In late September 2005, Hurricane Rita displaced hundreds after whipping through the Gulf of Mexico and making landfall in parts of Texas and Louisiana.
Mayree Monroe refused to leave her house. Her defiance, filmed by a TV reporter and broadcast nationally, caught the attention of poet Nikky Finney.
“I thought this was incredibly powerful,” Finney, a South Carolina native who will be one of Saturday’s keynote speakers at the SC Book Festival, said. “I’ve been raised in communities when land and the house on it was the legacy that many black people left their children. Many times it was the only legacy.”
The book festival, a program of The Humanities Council SC in its 15th year, will be held Saturday and Sunday at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.
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Finney wrote about Monroe in her journal before writing a narrative for the elderly woman in “My Time Up with You,” a poem that reveals so much culturally — if you pay careful attention, unlike the guests on Mayree’s porch on that day.
Using both hands she smoothes down the cotton
fabric from hipline to another invisible mark just
above her knee. She does this in one fluid motion.
This is the oldest signal in the Western Hemisphere
between an old Black woman and whosoever
her company happens to be.
“It’s the most important thing she does in the entire poem,” Finney, a professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky, said. “It’s kind of like a code. I knew black women like that. If you didn’t read it right, you were left on the porch.”
Mayree is one of several strong women — Wilma Rudolph, Althea Gibson and Condoleezza Rice — whose names appear in Finney’s latest book, “Head Off & Split.” Then there’s Finney retelling a moment of her own defiance in “Dancing with Strom,” a title that has fixed itself into this reporter’s head as “Dancing with the Storm.”
Finney called it a slight fissure in language.
“I think it is symbolic of who he was and certainly what his tenure in South Carolina politics meant to me,” she said.
Thurmond, the long-serving U.S. senator, was a revered politician who had opposed desegregation. Finney, the daughter of Ernest A. Finney Jr., a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, was at her brother’s wedding in Edgefield when she stood on a porch watching Thurmond dance with her mother and other women.
“Dancing” is an example of how Finney approaches uncomfortable subjects with deference, how she provides history lessons. The poem’s foreword includes this Thurmond quote spoken in 1948: “I want to tell you, ladies and gentleman, there’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and accept the Negro [pronounced ‘nigra’] into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
Finney also includes these words by Modjeska Monteith Simkins, an underappreciated state civil right leader, said also in 1948: “I said, ‘I’m gonna fight Thurmond from the mountain to the sea.’” But the history isn’t in the quotes; it’s sitting on the porch.
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“It’s the history that I wanted to know as a girl that I wasn’t taught in the South Carolina public school system,” said Finney, who was raised in Conway and Sumter. “We just keep the things we want to keep about history.”
Many of the poems in “Head Off & Split,” a title that refers to fish purchases, read like short stories. There’s a musical pacing to the stanzas. The book is also visual in the way the margins are set. The title poem lacks punctuation, but the white spaces between the words are meant for pauses, reflection.
“I think this book has more varied schemata in terms of how they’re laid on the page that any I’ve done,” she said.
More so than any of her other published work, “Head Off & Split” has earned attention from critics and other poets. Kwame Dawes, founding director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative and the USC Arts Institute, wrote that Finney “establishes herself as one of the most eloquent, urgent, fearless and necessary poets writing in America today.”
“Maybe I figured out how to write,” Finney said about the recognition. “Maybe it’s the human stories.”
The reader will wonder how Mayree is doing, if she survived Rita.
“I decided not to find out if she made it through that night,” Finney said. “I believe that she did.”