About Ai's Poetry
Ai is the only name by which I wish, and indeed, should be known. Since I am the child of a scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop, and I was forced to live a lie for so many years, while my mother concealed my natural father's identity from me, I feel that I should not have to be identified with a man, who was only my stepfather, for all eternity.
My writing of dramatic monologues was a happy accident, because I took so much to heart the opinion of my first poetry teacher, Richard Shelton, the fact that the first person voice was always the stronger voice to use when writing. What began as an experiment in that voice became the only voice in which I wrote for about twenty years. Lately, though, I've been writing poems and short stories using the second person, without, it seems to me, any diminution in the power of my work. Still, I feel that the dramatic monologue was the form in which I was born to write and I love it as passionately, or perhaps more passionately, than I have ever loved a man.
A. Robert Lee
Born in Tucson, Arizona, the poet AI, pseudonym of Florence Anthony, looks to a complex American multicultural ancestry--a Japanese father and a mother part black, Choctaw, and Irish. Raised also in Las Vegas and San Francisco, she majored in Japanese at the University of Arizona and immersed herself in Buddhism. Currently based in Tempe, she has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and various universities; she has also been a frequent reader-performer of her work.
So eclectic, not to say peaceable, an upbringing makes a striking contrast with the kind of poetry that has won her ongoing attention. Her particular forte has been to adapt Robert Browning's dramatic monologue to her own purposes, poems whose different voices speak of fracture, violence, revenge, sexual hunger, as if to emphasize the human disorder both beneath (and often enough at the surface of) society.
Cruelty (1973) offers a run of soliloquies, dealing with, among other things, suicide, abortion, female masturbation, hanging, child-beating, and the unpredictability of desire. AIs style of poetic utterance has from the outset rarely been other than tough-edged, in the words of an early critic, "as if she made her poem(s) with a knife." Little wonder that the title poem in Cruelty begins with an image of a dead wildcat. In Killing Floor (1978), a poem like "The Kid" assumes the voice of a boy-murderer, a natural-born killer, who methodically and pathologically destroys his entire family only to emerge sweet-faced and apparently unperturbed.
Sin (1986) attempts yet more complex personae--ruminations, for the most part, of men of power, Joe McCarthy to the Kennedy brothers. In "The Testament of J. Robert Oppenheimer" the note is transcendental, millennial, that of the Manhattan Project leader eventually troubled by the possibilities of nuclear mass-destruction. In 'The Good Shepherd," however, the voice, more locally but no less chillingly, belongs to the anonymous mass-murderer of Atlanta's black youth. "Saturn. . . devours its children," says the killer. Fate: New Poems (1991) offers a further gallery, equally dark, a speaking dead that includes General George Custer, Mary Jo Kopechne (now the bitter, retrospective party-girl), Elvis Presley, Lenny Bruce, and President Lyndon Johnson.
AI opens her fifth collection, Greed (1993), with "Riot Act, April 29, 1992," a poem spoken as if by an unnamed black rioter taken into police custody in South Central Los Angeles, who ruefully construes the looting and fires in the aftermath of Rodney King's beating as "the day the wealth finally trickled down." A similar bittersweet note runs through "Self Defense." Washington, D.C.'s mayor Marion Barry, sentenced for crack possession after an FBI setup, is forced to conclude, 'That is how you hold the nigger down." In "Hoover, Edgar J.," law enforcement as paranoia has its say, the meanness at once racist, homophobic, class-loaded. The diatribe ends boastingly and bullyingly: "J. Edgar Hoover rules." Other monologue-poems equally offer markers for the times--whether in the voice of Jack Ruby, or of a witness to the Marcos regime in Manila, or of a street girl contemplating Mike Tyson and the Desiree Washington rape.
As always this amounts to a slightly stylized ventriloquy, creating an effect of distance, things seen at one remove. All has not by any means been praise; critics have on occasion thought the poetry monotone, close to mannerism, too determinedly dour or black-humored. But AI is not to be denied her own kind of verse Gothic, an America, a world, seen as though through disembodied witness and nothing if not at one with her slightly maverick status in contemporary African American poetry.
From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © Oxford University Press.
All Ai's work is stark, harsh, and dramatic in style. But as her preoccupations move from personal violence to historic atrocity, her imagination opens out into the public arena; the domestic turns political. Throughout her poetry, a stripped-down diction conveys an underlying, almost biblical indignation--not, at times, without compassion--at human misuses of power and the corrupting energies of various human appetites.
Although virtually all the poems present themselves as spoken by a particular character, Ai makes little attempt to capture individual styles of diction, personal vocabularies; the result, if monotonous, is also striking. A Mexican revolutionary, an old woman with a young lover, the dead Robert Kennedy, a Vietnam veteran--all speak with a sullen, deadpan passion that galvanizes our attention through the voice's intensity rather than by the accumulation of realistic detail. The foreshortened, nearly parodic vividness of Ai's characters makes them closer to types than to historical portraits.
From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Copyright © 1994 by Oxford University Press.
Several contemporary writers challenge neatly drawn, "naturalized" cultural categories by ernphasizing their own mixed ancestry and the multiplicity of their identifications. . . .
The poet Ai refuses to reduce her identifications to a single ethnicity and thereby calls cultural boundaries into question. Disturbance of boundaries--though by no means only ethnic boundaries--also characterizes Ai's poetic practice and makes of that practice a powerful cultural critique.
Although reviewers occasionally refer to Ai as a black poet, she does not consider herself to be a black writer. As she pointed out in a 1988 interview, her poetry does not deal primarily with black life and experience. While she characterizes herself as "Japanese and black, or black and Japanese," in this interview she also mentioned Irish, Choctaw, and German forebears and a sense of affinity with the Hopi, Navajo, and Pima people of the American Southwest, where she grew up. Though Ai denies none of these as influences, she calls each of them into question as the category that furnishes her a stable and essential identity. If one cannot escape cultural definition, she implies, one can at least use the very multiplicity of one's identifications to destabilize culture's categories of definition.
Ai's poems have the indirect effect of calling cultural definitions of all kinds into question. A dramatic monologuist, she invents voices for those whose entrapment in their cultural definition is most apparent. The speakers of her poems include the obscure and despised who are usually presumed to have no voice at all and those public figures who have become sheer icon, whose cultural meaning subsumes anything they can be imagined saying. In the crucible of her work, their unbearable identities seem always at the point of being shattered and remade, or simply shattered. The poems' speakers by no means transcend cultural definition, but they speak in such a way as to profoundly unsettle the very positions from which they speak.
The poems achieve these effects by a variety of devices. As Bulgarian literary theorist Julia Kristeva argues, ambiguous image--images that obscure or transgress boundaries--tend to disturb the sense of settled identity. The speakers of Ai's poems often describe themselves breaking the body's boundary through violence, by transgressing laws and gender roles, or by crossing from the world of the ordinary into surreal, dreamlike experiences. The poems contain horrifying and unsettling images of the bodily remnants and effluvia that disturb because they seem neither human nor inhuman, as well as characters who disturb by their ambiguity, seeming both innocent and evil. The reader is both deeply engaged and deeply unsettled by the poems' speakers; none of the positions constructed by the poems invites comfortable identification. Thus, the poems have the effect of destabilizing the reader's position as well as the positions of their own speakers. By means of these destabilizations, Ai's work performs a radical critique of the identities constructed by contemporary culture.
From The Oxford Companion to Womens Writing in the United States. Copyright © 1995 by Oxford University Press.
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