The Collected Poems of Ai. W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 35.00. Call us or visit to purchase.
Nominated in 2014 for a Lambda Award, The Collected Poems of Ai is an essential book for just about anyone who takes poetry seriously. Ai, who died of breast cancer in 2010, was a poet who stood alone in the contemporary literary landscape. She wrote primarily in the form of the dramatic monologue, creating fully formed characters and narratives in her work and bringing back to life a form that had been mostly overlooked since the 19th century. Her poetry is complicated, impossible to pin to one aesthetic. Though much of her work deals with race and gender, she has repeatedly refused to label her work as feminist or African American poetry. She is a poet wholly unto herself. After learning that her biological father was violent toward her mother, Ai dropped his last name, and took the name “Ai,” Japanese for “love” and polyphonous with the English pronoun “I,” a name that reminds her readers that she is an individual containing multitudes, who slips effortlessly and empathically into the characters of her poems.
In his introduction to the book, Yousef Komunyaka writes of his first encounter with the poems of Ai, “her poems seemed like scenes from nightmarish movies imprinted on the eyeballs, yet the images were revealed so matter-of-factly, so damn casually.” This is the power of Ai: to horrify her reader without horror in her tone. These are not poems for the faint of heart, but neither are they bereft of beauty. Quite the opposite: Ai’s images are wholly original, almost mythic, and they elevate the violence and sorrow of her work to a place of universal importance. An example of this is the beginning of the poem “Prostitute,” in her first book, Cruelty:
Husband, for a while, after I shoot you,
I don’t touch your body,
I just cool it with my paper fan,
the way I used to on hot nights,
as the moon rises, chip of avocado…
Death, violence, the chilling ethereality of the moon: Ai captures it all in just a few perfect lines. The horror lived and enacted by Ai’s characters is elevated to the status of myth, of sacrifice, of ritual. In her early work, she uses her own experiences of violence and poverty to give aching voice to characters from America’s underbelly: the rural poor, women in violent marriages, midwives carrying out abortions, murderers. But she goes a step further, too, turning these characters from mere humans into demigods of cruelty.
In an interview, Ai once said, surprisingly, that the poems in Cruelty were about love: “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.” In her early work, Ai approached love through a lens of sorrow and violence, refusing to sentimentalize the often-brutal complexities of human emotion. It is jarring to see these as love poems, as love is juxtaposed so violently with images of cruelty. For example, in “The Hitchhiker,” Ai writes from the perspective of a male murderer:
We stop, and as she moves closer to me, my hands ache,
but somehow I get the blade into her chest.
I think a song: “Everybody needs somebody,
everybody needs somebody to love.
The murder itself is, in a way, an act of love, with the speaker literally claiming the woman’s heart as he thinks of a love song. In The Killing Floor’s “The Kid,” one of Ai’s most famous poems, she inhabits the voice of a child who murders his family. In the midst of the poem, a conventional love lyric is twisted into a line on murder:
Roses are red, violets are blue,
One bullet for the black horse, two for the brown.
The child who kills his family is perhaps one of her most representative characters, embodying the paradox of love and cruelty and the absurd evil that humans, even children, are capable of in Ai’s dark poetic vision.
To echo again Komunyaka’s sentiments, in her best work, Ai presents gruesome occurrences without commenting on them, allowing the reader to be shocked by what is presented in such sparse language. In “The Cockfighter’s Daughter,” from her third book, Sin, death is both horrific and ordinary:
I found my father,
face down, in his homemade chili
and had to hit the bowl
with a hammer to get it off,
then scrape the pinto beans
and chunks of ground beef
off his face with a knife.
The meal is literally fused with death, food rotting into the flesh of a deceased body. The speaker is unphased, breaking the bowl from her father’s face before calling the police. Death is made extraordinary through its extreme ordinariness, its ability, like the poet herself, to turn everyday circumstances horrific.
Throughout her life, Ai was ever evolving as a poet, and this collection is invaluable for its scope of her prolific career. In her fifth book, Greed, Ai focuses on the intersection of American capitalism and violence, and approaches political figures with humor in a departure from her solemn earlier work. In “Hoover Trismegistus,” for example, she writes,
When they called Joe McCarthy’s bluff,
he grabbed his nuts and ran
and the others banned together
to save their asses
any way they could.
There are multiple poems about Hoover in this book, in which Ai shows that she is capable of writing poems that use humor and American vernacular, departing from the mythic quality of her earlier work.
In her final two collections, Dread and No Surrender, Ai mostly abandons her political characters, turning to a more personal poetics. No Surrender, which was released after her sudden death in 2010, was written while Ai was working on a memoir, and is particularly personal. Ai inhabits a woman’s voice more often here than in earlier collections, in particular in poems titled “Motherhood,” “Sisterhood,” and “Widowhood.”
The final poem in No Surrender and in this collection, 2010’s “The Cancer Chronicles,” is particularly striking. It is written in the rare third person, though the “she” refers to Ai herself, who died that year of cancer. It is as if to get to such a personal place in her poetry, Ai needed to take the rare step of distancing herself from the speaker. The poem chronicles Ai’s relationship with cancer, from the first discovery of the lump to death. She speaks of the tumor as “a relative who’d fallen on hard times,” and says of it,
I’ll feed, clothe and house you,
But I will not allow you to destroy me.
Ai watches her own death with fear and fascination: “She never knew what to expect of her furtive trysts with death.” Death in this poem, like everything in Ai’s poetry, is deceptively complicated, alternately terrifying and exhilarating. The poem and the book end with the poet’s death, a fitting and tragic conclusion for a posthumous collection.
We are lucky to have the unique poetics of Ai collected for the first time. The poet Vijay Seshadri writes in the New York Times of Ai, “Here is an imagination that has consistently fought its way into the most terrible places of human experience.” And yet she does not exploit those places, but rather forces her reader to face the horrors that humans visit upon one another. Ai is an uncompromising poet, a prophet of both love and violence.