Ai’s single poetic form was the dramatic monologue. Her seven books published between 1973 and 2010, collected in a hefty Norton edition released in February of this year, comprise almost two hundred pieces – monologues all – written in voices as various, profound, and quixotic as JFK, James Dean, General Custer’s wife, and her own family ancestors. Rarely does she repeat a character, and her rich imaginings of their individual lives, thoughts, and speech sustained her entire poetic career.
Her earliest book, Cruelty, was published in 1973 when she was 26 and still fresh out of U Cal Irvine’s MFA program. The poems of this book are short, tight stanzas of concentrated hardscrabble, where labor, marriage, blood, dirt, loneliness and frustration, whirl themselves into evocative episodes of hard-luck and hard-living. These flint-like chips of poems, mostly hovering around 15-20 lines or so, have none of the well-known narrators or scenes that the future poems were to so famously develop over multiple pages, but their sharp scenes of spite, brutality, and despair sparked the fires of Ai’s following six volumes.
Here is the title poem in its entirety:
The hoof-marks on the dead wildcat
gleam in the dark.
You are naked, as you drag it up on the porch.
That won’t work either.
Drinking ice water hasn’t,
nor having the bedsprings snap fingers
to help us keep rhythm.
I’ve never once felt anything
that might get close. Can’t you see?
The thing I want most is hard,
running toward my own teeth
and it bites back.
Killing Floor, published in 1979, opens with the title poem, a three-part narrative that follows Leon Trotsky through Ai’s imaginings of his exile and nightmares of betrayal and assassination, from the Soviet Union into Mexico. The book establishes Ai’s movement toward appropriating the voices of known characters and the longer monologues that became her trademark. Not all her characters are known figures, in this or any of her subsequent volumes, but Killing Floor opens the door.
From the Japanese writers Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata discoursing on their work, their loves, their inner lives, to Lope de Aquirre, a 16th century conquistador who dreams of El Dorado in the Amazon Basin but whose life ends in a familial murder/suicide in Venezuela, the stories are inspired and vivid. Ai’s gift is not so much as ventriloquist. While her vocabulary and diction do change some from poem to poem, the depth and strength of the poems derive from her ability to enter the heads and lives of her characters and articulate their thoughts and actions in intense and richly colored ways. Her two-part poem for Ira Hayes, the Native American Marine immortalized with six others in the iconic photo of the Iwo Jima flag-raising but who died an alcoholic death ten years later, finds him lying in a ditch, drunk on a Friday night, looking up to a moon, “the night hen’s yellow egg,” just before “a huge combat boot/punches a hole in the sky/and falls toward me.” Saturday, part two, finds Hayes pouring pepper into a cup of coffee “to put the fire out.” “I pass gin and excuses from hand to mouth,/but it’s me. It’s me./I’m the one dirty habit/I just can’t break.”
The book titles alone read like a list of Seven Deadlies – Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate, Greed, Vice, Dread, No Surrender – and in each of the poems either the world is malevolent and the characters react accordingly, or the characters are so and the world is mirrored back in their baleful images. Ai’s only editorial note in all the books is at the start of 1991’s Fate, which, she states, “is about eroticism, politics, religion, and show business as tragicomedy, performed by women and men banished to the bare stage of their obsessions.” Even the Virgin Mary finds the world brutal and hostile as, in Fate’s title poem, she looks onto a scene of protestors at an abortion clinic, thinks of her own fated pregnancy, and sees an antiabortionist throw a rock that “descends like Christ/into the body of a woman,/who cannot defend herself/against the judgment of man and God,/for we have always been the receivers/of what is given without love or permission.”
In 1999, Vice – a selection of poems from her previous books plus eighteen new poems – won the National Book Award. It’s after this, in her last two books, that Ai begins to more fully develop characters from her family history. As she was writing the poems for Dread, published in 2003, she had no way of knowing that she had only a short nine years left to her life, but it’s oddly fitting that, among the monologues written in the voices of, for example, World Trade Center first responders, JFK, Jr., and a disgraced high school teacher from Rapid City who falls in love with a beautiful prostitute who turns out to be a man, she reaches toward her own ancestors to put some definition on the story of her own life. Throughout her books, there have always been poems exploring the lives of freed slaves, Native Americans, and the deeply American conjugal joining of white, black, red, and other ethnicities, but now she begins to name names in her own mosaic lineage. She identifies herself as being “1/2 Japanese, 1/8 Choctaw, ¼ Black, and 1/16 Irish.” What of the 1/16 that she doesn’t identify? Perhaps it’s this she’s working to reclaim in so many of these final poems.
While writing her final book, No Surrender, Ai knew she was dying of cancer, and she describes the
progression of one woman’s untreated breast cancer in the ultimate poem of the collection, the horrific Cancer Chronicles. Whether or not the poem describes any part of her own experience, one cannot say for sure. It’s always a dangerous thing to read too much autobiography into poems, and her imaginings of the late stages of the disease and the subject’s life imply that this is not her exact story. Nonetheless, after reading the entire collection of Ai’s work, there is a keen sense of the poet’s fearless stance in facing life’s ugly underbelly. This is the only book (aside from the new and selected Vice) that does not have a title poem. “No Surrender” was Ai’s battle cry, and the open-ended conviction of these words as the title of her last book is a fitting epitaph for this singular poet’s life and work.