Ode to the Girl On a Wheel

Ode to the Girl On a Wheel (10:02)

Nikky Finney writes an original poem dedicated to powerful girls for the 2016 espnW Women + Sports Summit. (10:02)

"I think bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel ... the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."

-- Susan B. Anthony, 1896

Girls who break camp and ride,

daughters of iron fleur-de-lis and

pearl sankofa, smashing homeruns,

charting backhands, in city sandlots,

with floral abstractions and lightning

rod detail, calculating their girl futures

on urban stoops, long after dark,

long before Wimbledon's

silver trays spell out their planetary

names. Foremothers, women of rye

invention in the business of movement

& motion, concoction & measure,

The Paper Bag, 1868,

belongs to them.

They rode their bicycles out of tight

boxes and off their chains into a propeller

of girl wind, only to discover the

wide stained glass slide of themselves,

they sallied forth and circled,

in drums of cotton and sailboats of lace,

salty & pugnacious, riding with handle

bars but with no hands,

Sue Sally Hale, colored in a mustache

and dressed like a man just to play

polo in Southern California in 1950.

Juggling dream notes and sketches ten

feet in the provincial air, as their bikes

flew the red dirt roads, women of wheel

wind now giving historical permission to

their daughters traipsing gridirons, pitching

diamonds, running the wooden courts,

sleeping with their hands still arced in

black belt tunics and butterfly capoeira.

This love song is for those who mastered

the almost falling over, in order to relish

the sublime female flight of up & away,

the journey of female physical intention

Annie Taylor, first human

to go over Niagara Falls

in a barrel.

The great girl flight is the tumbling from a

solid, to a liquid, to a gas. Full throttle with

wheels calculating the circumference of

invisibility, fending off trumpets of chivalry

and doubt, giving birth to shy daughters in

need of the sweet roux of their own blue

cornflower flame. Contortionist swan

girls of the track and field that

hail from Housing Projects and Hollers,

measuring the mechanics of their own

dust tracks on the road, sweating the details

and leaving their girl trace,

The Murphy Bed, 1885,

is one of their contraptions.

Wrapping lavender and rosemary garland

around the velocity of their handlebars,

they sing and sign to the whirling, pirouetting,

dervish band of other girls with wheels

feverishly bringing up the rear, eyes and

aureoles leaned in, pressing on around

each bend, loop de looping the arena

with their mighty wheelworks mastery.

The circumference of a girl who won't

back down is a registered trademark

motion. On wheels, no longer standing

still they learn what makes them tick.

Remembering how their mothers made

quiet haste of cabin fever, preferring torque

to meander, saying No to any parade of

pretty dainty wave.

Cathay Williams was also William Cathay,

Secret woman & Buffalo Soldier, 1866.

They would rather be chased and never

caught, than stared at and never seen,

daring, wild, and crooked free, and woman

enough to build their own time capsules,

The Windshield Wiper, 1903,

invented by a girl.

Sometimes a girl can sail her bicycle,

sometimes her arm is already the wheel,

she is the girl-woman of the double-quick

hips, twerking with her kickstand up,

Virne Mitchell, pitcher, who struck out

Babe Ruth. Women would later be banned

from the sport.

They refashion new arenas for women

who fence and cover their hair, with

crescent and purpose, then lunge with

might and fearless heart.

Monopoly, the game, 1904,

was invented by her kind.

No bra or bodice, she is at home

with her inner workings and the quick

cockpit of her mind. Nobody's Fool

comes tattooed across her back beneath her

hoodie. This great grand daughter, the

sister, the lover to the woman who invented

the circular saw in 1813,

then bloomers in 1851.

Verve and gadget set them apart from

others, they are comfortable in their

running shoes and bloomers, relaxed

with themselves in an easy loose-fitting

kind of way. Sing the love song against

the liar who has tried, since the Games

of Hera, to tell us who they are, fill

the silence that can set in quick when

a girl is told from stroller wheel to

wheelchair, A girl's mind is not that quick.

Watch closely for the girl who is intent

on spinning her wheels in the cockpit,

Bessie Coleman, piloting her

Jenny into Paris, smiling down

at the ones who told her she

would never fly a plane.

Near the hoop, around the arena,

past the insult, into the microphone,

women who invented exertion,

who thought go & travel a fragrance,

The female Sumo wrestlers of 1870.

Hattie Stewart, pugilist, 1884.

The Women of Roller Derby.

Girls who GirlTrek and gad about for

freedom from inertia, in the name of

getting the lead out, with the same DNA

as the women who invented

Scotchgard, 1953, and

Kevlar, 1965 (5 times tougher than steel).

From the wombs of women who

bent forward all day in high cotton,

beyond the wired corsets of mothers

who could not leave the house

(and still be thought of a lady),

into the high notes of women

prone to move, girls made from

the cloth of "loose" women

removing their corsets without

permission, "strait-laced" women

who took years but finally learned

to disobey the rules, then who with

fists and fisticuffs fought back.

We march into the new Hippodrome,

in the name of women who twitch & move,

to honor the long-legged, the short-limbed,

the lanky girls, who uncrossed their legs,

who rode by emancipated on their wheels,

the loud whistling women who wanted

out of the house, off the plantation,

into the street, inside the ring,

Ernestine Shepherd, 74,

body builder.

Women endowed with a wheel of a mind,

moving their body at the speed of girl light,

with sometimes a bat, a ball, a pencil,

pushing off with ink, back flip, triple flute.

Who sprint and glide into home with hair

fastidiously beaded and cornrowed, with

the rubberbands of their ponytails pulling

back their mother's eyes. Women who

dreamed beyond the screened-in porch

and backyard fence. A band of women

alive and well, who still saddle up their

mythological bikes, pioneering all the way,

Retractable Dog Leash, 1908,

Liquid Paper, 1951,

to strike out on their own. Tomboys.

Girls on bikes. Dykes on Bikes. Sweet

graying daughters of Title IX. All, us,

kin to the women who run the Sahara

shoeless and at night, and the Kenyan

girls of tomorrow now sprinting with the

moon, granddaughters of keen women,

who can't stand the standing still,

who crave the nimbus and the eddy,

and the flight, our girl XX DNA is

in it, wheel in hand. We'll Alpine race it,

balance beam it, figure skate it,

The Submarine Telescope, 1845,

forearm it, curl & summit, Caster

Semenya it, wheel in hand, we ignite

footfall, leave our trace, planting

Achilles and Sojourner, spinning still,

from a solid

to a liquid

to a gas.

Nikky Finney has written four books of poetry, including Head Off & Split, for which she won the 2011 National Book Award. She wrote this original piece for the 2016 espnW Women + Sports Summit.