Introduction to The Collected Poems of Ai
Infect your partner! Infect the person you are concentrating on! Insinuate yourself into his very soul, and you will find yourself the more infected for doing so. And if you are infected everyone else will be even more infected.
I remember sitting in my Greystone apartment in Colorado Springs, gazing out over Monument Park, Pikes Peak looming there, as I turned from Ai on the cover of the American Poetry Review (1) back to the poems printed in those pages, poems that would appear in her first book, Cruelty. Ai’s poetry found me when I was repeatedly reading Ted Hughes’s Crow, momentarily taken by the poetic strangeness of this mythic bird; but her raw imagery and the stripped-down music of her voice seemed even stranger, more foreboding. Ai’s poems are grounded in this world—naturally telluric—even when her characters are almost totemic. And back then her poems seemed like scenes from nightmarish movies imprinted on the eyeballs, yet the images were revealed so matter-of-factly, so damn casually. Upon reading a poem or two, I’d flip back to the APR cover and take another look at Ai. From the outset, she knew how to infect her reader through insinuation. There was an air of innocence or coquettishness in her, and this seemed incongruous to the bold, raw, sensuous, bloody imagery entering my psyche that summer afternoon.
I searched literary magazines for other poems by Ai. She was born Florence Anthony, and I learned that Ai means “love” in Japanese. Each monologue I discovered made me feel that her speakers were tinged with an unusual, rural reality. They haunted me, and never again would I think of poetry quite the same way.
When Cruelty was published in 1973, I read the collection repeatedly, transported by the mystery in the poems and by the politics of gender on almost every page. The way the first poem in the collection, “Twenty-Year Marriage,” opens is a clue to this poet’s psychology: “You keep me waiting in a truck / with its one good wheel stuck in a ditch, / while you piss against the south side of a tree. / Hurry. I’ve got nothing on under my skirt tonight.” The speaker’s insinuation is calculated. The intentional, invented tension breathes on the page. She has our attention. But Ai knows—like any great actor—that language and pace are also crucial. Sometimes a poem may seem like personalized folklore, a feeling culled from the imagination. The characters hurt each other out of a fear of being hurt, and often they are doubly hurt. Do we believe her characters because they seem to evolve from some uncharted place beyond us but also inside us? They are of the soil, as if they’ve always been here; but they also reside on borders—spiritually, psychologically, existentially, and emotionally—as if only half-initiated into the muscular terror of ordinary lives. All the contradictions of so-called democracy live in her speakers. Most of the characters in Ai’s poetry are distinctly rural, charged in mind and belly with folkloric signification, always one step or one trope from homespun violence and blasphemy.
What first deeply touched me in Cruelty is this: Ai’s images—tinctured by an unknown folklore—seemed to arise from some deep, unsayable place, translated from a pre-language of knowing or dreaming with one’s eyes open, as if something from long ago still beckoned to be put into words. Let’s look at the third stanza of “Warrior”:
When you are standing in the river,
you grab a fish,
tear its flesh with your teeth, and hold it,
until the bones in your fingers buck up
and fly about you like moths.
Is the warrior African, Native American, an unnamed aboriginal, or some mythical citizen of an unknown place from the misty mountains of the imagination?
We believe Ai’s various speakers even when we don’t wish to. The speaker in “The Rivals” is a perfect example of such an aversion, highlighted by the poem’s ending: “Just try it. Fall! I don’t give a damn. / You’re hurting, so am I, / but I’m strong enough to let you cry alone.” If we believe this speaker, do we also possess a similar capacity for malice? In a sense, we enter into a dialogue with each character that she’s created; and we argue not only for our own humanity but also for the speaker’s. Such a discourse through the unsaid does the job of poetry. Silence, pace, rhythm—the whole tonal shape of a poem is important to Ai.
The power in her poetry isn’t rancor, but the terrifying beauty of pure candor. The second stanza from the last poem in Cruelty, “New Crops for a Free Man,” underscores Ai’s ability to create characters that challenge us morally:
Behind me, another fire, my woman,
under sheets wrinkled and stiff from heat and sweat,
throws them back and rises.
She cracks her knuckles, leans from the window and yells,
but I keep my head turned toward the thing I understand.
She’s hot from a match I never lit
and strokes her breasts, cone-shaped candles,
whose wicks, her nipples, aflame, burn holes in her hands, in me.
Ai’s characters uncover their senses of self as they speak, baring themselves physically, psychologically, and spiritually, and the music of telling seems to bring them to the cusp of being transformed. Each poem is a confession.
Could she be for real? Even if Ai hadn’t personally experienced what she conveyed in her poetry directly, image after image, character by character, I believed and felt every word on the page. I thought I knew the violence and terror humans perfected and exacted on one another, but reading Ai’s poems that afternoon so long ago, I felt that I had only tiptoed to the perimeter of a terror Ai depicted with such graphic ease. Many of her most memorable characters exist in the heart of an American frontier situated in a static passage of time that seems slanted. And, thus, she knew how to be in this world by existing out of this world through a supreme candor and honed toughness that approach transcendence.
Six years later I cracked the spine of Ai’s second collection of poems, Killing Floor, and I encountered the same provocative passion as in Cruelty; I already knew she was singing a deep, instinctual blues, but not because the book’s title made me think of Skip James. She could carry her own tune. It wasn’t just a tune plucked on the gut string that made one’s teeth chatter; her blues didn’t rise out of fear or the rage of unrequited love, but by brushing up against more expansive moments of universal truths. Ai’s title poem, “Killing Floor,” isn’t located in the Mississippi delta or the Chicago stockyards, but in an extended nightmare in Russia (1927) and Mexico (1940), and it ends with the speaker facing his wife’s mirror in a dream as a cross-dresser, saying:
I lean forward and see Jacques’s reflection.
I half-turn, smile, then turn back to the mirror.
He moves from the doorway,
lifts the pickax
and strikes the top of my head.
My brain splits.
The pickax keeps going
and when it hits the tile floor,
it flies from his hands,
a black dove on whose back I ride,
two men, one cursing, the other blessing all things:
Lev Davidovich Bronstein,
I step from Jordan without you.
Some poems in Killing Floor are for Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, Marilyn Monroe, Ira Hayes; the poet even dedicates “Pentecost”—a poem with Emiliano Zapata at its center—to herself, ending with these two lines: “If you suffer in the grave, / You can kill from it.” A frontier philosophy seems to touch all sides and angles of the poet’s vision.
For Ai, the page was always her stage, and the voices in her poems were hers and they weren’t hers. She mastered the shape-shifter’s voice not as a form of ventriloquism, but through a unique personification where the most unspeakable acts still speak to us and where we are frightened by our own most secret thoughts and daydreams through acts of imaginative participation. She created characters that earned our attention. The voices were mainly rural but also tonally antipastoral; her characters are at home in the silence of the landscape but always have something to say about life-and-death matters. We believe Ai’s voice because it transports us to a place shaped by the old brain, that terrain located in the right hemisphere.
There are battles beyond the mind and flesh, yet purely of the flesh. Ai’s images refuse to let us off the hook; she keeps us fully situated in the dynamics of modern life, holding a magnifying glass up to our most wounded moments, as she does so expertly in “The Kid” (he’s not Billy the Kid—our antihero of the Wild West—but just as vicious). After the speaker kills his father, mother, sister, and two horses, the poem ends with these lines:
Yeah. I’m Jack, Hogarth’s son.
I’m nimble, I’m quick.
In the house, I put on the old man’s best suit
and his patent leather shoes.
I pack my mother’s satin nightgown.
and my sister’s doll in the suitcase.
Then I go outside and cross the fields to the highway.
I’m fourteen. I’m a wind from nowhere.
I can break your heart.
This character comes out of the brutal silence of America. The word your in the last line makes us the speaker’s accomplice.
I think it was Stanislavski who said, “If an actor thinks he is the character, the director should fire him.” In many ways, Ai is a proxy actor in the various characters she creates through the agency of the monologue, but she also remains the conjurer, the maker of the most tantalizing imagery in American poetry. Her work has always had an audience. The voices she creates are of her and also outside of her. Though she once created a voice for Jimmy Hoffa that she read in a few times, Ai was always the poet, first and most importantly.
Recently, as I reread Adrienne Rich’s smart, compact, little book Poetry and Commitment, I thought of Ai, especially in the following paragraph:
If to “aestheticize” is to glide across brutality and cruelty, treat them merely as dramatic occasions for the artist rather than structures of power to be revealed and dismantled—much hangs on the words “merely” and “rather than.” Opportunism isn’t the same as committed attention. But we can also define the “aesthetic” not as a privileged and sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a resistance, that totalizing systems want to quell: art reaching into us for what’s still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.
Ai’s news of an awareness is what corners the reader. She lets her characters betray themselves by what they say and don’t say—imagistic and brutally honest.
Ai was a believer, in the old-fashioned sense of good and evil, and this seems to have directed the unmitigated passion in her poems. One only has to look at the titles of her eight collections to glimpse the moral equation of Ai’s work: Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate, Greed, Vice: New and Selected Poems, Dread, and No Surrender. Some of her poems at times seem like excerpted passages or facsimiles gleaned from the Book of Revelation. Hidden in the praises are curses—from the mouths of seers, soothsayers, and shape-shifting prophets posing as everyday citizens. She also gives us the voices of J. Edgar Hoover, James Dean, Jack Ruby, Lenny Bruce, General George Armstrong Custer, Jimmy Hoffa, Walt Whitman, Richard Nixon, Joe McCarthy, and the Good Shepherd. And some of the voices let us in on secretive thoughts, on moments that betray the speaker and the listener (reader). But some of the most political moments are in the unsaid. Ai mastered signification because she knew our history, what we are truly made of.
The complexity of her own lineage perhaps shaped her outlook—privately and publicly—on the reality of American culture. She embodied both conflict and harmony, as conveyed in the title of her 1978 essay “On Being 1/2 Japanese, 1/8 Choctaw, 1/4 Black, and 1/16 Irish.”(2) In an interview for Standards(3), it becomes clear that race and skin color formed the psychological axis of Ai’s most intimate feelings and thoughts. Speaking about her unpublished novel, she says, “The novel is called Black Blood, and it turns on how much Black blood these people have, in the novel. [laughs] So how did they get mixed? By having sex with somebody in another race; that’s how! But I think my memoir is really gonna be good. [laughs] If she ever finishes her research!” Ai seems taunted and haunted by Blackness in her life and her work. Elsewhere in that same interview, she says, “I told one reporter that night, ‘Well, score one for mixed race!’”
“Passing Through,” the last poem in Vice (which won the 1999 National Book Award), shows Ai overtly addressing race and skin color. The monologue opens with these lines:
“Earth is the birth of the blues,” sang Yellow Bertha,
as she chopped cotton beside Mama Rose.
It was hot as any other summer day,
when she decided to run away.
Folks say she made a fortune
running a whorehouse in New Orleans,
but others say she’s buried somewhere out west,
her grave unmarked,
though you can find it in the dark
by the scent of jasmine and mint,
but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The story the poet gives us is woven from blues shaped out of American history. The voice is so clear and layered that it seems the story has been lived. And we believe these lines when the poem ends, after the twists and turns of a rueful, relentless life:
When I got off the bus,
a hush fell over the people waiting there.
I was as white as my mother,
but my eyes were gray, not green.
I had hair down to my waist and braids so thick
they weighed me down.
Mother said, my father was a white musician
from another town,
who found out her secret
and left her and me to keep it.
Mama Rose knew me, though, blind as she was.
“What color are you, gal?” She asked
and I told her, “I’m as black as last night.”
That’s how I passed, without asking permission.
This moment of passing in reverse says much about the poet’s sense of politics and history.
In the end, Ai becomes a pronoun, but remains a one-of-a-kind voice that refuses to plead for mercy. In the last section of “The Cancer Chronicles” she says, “Her thoughts clattering around in her head like marbles, / Their sound echoing down the long road of suffering / She must have chosen, / Although she couldn’t remember doing so. . . .” The slanted directness in this poem is vintage Ai. And, of course, this posture of resistance and acceptance echoes through everything she’s written. Ai is still a hard act to follow, and her illuminating poems accentuate her true identity and presence. She has created a body of work that endures, that questions who we are and what borders we cross.
I believe Ai will continue to engage readers who are brave enough to face her vision. Her “method” was being alive. Giving us numerous hints along the way, she instinctively captured the nature of being in this world. She gave us clues to her spirit—as a human, as a poet, as a woman—sometimes with only a few lines. Ai, the method actor-poet who superbly insinuated through a passionate language of the frontier, may find a home with actors who are searching for unique monologues to hone their voices with truth solid as whetstone. I can still see Ai stepping from the page to the stage. There’s no voice like hers in American poetry; her unusual characters bear multiple truths.
* * *
1. July–August 1973, volume 2, number 4.
2. New York Times, March 27, 2010.
3. Spring–Summer 2001.
About the Author
Yusef Komunyakaa’s books of poems include The Chameleon Couch, Warhorses, and Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. He teaches at New York University.
The Collected Poems of Ai
W.W. Norton & Company