Since the publication of her first book, Cruelty, in 1973, Ai has established a reputation for writing poems that express the cruel way that people in close relationships behave toward each other. Her poems are uninhibited in their presentation of sex, death, and the darker side of human desire. Often they are narrated by troubled, anonymous speakers, sometimes poor people or those who are otherwise on the margins of society. Ai does not shrink from expressing unsavory and shocking truths; she presents the difficult emotions and destructive acts of her speakers without condemning them.
“Reunions with a Ghost” first appeared in Ai’s fourth collection of poetry, Fate, which was published in 1991. The speaker of the poem is an anonymous woman who tells of her troubled relationship with the man she is in love with. It focuses on a particular incident that begins in disillusionment on the part of the woman, progresses to an act of lovemaking, and culminates in what appears to be the couple’s final separation, although other interpretations might be possible. The emotions expressed range from contempt to love, passion, sadness, and puzzlement; the poem reveals the difficulty that men and women have in forming a successful intimate partnership. Although Ai’s ethnic heritage is African American, Asian, and Native American, there is little in this poem that indicates the ethnicity of the two people involved. In that sense the poem is universal in the way it depicts hope, disillusionment, desire, reconciliation, and separation.
The first line of “Reunions with a Ghost” refers to the first night of God’s creation being too weak, an obscure idea that quickly turns in lines 2 and 3 into a concrete image of a woman in a cobalt blue dress falling on her back.
Line 4 introduces the speaker of the poem for the first time, and she reveals that she is the woman referred to in the earlier lines. She also says that she survived the fall, although what she is referring to is not stated. It then becomes apparent that the speaker is addressing someone, a man, who is her boyfriend, lover, or husband. It is clear that she was at some point in love with him. She was prepared to make sacrifices and put his needs above her own (“I lived for you”). Apparently she is still doing so, since the next line (6) is in the present tense, indicating that the relationship is still in existence. However, the speaker’s anger and dissatisfaction with her partner are clear, as she accuses him of not caring about whatever sacrifices she makes for him. Then she complains that he is drunk again, which appears to be a common occurrence, and is lost in a world of his own, turned in on himself.
In line 8, the speaker summarizes the way her lover complains about his own life. He believes that no one’s troubles are as bad as his own. Apparently to demonstrate his misfortune, he unzips his pants to show her the scar on his thigh. The scar is a visible reminder of the injury he received when he was hit by a train at the age of ten. The man talks about the incident with wonder, but also with a contempt that is aimed at himself. He feels guilty because he was not killed in the accident. He thinks he deserved to die.
The speaker of the poem kneels and touches the scar as the man stands in front of her with his eyes closed. His pants and underwear are now at his ankles. The woman slides her hand up his thigh and touches the scar. This is a sexual overture. The man shivers and grabs...
(The entire section is 933 words.)