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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.)
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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.∗
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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.
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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.
(This entire section contains 822 words.)
attempt inCruelty 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 Ai's most effective images arise out of the stark contrast of birth, or potential birth, and death.
In Killing Floor, Ai builds on these strong individual voices and striking images, but she pushes herself much more strongly toward exposing the universal tendencies and effects of this process of living and dying. The push results in two important changes.
First, the personal voice reaches further toward the public struggle to understand and deal with life and death. In addition to the voices of unknown types, a series of public figures appear and speak for their own attempts to understand…. The public figures firmly locate private struggles in a larger historical process. If Cruelty was the chronicle of little, nameless, unremembered acts of inhumanity, Killing Floor is the chronicle of those actions played out with the full force of history's monstrous acts of cruelty resonating in the background. (pp. 119-20)
The best poems in the collection, "Killing Floor," "Nothing But Color," "Ice," "The Ravine," "Sleep Like a Hammer," "Pentecost," and "The Gilded Man" all reveal [Ai's] strong moral stance based on seeing oneself and one's environment clearly, and on the struggle to discover a personal myth.
The second change in Ai's poetry is at first surprising and probably results from the movement toward the universal and the public: of twenty-four poems in Killing Floor, sixteen are told in the voices of men. Fathers, fathers to be, young men, sons, male lovers all have their own struggles with living and dying, and Ai's ability to render the male as well as the female fills in further perspectives on these struggles…. Relationships are full of pulling and tugging, and just as we cannot obliterate the growing awareness of death, we cannot begin to live until we face it squarely. Until then, we are condemned to acts of cruelty and rage. The antidotes to despair, distraction, and amnesia function only when they emanate directly from a sense of the essentials. (pp. 121-22)
Killing Floor, then, represents a movement from seeing to real vision, vision that looks directly, unflinchingly, at the viscera of existence and tries to communicate their meanings nakedly. The collection represents a movement from depicting personal myths united simply by their shared pain to locating personal myth in historic and public mythic process. It looks at failure and tries to create not heroes but survivors, persons willing to see through the illusion, the distraction, the interruption. With this book, Ai has moved from being a very good poet to being an excellent poet, and, like the narrator of "Ice" (Ai's own great-grand-mother?), we should give ourselves over to the lessons of this vision:
Tonight, wake me like always. Talk and I'll listen, while you lie on the pallet resting your arms behind your head, telling me about the wild rice in the marshes and the empty .45 you call Grace of God that keeps you alive as we slide forward, without bitterness, decade by decade, becoming transparent. Everlasting. (p. 122)
Randall Albers, "Ai's 'Killing Floor'," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1979 by Chicago Review), Vol. 30, No. 4, Spring, 1979, pp. 119-22.
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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.
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[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.
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[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 characteristic mode is the short dramatic monologue, and her personae are diverse and sometimes intriguingly complex. Trotsky, Marilyn Monroe, a Nazi homosexual, a Choctaw woman living in the nineteenth century, one of the marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima—these and others speak in poems that vary little in diction and syntax but greatly in tone and structure. They are rich in both sympathy and implication. (p. 566)
[The] more outrageous the act, the harder to extenuate it—and the less Ai tries to do so…. No doubt sympathetic comprehension must wither in the face of atrocity, but when it does we are left with a dramatization of a grisly news item—and perhaps some awe at Ai's negative capability.
[Many of the poems] rely on the sensational for their effects…. "Nothing but Color" attributes to Yukio Mishima the broiling and eating of bits of a lover's flesh. One supposes the persona to be Mishima, that is, because the poem is dedicated to him, its speaker claims to be the creator of Etsuko (central character in Thirst for Love), and its last line echoes Mishima's suicide note. Someone better acquainted with Mishima's life might pronounce on the cannibalism, but anyone will be puzzled to find that the hara-kiri in this poem occurs in the speaker's garden, whereas Mishima's took place in the office of a general at an armed forces base. Ai's reasons for fiddling with fact, or alternatively for encouraging us to think that a fictional persona is Mishima, are obscure. A similar confusion plagues "Killing Floor." In the first section she seems to have Trotsky plead for exile … and in the third she has him sitting in a bedroom at a "mirrored vanity" and putting on his wife's maquillage when he is struck from behind (he was in his study, not in front of a mirror, reading an essay the killer had just given him). Are the facts not bizarre enough? Or is Ai ignoring them for some interpretative but inscrutable purpose? In any case, one has to question the propriety of such distortions…. (pp. 567-68)
Her treatment of Zapata's murder in "Pentecost," by contrast, turns a scene compatible with fact into a powerful vision…. Ai's intensity fuses the agrarian roots of Zapata's revolt, his tremendous will, and his enduring inspirational force, and the metamorphoses make their own little myth. Like imagination and truth, craft and passion are inseparable here—as they are also in "Ice" and "The Ravine," two poems with elegant structures that summary cannot do justice to…. Each of these affecting poems tells us in its own way that "Dying doesn't end anything." Together with poems like "Pentecost" and "Jericho" they also tell us that Ai, her depressingly limited vision notwithstanding, is a forceful and gifted young poet. (pp. 568-69)
Stephen Yenser, "New Books in Review: 'Killing Floor'," in The Yale Review (© 1979 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LXVIII, No. 4, Summer, 1979, pp. 566-69.