A Poetry Without Emotion

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Few American poets have established such a distinct voice as has Ai. Some commentators on American poetry believe her pseudonym to be the sound of a cry, such as those uttered by many of her personas; critic Hayden Carruth suggests that her name means “love” in Japanese (Ai has described...

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Few American poets have established such a distinct voice as has Ai. Some commentators on American poetry believe her pseudonym to be the sound of a cry, such as those uttered by many of her personas; critic Hayden Carruth suggests that her name means “love” in Japanese (Ai has described herself as one-half Japanese). In one important sense, she does not fall within the canon of traditional African American writers. Her subjects transcend the most common concerns of that canon, and her style, as it has developed, incorporates a flat, almost emotionless tone, regardless of her subject matter—no matter how beautiful or how hideous.

Ai awakened critics to her work in 1973 with poems that treat such subjects as murder, suicide, sexual and physical violence, whoring, and simple lusts. She presents her subjects usually through first-person voices that are flat and atonal. Indeed, the experience of listening to her early poems on the audiotape Nothing But Color (1981) adds to a sense that there is a terrible rhythm to the cruelties of the world and that she has tapped into that rhythm. She reads in a flat yet lyrical voice; all of her poems sound the same, as if she were in a trance and reading the work of some other poet. The experience can be at once delightful and unsettling. All but two of the poems on the tape are from Killing Floor (1979). A different version of her “Blue Suede Shoes,” titled “Blue Suede Shoes: A Fiction,” is included in Sin (1986), as is “The Mother’s Tale.”

Ai’s reading adds a terrible beauty to the brutal poem “The Kid,” in which she takes on the persona of a fourteen-year-old boy who murders his entire family. No reason is given for the murders, for the breaking of the father’s skull with a rod, for the beating of the mother on the spine with the same rod, for the shooting of the little sister in the backyard. After it is all done, Ai ends the poem: “Then I go outside and cross the fields to the highway./ I’m fourteen. I’m a wind from no-where./ I can break your heart.”

Ai’s first two books of poetry, Cruelty (1973) and Killing Floor, pose the world as a mechanistic, terrible accident in which horrors are to be expected. Ai’s device is always the voice of the person speaking, of the person brutalized, of the person drawn down to a level of bestiality and shame. In her poem “Prostitute,” from Cruelty, Ai’s first-person narrator first goes to the trouble to pretend that her latest customer is her “husband,” whom she shoots. Then she robs him and considers the possibilities available to her. After all, she never cost much in the past, but now, with two combs in her hair and a gun in her belt, who knows what she can do?

As Ai’s poetry develops, she shows an interest in understanding the human mind, particularly the relationship between what people say and what they do. The poems in the first two books present one-dimensional characters, but her later personas are more complex. Her ability to take time to study extensively and her success as an American poet seem to have given her an opportunity to draw out, in her later work, what she was only able to begin in the earlier poems.

Fellowships and Awards

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In 1975, Ai was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Fellowship, providing her with invaluable time to spend on her art. In 1976, she received a fellowship from the Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Foundation. Awards quickly followed. Killing Floor was the 1978 Lamont Selection of the Academy of American Poets, and Ai received the first of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1980. The second came in 1985. The writing of Sin was further augmented by receipt of an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant and an Emergency Fund for Writers award from the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists. Sin was awarded the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and Vice: New and Selected Poems (1999) won the 1999 National Book Award for Poetry.

These awards established Ai as a major poet, despite the controversy surrounding her work and its lack of widespread, mainstream appeal. In 2003, Ai released another book of poems, Dread. Following a stint as visiting associate professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder (1996-1997), Ai held the Mitte Chair in Creative Writing for the 2002-2003 academic year at Southwest Texas State University. She then moved to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she became a professor of English as well as serving as the vice president of the Native American Faculty and Staff Association.

Few African American writers can boast as an impressive list of grants, awards, and fellowships as early in their careers as could Ai. Although she eschews the “African American” classification, she will be remembered as one of the most important African American writers and as one of the leading voices in contemporary poetry.

A Controversy over Content

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Ai’s poetry can be disturbing, so much so that debates have raged about whether she writes a kind of pornography, a pornography of pain and extremity, raising the question of why readers participate in the dissemination of her work. Clearly, Ai is skillful at manipulating words and at drawing readers into poems about a multiplicity of subjects. Critics have questioned, however, whether readers participate primarily because they take a perverse pleasure in watching others in the throes of pain, or because they marvel at the ability of the poet to so capture the fringes of human emotion.

The poems in Sin are longer and more meditative than the poems in the first two books. Where the early poems posed a kind of disorder and dismemberment in the social fabric, these longer poems explore human consciousness through the poetic medium, as if primal acts are those intended for the most basic understandings. Ai’s dispassionate readings indicate a split in her approach to her work between identification with and analysis of her characters. She suggests in some of the poems that to give oneself up to another completely—by voice, by body, by relationship, by poetry—would constitute a kind of suicide.

“The Resurrection of Elvis Presley,” from Fate: New Poems (1991), presents a man who cannot be Elvis Presley, a man who knows Vaslav Nijinksy in life and Ernest Hemingway in death, a man who becomes the embodiment of appetite. His life is a series of pills, women, television sets, and shows to perform. Ai’s Presley is not resurrected; rather, he exists in a purgatory in which he must do what Hemingway says—including not sing—for reasons that remain unclear. The time that they share is portrayed as better than the ice-encrusted world of heaven.

The difference between this poem and others like it, on one hand, and the early poems, on the other hand, is that the later poems develop an ontology, or an attempt at one. The early poems are about death, despair, suicide, and murder. The later poems investigate the necessity for such conditions and the possibility that they are not inevitable, that through the voices of (often) famous people, a reader can learn lessons to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

If lessons may be learned, however, they are not guaranteed. Ai’s “Two Brothers,” about John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, constitutes a long conversation between the two dead men, who commiserate, remember their lives, and express regrets. All their reasoning and wishing, though, is seen as a complicated riddle; the Kennedy name was what the people wanted, and it was what the people got, even in the brothers’ deaths.

Similarly, “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” one of the poems collected in Vice, presents a man fooled by the world in which he was reared, a man who believed that William Blake had been right about the relationship between art and science: As a boy, he had believed in science as a pure investigation into truth, uncontaminated by values or ethics, that could simply discover the truth and present it to the world. He never suspected what he was to learn, the secrets of the atomic bomb that was to be attributed to his name. “I was always motivated/ by a ferocious need to know,” he says, and like a good scientist, he discovers that the “truth” is always changing. Perhaps he did not have to learn the terrible secrets of atomic fission after all. Regardless, his lesson is that humankind is on a relentless search for annihilation and has finally stumbled upon the mechanism for it.

By way of contrast, Ai presents a nihilistic persona in Greed (1993), in “Riot Act, April 29, 1992.” The poem’s speaker plans to take advantage of the Los Angeles riots to obtain his share of the goods that were previously available to him only behind the TV screen, a glass panel similar to the storefronts that he now only has to smash to get what he wants.

In these poems, Ai takes on big questions that govern the world. Her definition of human potential almost always is negative, but one never gets the feeling that that is her fault. Rather, it is the nature of what she has discovered for and about the world. Ai seems to understand that single events of human history, whether involving John F. Kennedy or a nameless prostitute, are the hinges upon which the world turns and are therefore possibilities for the heart to turn in a different direction. No matter how bleak her observations may appear, they allow readers to come to their own conclusions as to what one must do in response to observations.

In some ways, Ai acts like a seer in classical Greek drama. She presents what she knows, what is true. A reader, like the audience of a Greek play, must determine whether her vision is not only true but also right. The gods (and the current world order) are neither necessarily right nor just.

Ai sees in her personas the possibility of presenting universal tendencies and effects of both the living and the dead. She mines the living for their mistakes and the dead for their contemplation of what they would do if given another chance. Ai builds her poems from book to book, from monstrous acts by unnamed characters to similar acts by people familiar to her readers. Her point is that the anonymous and the famous are the same. The pope is no different from any other man; Marilyn Monroe had nothing that other women lack. The living keep alive this illusion of difference; the dead are able to look over the world and understand that it is an illusion. This movement of the poet develops from seeing, to real vision, to meditations on those visions, to possible suggestions for change.

Ai’s Subjects

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Ai is not interested in heroes; she is interested in survivors, for only the living are capable of any kind of real epiphany. Even a comatose patient, the speaker of “Sleeping Beauty: A Fiction,” is fully aware of the violation that occurs when a hospital aide rapes her, sensing how he steals into her room to pay his “furtive visits” and “prick” her with “the thorn of violence” in a fairy tale that is more of a horror story and has no happy ending. Ai’s larger agenda has been her assertion of how little one person can affect the world—except perhaps for people such as Oppenheimer. She is interested in raising the consciousness of a social order that has become increasingly anesthetized to the brutalities of the human condition as they have become increasingly recognized.

Ai moves from private, personal myth to a public myth that may have the capacity for salvation. In the title poem of Dread, for instance, Shirley Herlihy describes her life as a police officer in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombing. Despite her own brother’s disappearance in the terrorist attacks, she must maintain a tough but fair public demeanor and go about the business of cleaning up the rubble and “remnants of people.” She is no stranger to hardship, both of her parents having died in an episode of domestic violence when she was fifteen and her brother was twelve. She says “we raised ourselves,” yet, because of her brother’s drinking and difficulty holding a job, Shirley often supported him financially. In a twist of irony, when her brother stopped drinking “for good” and told her that he would soon return to work, he was pulled into the “fire’s cold embrace” of the bombing, after “having barely escaped the inferno of family violence.”


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Albers, Randall. “Ai’s Killing Floor.” Chicago Review 30, no. 4 (Spring, 1979): 119-122. An in-depth critical reaction to Ai’s early poetry.

Carruth, Hayden. “Impetus and Invention: Poetic Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Harper’s 258, no. 1548 (May, 1979): 88-90. Carruth places Ai in the poetic tradition from which she springs and attempts to explain her idiosyncratic style.

Forché, Carolyn. “Sentenced to Despair.” The Washington Post Book World, March 11, 1979, F2. The author comes face to face with the subjects of Ai’s work: rape, sodomy, death, drowning, all in relation to the contemporary world.

Morris, John N. “Making More Sense Than Omaha.” The Hudson Review 27, no. 1 (Spring, 1974): 107-108. Examines Ai’s biographical roots and compares them to the subjects of her poems.

Murray, G. E. “Book Notes: Killing Floor.” The Nation 228, no. 19 (May 19, 1979): 578. Another early view of the idiosyncrasies of Ai’s poetry by a well-known Chicago columnist and book reviewer.

Walker, Alice. “ ‘Like the Eye of a Horse.’ ” Ms. 2 (June, 1974): 41. Walker uses a line from the poet to show the distance that Ai utilizes in describing potentially subjective events from an objective viewpoint.

Yenser, Stephen. “New Books in Review: Killing Floor.The Yale Review 68, no. 4 (Summer, 1979): 566-569. Still another attempt to explain Ai’s excesses so that they might fit in the contemporary canon.

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