Tender Love

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The depiction of intimate relationships between men and women at one crucial moment of revelation is an important element in Ai’s work, particularly in her first book, Cruelty (1973), as well as in “Reunions with a Ghost.” Frequently, this moment is not a comfortable one, either for the protagonists or the reader. Ai’s vision is tough and unsentimental; the speakers of these poems refuse to put on an acceptable social mask; they reveal the unvarnished, sometimes brutal truth as they experience it. The images employed are often raw and violent. They show the dark and dangerous impulses that dwell in the human psyche and which rise to the fore when a crisis erupts in personal relations. Often, the only way for the characters to grasp at some kind of union or intimacy is through sex, and the poems emphasize the down-to-earth, unromantic physicality of the sexual act. (“I’ll pull, you push, we’ll tear each other apart” is how it is expressed in “Twenty-Year Marriage.”) Sex may also simply be a brutal act involving dominance and submission, as in “Recapture,” narrated from the male point of view, in which a woman tries to escape from a man but he captures her and beats her. She does not resist, and the result is a violent and coerced coupling that hints at some kind of reconciliation, but entirely on the man’s terms:

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Going back, you stumble against me
and I grab your wrist, pulling you down.
Come on, [b——] of my love, while it is still easy.

In an interview with Lawrence Kearney and Michael Cuddihy (in American Poetry Observed, edited by Joe David Bellamy), Ai highlighted an important aspect of these poems, which might otherwise be missed:

The distinction between my “sex-and-violence” poems and others you might read is that in mine the characters love each other. The poems are not hate poems. A lot of women’s poetry approaches the theme of trouble between men and women in terms of hatred, I think, or “giving it to the man” in the same way that men have given it to women—and I never wrote from that point of view.

The first title Ai considered for Cruelty was “Wheel in a Ditch,” which conveyed the idea of people who are stuck in a metaphorical ditch in their lives, unable to pull themselves out and move forward. Yet Ai also said that what she was striving for in all her poems was “transcendence. . . . no matter what the characters go through, no matter what their end, they mean to live.”

Sometimes transcendence refers simply to the characters’ attempts to overcome the oppressive, tragic nature of their circumstances and affirm who they are, or who they believe themselves to be, even if their self-identity might be considered morally unacceptable by society. In the poems about intimate relationships, the transcendence sometimes hinted at is of a kind that would lift the characters out of the messy complexity of their relationships in which conflicting individual wills and desires continually collide. This kind of transcendence can be found, for example, in “Twenty-Year Marriage” in which the speaker craves that she and her husband will be able to shake off the accumulated boredom of twenty years together by energetic lovemaking in a very unromantic setting (a pickup truck that is stuck in a ditch):

Come on baby, lay me down on my back.
Pretend you don’t owe me a thing
and maybe we’ll roll out of here,
heaving the past stacked up behind us;
old newspapers that nobody’s ever got to read again.

The desire here is for one moment of intense experience (which happens to be through sex) that annihilates the weight of the couple’s long history together. All the accumulated hurts and betrayals (perhaps no more than what most couples rack up during a long relationship) are transcended, and the relationship becomes fresh and whole once more. However, this is only a wish, a thought in the...

(The entire section contains 3731 words.)

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Critical Overview