The Collected Poems of Ai, introduction by Yusef Komunyakaa; Norton, 464 pages, $35. Her real name was Florence Ogawa Anthony. She famously described herself in a 1978 essay as “1/2 Japanese, 1/8 Choctaw, 1/4 Black, and 1/16 Irish.” (Which you’ll carefully notice doesn’t add up to a whole. Even if you add in a little Comanche – also there – you might have to fill the rest up with unspecified Caucasian and stir.) When she died of cancer in 2010, she was only 63. She’d won some of the requisite poetry prizes, to be sure, and been the recipient of prominent praise.
In retrospect, she can probably be seen as one of the two most dedicated practitioners of the dramatic monologue in post-war American poetry, along with her stylistic and social opposite Richard Howard. So devoted, in fact, was Ai to the dramatic monologue (think of Browning’s “My Last Duchess” as the classic illustrative example) that she was also an openly declared enemy of “the tyranny of confessional poetry – the notion that everything everyone writes has to be taken from the self.”
She substitutes instead, a remarkable portrait gallery of selves, including many taken from American pop culture, front pages and magazine covers along with history books – Alfred Hitchcock, Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Hoffa, Lyndon Johnson, James Dean, Elvis Presley, J. Edgar Hoover (two poems, no less), Jack Ruby, Mike Tyson, Imelda Marcos, Chet Baker, John Wilkes Booth, John F. Kennedy and Gen. Custer, among others.
To say that some of this poetry is “raw” is understatement. “Savage” is more like it, even if still deficient. It is both sexually blunt and violent. It is, by no means, poetry for those who presume the art to have anything at all to do with high-toned rhythmic euphemism. To say that it’s awkward – and even strained – in its “psychic investigations” of its subjects, is also more than a bit of an understatement.
But for all that there’s truly enormous power to it, especially read in quantity as is possible here with her six collections printed together – “Cruelty,” “Killing Floor,” “Sin,” “Fate,” “Greed,” “Vice,” “Dread” and “No Surrender.” If you doubt the ability of poetry to actually frighten, Ai is a poet who can disabuse you of your skepticism in a hurry. An exceptional book.
– Jeff Simon