Ai (Pseudonym of Florence Anthony, also Pelorhanke Ai Ogawa) 1947–
Ai is an American poet. Describing herself as "one-half Japanese, one-eighth Choctaw, one-fourth black, and one-sixteenth Irish," she creates a racial perspective in her work that is unique and unsentimental. Women are vividly portrayed, and images are powerful and often violent. Critics have praised Ai's poetry for its clear design and skillful craftsmanship. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
To be very solemn, the difficulty [of Ai's Cruelty] has to do with the problem addressed but not resolved by Aristotle, the question of the moral standing of the pleasure we take in the pain in which art often and properly deals. But of course, if I am not much mistaken, art, in any of the usual acceptances of the term, is not very high on the list of this author's intentions. If I inquire why then these utterances arrogate to themselves the honorable name of poetry, the modest answer may be (in such cases it usually is) that they mean to modify or transform our sense of what poetry is. At this point the argument is, as far as I am concerned, at an end. It seems to me that the claims or justifications one might advance for Cruelty resemble those one might advance for pornography; and that Cruelty is in fact a species of pornography, the pornography of pain. That these pieces exhibit a certain skill, a certain horrible energy, is undeniable; the question is whether that skill and energy are here licitly employed. (p. 108)
John N. Morris, "Making More Sense Than Omaha," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1974, pp. 107-08.∗
From Russia, Mexico, Buchenwald and Minnesota, the voices [in Killing Floor] speak of patricide, necrophilia, self-immolation, cannibalism and torture, converging in the single voice of an old soul, androgynous and driving, a ghost ranging space and time, drawn to moments in which the oppressed one is moved to act. Ai is concerned with that single moment, revelatory and disassociated, which is the hinge of human history, facilitating radical change, allowing the heart to open to a new order.
She discovers that it is possible to enter a psychological state of anarchy (symbolic always of social anarchy) without becoming hysterical. These poems are cold-blooded, tender and defiant narratives, concerning themselves with the survival of the human will, and a deferential celebration of death as the magnifier of life.
In many of her poems, there are knives, axes, blades or pitchforks, splitting skulls, slicing off pieces of flesh, jabbing the sun. Their cutting edges become, in this poet's hands, instruments for penetrating a social order which has become anesthetized to human agony….
[Because] of the belief in both death and life, there are no senseless acts. In the human spirit's endurance, revolution is possible and transformation, inevitable….
There aren't many poets whose language so precisely resonates with the pervasive concerns of the contemporary human condition.
Carolyn Forche, "Sentenced to Despair," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), March 11, 1979, p. F2.
There is a poetry of sweetness and light, a poetry that cloaks the viscera and makes of them a human form divine. And then there is the poetry of Ai.
In Killing Floor, her long-awaited second book of poetry, Ai fulfills the considerable promise of her first collection, Cruelty …, where she had written,
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.
Ai's whole attempt in Cruelty was to open her eyes wide and to see the essentials strongly, clearly, and honestly. The essentials, for Ai, are that we are born and die, and that we love and hate and struggle with each other on a lighted path between those two doors to darkness. This is a theme often obscured by complication, a theme most of us are hard-pressed to face directly. Interruption and amnesia are the order of the day; they breed mistrust, neglect, violence, fear. Ai allows us neither distraction nor forgetfulness, for they are, she sees, the real enemies of human potential. We would rather succumb than survive. Ai will not permit abdication. As she quotes Charles Simic, "He who cannot / Grow teeth, will not survive."
Killing Floor, then, is characterized by the same striking images and strong sense of voice as Cruelty, but the vision has widened. In Cruelty, Ai adopts a variety of voices which gain their force not from idiosyncrasy but rather from what they share in common, the pain of living under the threat of death. That much of the pain in Cruelty is woman's pain should be no surprise. The interrelatedness of life and death leads Ai to the importance of woman as life-giver in a world intent on avoiding the knowledge of death, and some of...
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[Certainly] the poet who calls herself Ai ("love" in Japanese, which is part of her ancestry) is among the best [of the Afro-American poets]; this much can be proved already in Killing Floor, though it is only her second book and a slim one at that. Many of her poems are in the voices of others, personae in the true sense, masks behind which not only she but all of us stand and peer out. This by itself indicates Ai's literary intelligence. Her passion is the thing that counts, however, and it throbs—the word is just—in every rhythm, image, and phrasing…. [Ai's] book is a joyous shock. (pp. 89-90)
Hayden Carruth, "Impetus and Invention: Poetic Tradition and the Individual Talent," in Harper's (copyright © 1979 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the May, 1979 issue by special permission), Vol. 258, No. 1548, May, 1979, pp. 88-90.
[Ai's second book, Killing Floor,] again displays a range of tough-minded images, but these latest poems are further enriched by a framework of quasi-historical vignettes described in the voices of Trotsky, Zapata, Yukio Mishima, Marilyn Monroe and Ira Hayes (an Iwo Jima hero turned skid-row unfortunate). It is Hayes who typifies the poet's reflections on social decay and emotional disaster, admitting: "I'm the one dirty habit / I just can't break."
Dark as this view may be, and however squeamish about themes of mass murder, assassination and infanticide one may be, this poet's authority is uncompromising. She encounters the mirror unshaken, adding ironic emphasis to what is, finally, a motto for her ravishments: "I mean to live."
G. E. Murray, "Book Notes: 'Killing Floor'," in The Nation (copyright 1979 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 228, No. 19, May 19, 1979, p. 578.
[The poems in Killing Floor] are obsessed with the human capacity for violence. Deaths by axing, shooting, bludgeoning, strangulation, and hara-kiri occur in piece after piece. When the situation lacks overt violence, Ai's metaphors leap into the breach…. Touches of perversion here and there heighten the air of Grand Guignol.
A little of the lurid goes a long way, and even though Ai's volume is less than fifty pages few will wish it longer than it is. Yet this book is as easy to respect in part as it is hard to enjoy on the whole. At her best Ai writes a highly disciplined, cleanly organized, fastidiously punctuated free verse that somewhat chastens her subject matter. Her...
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