I love poetry, but reading it presents the same problem as listening to the music of Cecil Taylor: it takes time, energy, and solitude, and I have too little of each these days. But yesterday I put on a record by a Kinda Famous African-American Female Poet, who read her work accompanied by a group of jazz/funk musicians. It was terrible - musically and poetically. I only listened to the first side, and I don't think I'm going to keep the record even for the one track that the Famous Jazz Saxophonist (who was once married to the poet) plays on.
But that record made me hungry for some poetry by an accomplished and talented female poet, so I pulled all my books by Ai off the shelf and started reading. I don't know what name she was given when she was born, but Ai describes herself as "1/2 Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche." Her poetry is dark, chilling, and very moving. I discovered her work by chance about 16 years ago when I picked the reprint of her first two collections, Cruelty and Killing Floor, off the shelf at an Atlanta bookstore. I think I wanted to see what kind of poetry someone named Ai wrote; when I opened the book at random, I was floored.
Ai writes character poems. By that I mean that her poetry is not written in her voice or the voice of an omniscient narrator, but in the voice of, well, a child molester, a teenaged boy who kills his family, a young African boy whose hand is cut off by a rebel fighter (at least I think that's what happens), or Jack Ruby. She manages to fully inhabit these characters, most of whom she could have nothing in common with except for the humanity we all share.
The poems are often grim and violent. The violence sometimes seems random and sometimes seems inevitable - you get the impression that the life of the narrator of "Sleep Like a Hammer" has all led up to the moment when he kills his father. The violence often seems analogous to the sex in the poems - the characters use it in order to convince themselves that they are alive - in order to feel something. But beyond the poetry's bleakness is a touching sense of the fragility of life - of the sense that life is precious.
The title poem of her 2003 collection Dread is "narrated" by an Irish-American female New York City cop - Shirley Herlihy, or Officer Girlie, as the lowlifes on her beat call her. As I read the poem, my first impression was that it was too prose-like. But that impression quickly disappeared. The details which Ai adds, line by line, create a strong and very real image. As the poem progresses, we learn that Officer Herlihy's troubled brother died in the World Trade Center attack, that her parents died in a domestic murder-suicide, and that she compulsively sifts through the rubble at Ground Zero, looking for any trace of her lost brother.
I don't know if reading this will make anyone want to read Ai's work; it will probably make many folks run the other way. Her poetry is not for the faint of heart, but it is extremely moving. I'm probably breaking 15 copyright laws by doing this (and I'll remove this if requested), but I wanted to end with an entire poem, from Killing Floor. The narrator is a soldier who is not long for this world.
THE GERMAN ARMY, RUSSIA, 1943
For twelve days,
I drilled through Moscow ice
to reach paradise,
that white tablecloth, set with a plate
that's cracking bit by bit
like the glassy air, like me.
I know I'll fly apart soon,
the pieces of me so light they float.
The Russians burned their crops,
rather than feed our army.
Now they strike us against each other like dry rocks
and set us on fire with a hunger
nothing can feed.
Someone calls me and I look up.
I imagine eating his terrible, luminous eyes.
Brother, he says.
I stand up, tie the rags tighter around my feet.
I hear my footsteps running behind me,
but I am already going.