The Blackened Alphabet
While others sleep
My black skillet sizzles
Alphabets dance and I hit the return key
On my tired But ever jumping eyes
I want more I hold out for some more
While others just now turn over
shut down alarms
I am on I am on
I am pencilfrying
sweet Black alphabets
in an allnight oil
For this week’s C.O.R.A. Diversity Roll Call, participants are asked to post and discuss a poem by a woman of color. I’ve chosen to spend some time with “The Blackened Alphabet” from Finney’s 1995 collection, Rice. The book takes its name from the abundant staple crop that enslaved West Africans first cultivated in Finney’s home state of South Carolina. The food serves as a bridge between her African ancestry and black cultural traditions, particularly among women, in the American South.
I love the way the “The Blackened Alphabet” serves as a kind of opening declaration of Finney’s craft. Her “black skillet” is not just a frying pan, but her imagination or even the blank computer screen where “Alphabets dance.” As she works to reclaim her past and “hit the return key,” she envisions herself as a poet-teacher who will stir us from our mental “sleep” with her verse. Even when we hit the snooze button, she is still cooking and sounding the alarm: I am on I am on. (Love that line.)
Finney also loves wordplay, and while many of her poems are reflective and somber, she’s not afraid of humor. Her pun on the term “pencilfrying” in this poem makes me smile and reminds me of Black Arts poets like Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez (who also made upper/lowercase distinctions between black/Black). I wonder, too, if there isn’t something more erotic going on in this poem? All that sizzling and the dancing through the night….
In addition to publishing Rice and two other poetry collections, Finney is a short story writer and the editor of The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South.