critical to the survival of our culture and country. These poems remind us that poetry is a powerful vehicle for such a dialogue, and we will continue to make them a regular part of the Poetry Sunday series.


Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica


Be camera, black-eyed aperture. Be diamondback terrapin, the only animal 

that can outrun a hurricane. Be 250 million years old. Be isosceles. Sirius. 

Rhapsody. Hogon. Dogon. Hubble. Stay hot. Create a pleasure that can stir 

up the world. Study the moon with a pencil. Drink the ephemerides. Lay with 

the almanacs. Become the lunations. Look up the word southing before you 

use it in a sentence. Know southing is not a verb. Imitate them remarkable 

days. Locate all your ascending nodes. Chew eight times before you swallow 

the lyrics and silver Lamentations of James Brown, Abbey Lincoln, Al Green, 

Curtis Mayfield, and Aretha. Hey! Watch your language! Two and a Quarter 

is not the same as Deuce and a Quarter. Two-fisted is not two-faced. Remember: 

One monkey don’t stop no show. Let your fat belly be quilts of quietus. Pass 

on what the great winemakers know: The juice is not made in the vats but in 

the vineyard. Keep yourself rooted in the sun, rain, and darkly camphored air. 

Grow until you die, but before you do, leave your final kiss: Lay mint or orange 

eucalyptus garland, double tuck these lips. Careful to the very end what you 

deny, dismiss, & cut away.


I have spoken the best I know how.



From Head Off & Split (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press 2011) and published with permission of the press. Copyright © 2011 by Nikki Finney. Published in 2011 by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

  • Read the original 3/12/17 column featuring this poem here.
  • Listen to Finney reading her poem here
  • Listen to Finney’s 2011 National Book Award in Poetry acceptance speech, called by John Lithgow “the best acceptance speech ever—for anything,” here.
  • Listen to a Between the Covers podcast featuring Finney here.
  • View this recent panel for the Bay Area Book Festival, The Beautiful Witness We Bear, in which Finney is joined by Jericho Brown and Ismail Muhammad.


Nikky Finney was born in South Carolina and raised during the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts Movements. Finney is the author of five books of poetry including Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry (Northwestern 2020), available for order here, as well as On Wings Made of GauzeRICEThe World Is Round, and Head Off & Split, which won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2011. Finney has written widely for journals, magazines, and other publications and is known as a dedicated and engaged activist. For twenty-one years, she taught creative writing at the University of Kentucky and now holds the John H. Bennett Jr. Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Author photo credit: Forrest Clonts. [Source for bio here]

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