Next month will mark the 40th anniversary of the publication of Cruelty, the first of eight books of poetry by the poet whose pen name and legal middle name was Ai and the third anniversary of her death from breast cancer at age 62. Today W.W. Norton is publishing all eight of her poetry books in one volume as The Collected Poems of Ai. In my review of the book in New York Journal of Books I note that at a time when most American poetry was autobiographical Ai wrote dramatic monologues in other people's voices.
In his introduction to the book poet Yusef Komunyakaa compares Ai's dramatic approach to that of a method actor. Another analogy for the way Ai inhabited other people's voices and roles would be the one woman shows of Anna Deavere Smith.
Ai's poems are not to everyone's taste. If you prefer the Rolling Stones to the Beatles, Howling Wolf to Muddy Waters, the gritty realism (including graphic violence and strong sexual content) of HBO's Sunday night original series to PBS' British dramas you'll probably enjoy Ai's poetry; if not, stay with safer, tamer, less edgy poets. But even if you're fond of her poems you'll probably want to pace yourself at just a few at a time because of their frequent and brutal violence.
Ai is drawn to the shocking and perverse. She quotes the Rolling Stone's song "Gimme Shelter" in her poem "The Mortician's Twelve-Year-Old Son," a poem whose depiction of necrophilia one could imagine dramatized on HBO. In my NYJB review I quote "The Kid" as an example of graphic violence in Ai's work. In "Knockout" Mike Tyson’s rape of Desiree Washington is discussed by an inner city sex worker who has no empathy for Ms. Washington. In “Why Can’t I Leave You?” Ai addresses marriage and sexuality in the context of rural poverty from the wife's perspective.
Quite a few of Ai's poems are in the voices of villains. She lets the bad guy tell his side of the story and in so doing he incriminates himself. "The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981" is in the voice of a serial killer (see video). In "Kristallnacht," a four part six and a half page poem, the speaker is a half French half German former Nazi collaborator. The poem's final couplet is haunting: "Pretend I died for nothing/instead of living for it."
In “Life Story,” another six and a half page poem, the speaker is a Roman Catholic priest accused of sexual abuse, and in “Family Portrait, 1960” the speaker is the poet’s step-father whom her bed-ridden mother asks to supervise eleven year old Florence and her seven year old half sister Roslynn as they shower instructing them to “scrub your little pussies.”
History is a recurring theme in Ai's work with poems in the voices of Leon Trotsky, J. Robert Oppenheim, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Jimmy Hoffa, J. Edgar Hoover, Fidel Castro, Presidents Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Clinton and George W. Bush, among others as well as lesser known figures. Ezra Pound defined an epic as a "poem including history." The Collected Poems of Ai is an everyman and woman's The Cantos for the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries.