F

From the Washhouse Files

On the occasion of walking into the laundromat and being approached
by a Black woman wearing a black eye who knew the story of how my
hair came to be

In your country, where you are from, I don’t know what
your people say to you, when they recognize you for the

first time, looking like all the rest, with your dirty sack of
laundry and your pencil dangling like a spider on your ear.

I don’t know what sounds you or your people make when
you stand there in front of those big white hungry machines

with their spacious specious open mouths. In your country
do people walk in the door of the lavandería with their

pillowcase of dirty clothes, nodding their heads hello?
Are the eyes and arms of your people fat only with fresh

clothes and leftover bottles of detergent for next week’s run?
Do your people only want something nice and clean?

Something to wear without the stain of ink or tomato sauce?
Wherever you are from, when you go to wash your clothes

are you allowed to catch hold of the eyes of a stranger
while there, at the lavandería House of Dirt, where citizens

are after all working for a cleaner brighter world? This house
of great wind and water that often makes for faultless,

more deeply scoured conversations. Is conversation in your
country more sought-after than clean clothes without stains?

Do short and tall people of all colors check the pockets of
their jeans before pushing silver into the mouths of heavy

metal? Maybe your country is just different from mine. Maybe
in the country where you come from, people keep their eyes

to themselves while the dirt lifts up and spins away. We have
people in my country like you. Have you ever noticed the

children running everywhere at the Wonderland House of
Wash and Wear? All the things they can find to do in the

name of dirt? It’s so easy to wash out stains while watching
children hide and play with bubbles and that crazy long bubble

wand they love. The talk is always about the weather or the
price of almond milk at the border. Do they have that crazy

plastic bubble wand in your country? Do they grow almonds
there too? I am not speaking of the library with its cotton-quiet

study zones. I speak of the unquiet house of agitation, tin shed
of dirt, official station of clean clothes, of children running

up and down the aisles in between spin cycles, where being
human and getting dirty never stops. I don’t know if you

even venture out to your country’s washhouse. You might
have your very own matching washer-and-dryer set at home

and never have need for this love song to the lavandería. You
may never get the chance to notice anyone who doesn’t look

like you, on the outside, who is badly in need of quarters.
But the last time I was at the lavandería eleven farmworkers

unloaded themselves from one formerly white tobacco truck.
Swung the door, walked in, chose a washer, like they were

choosing a date. Eyed the machine up and down. Peeled off
their nicotine-soaked top layers and dropped every stitch:

pants, shirts, all but their long underwear and socks, right
into the wide open mouth of the washers. At first, I looked

away, until they started laughing, in Spanish, at all my Negro
Puritan modesty. Disrobing like a team of magicians with

nothing to hide, standing there in their pima-cotton under
armour singing stories of home while the wash cycle churned

and gulped out the story’s warm shiny crisp end. I didn’t
know a single word. I did understand every note of their tired

brown bodies soaked in laughter, how they needed their night
singing voices to finish working their day-weary fingers and toes.

Whenever they grabbed their baskets on wheels and walked
their wet-clean clothes to the high-up dryers, in only their

socks and long underwear, how their feet made little fishlike
outlines all across the dusty concrete floor. Do feet finally

free of work nobody else in a country wants to do leave a
different mark in your country that says You will not disappear

me? No matter how hard you try. The great story they were
telling, which I did not fully understand, was from another time

when no one had eyes, only kidneys, fingers, and funny bones.
All of this, told in the smelly foreign language of fish-sock

feet. Does this happen in your country too? Have you noticed
what can pass between people who don’t know each other but

need change and the change machine is broken and suddenly
somebody reaches into their pockets, to make a dollar in quarters,

to make clean clothes, to get back home? In your country
have you ever seen that kind of joy erupt before? A student

of some wise imperfect architecture walked in that day like
he was only there because the storm had knocked out the knob

& tube in his condo and he was in a pickle, so he stood way
over on the side, far away from the band of magicians laughing

at the suns and moons being made on the floor by their sock
feet and me with my dangling spider ears. His many hardback

books were stacked high between us, and his box of laundry
detergent was so gigantic that it could have washed all the

clothes in town on both sides of the tracks. Behind him
in the glass I could see he was drawing a trellis on his shiny

electronic pad that he didn’t want to share. He never once
looked up to see who was in the room with him. Not even

when the young mother with the very recent and still blooming
black eye walked in with her four swing-dancing watotos

and no sunglasses. Never once lowering her head or looking
away. She caught me staring at the new birth of her new black

eye: Are you okay? I was just about to ask but she got her
unbruised question out first. Sister of Anansi, I meant to

ask you this last week—Is all that your hair? And if it is,
do you know that you can speak directly with your ancestors?

No call waiting. No busy signal. We smiled at each other
as if we had the same middle name or birthday. I don’t

know if people in your country speak to each other as
loquaciously as they do in mine or if they speak to each

other at all, especially if one has a black eye and the other
does not. I don’t know if where you are from people can

leave their homes in search of a cleaner better life. Or if
on your pretty gunless bulletless boulevards people pretend

they don’t see each other and don’t know what to do
with their eyes when your skin looks happier than theirs.

But here in my country I find people tend to look away rather
than move in closer. Do people in your native land stop and

smile at each other without being made to do so? Do they
say things you never expect them to say at the very same

moment you are measuring out just the right amount of bleach
needed to finish the enormous T-shirt job waiting before you?

I don’t know what your country taught you about taking on dirt
in the presence of strangers. Did they tell you to avoid strangers

at all costs because you might be shot or asked for money or a
ride home or maybe one of them might want to marry your

daughter who was formerly your son? Maybe you were
warned about speaking to anyone who doesn’t look like you,

who said just buy new clothes instead whenever you need
something clean because going to the lavandería is very

dangerous and might slow you down from your busy
important day or rob you of something you never want

to be robbed of, because you will need everything that
has been left to you just as your grandfather willed it.

So don’t chance change! I don’t know if you have ever
seen a band of tobacco magicians wearing only white

socks and long johns after working their all-day job
that nobody else wanted. And I don’t know if anyone

has ever approached you with your very own hair
origination story, that you didn’t know you would need

later on in order to grow old without tumors, and a sour
mouth, but this is my tribe, these ones, with their freshly

washed clothes, smelling more of bleach than powder,
while their children run the aisles free, blowing iridescent

pearl bubbles and pointing their mighty witchy wands at
frightened college students staring oddly down at the page,

looking for answers they think will one day appear on a
test, when really the test is swirling all around them, at the

lavandería, whirling house of washing wonder, where we
ask each other for change and choose our machines like lovers.


Copyright © 2020 by Nikky Finney. Published 2020 by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

Cover Art by Sarah Hussein

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Nikky Finney
Nikky Finney

"So—you can write pretty," Toni Cade Bambara tells the twenty-one-year-old Nikky Finney during a monthly writing circle that Bambara held in her Atlanta home during the 1980's. "But what else can your words do besides adorn?" This flat-footed question, put to the young poet by the great short story writer, at the beginning of her career, sets her sailing toward a life of aiming her words to do more than pearl and decorate the page. She follows the path, beyond adornment, that Bambara lived and taught—a writing life rooted in empathetic engagement and human reciprocity. Nikky Finney has been a faculty member at Cave Canem summer workshop for African American poets; a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, a particular place for poets of color in Appalachia; poet and professor for twenty-three years at the University of Kentucky; and visiting professor at Berea and Smith Colleges. She won the PEN American Open Book Award in 1996 and the Elizabeth O'Neill Verner Award for the Arts in South Carolina in 2016. She edited Black Poets Lean South, a Cave Canem anthology (2007) authored On Wings Made of Gauze (1985), Rice (1995), Heartwood (1997), The World Is Round (2003), and Head Off & Split, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry. Her acceptance speech has become a thing of legend, described by the 2011 NBA host, John Lithgow, as "the best acceptance speech ever–for anything." In her home state of South Carolina she involves herself in the day-to-day battles for truth and justice while also guiding both undergraduates and MFA students at the University of South Carolina where she is the John H. Bennett, Jr., Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters, with appointments in both the Department of English Language and Literature and the African American Studies Program, which she proudly notes is forty-six years strong. Nikky Finney's work, in book form and video, including her now legendary acceptance speech, is on display in the inaugural exhibition of the African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C. You will find her in the poet's corner, directly across from Chuck Berry’s 1973 candy apple red Cadillac Eldorado. Finney's work includes the arenas of Black girl genius unrecognized, Black history misplaced and forgotten, and the stories of women who prefer to jump instead of ride the traditional tracks of polite and acceptable society. In her full body of poetry and storytelling, she explores the whispers and shouts of sexuality, the invisibility of poverty in a world continually smitten by the rich and the powerful, the graciousness of Black family perseverance, the truth of history, the grace and necessity of memory, as well as the titanic loss of habitat for all things precious and wild.

The new decade is here and so is Nikky's new book. Love Child's Hotbed of Occasional Poetry (pub date April 15, 2020) is her first poetry collection since winning the National Book Award in 2011. In addition to the poems, there are hotbeds, a horticulture term introducing her readers to her journals, the place where most of her poems have always found their calcium and strong knees. There are also artifacts, images and photographs, that assist the words in composing how the poet's poet-life came to be. Over the last 30 years each and every Nikky Finney book has always been wonderfully different but this long awaited new minglement of word and image crafts a new kind of American poesy.

Visit Nikky's Press Kit Page for high-resolution photos & more.

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