Whenever I enter a bookstore, I, like many gamblers entering a casino, must set a dollar limit that once I exceed I must leave. I could easily bankrupt myself in a secondhand bookstore. Because of this biblio-addiction, I’m often seen with two books in each hand as I try to decide which I cannot live without. There are many books I regret leaving behind that I hope will still be on the shelves when I return. However, sometimes the decision is obvious.
I had heard of Ai before. Her poem “Child Beater” is often anthologized and used as an example of persona poetry. I was starting to write persona poems myself. As I always do when buying a book by a poet I’m unfamiliar with, I turned to a random poem and read. The poem I selected was “Nothing But Color.”
When I finished that poem, I was transported, I felt my adrenaline spike, I understood what an epiphany was. I needed to own this book, to get out of the bookstore at that moment, to get home and read. The best I could do to describe what happen was to say, I had just read the poet who was my greatest influence for the first time, who always had influenced my poems even the ones written before that moment.
The volume of Horace was forgotten, and I left the bookstore without any further browsing. I was scared that someone or something was going keep me from getting this most important book.
Some of the lines in the poem still wow me:
I sliced her open.
She was carmine inside
like a sea bass
No Viscera, nothing but color.
I love you like that, boy.
One of Ai’s many talents is her mastery of juxtaposition. In “Nothing but Color,” she moves from in-depth visceral description to statements of emotion. The emotion in some lines seem collected and calm:
and put the bronze sword on my desk
beside a crumpled sheet of rice paper.
I smooth it open
and read its single sentence:
I meant to do it.
Yet in other lines, we see the violent emotions take control of the speaker:
Goddamn you, boy.
Nothing I said mattered to you;
that bullshit about Etsuko or about killing myself.
I tear the note, then burn it.
I also admired how in “Nothing But Color,” Ai was able to use juxtaposition to make horrifying imagery beautiful, “I start pulling my guts out/ those red silk chords/ spiral skyward.”
Her mastery of juxtapositions is often what makes her persona poems so powerful. In “The Good Shepherd: Atlanta 1981,” a serial killer dumps the body of a victim, while he thinks about getting a new coat and going home for hot cocoa. These details make the poem horrifying because they are realistic. We want evil to be over-the-top, melodramatic, self-aware, in other words unrealistic. Ai’s poems don’t allow us that comfort—they explore the justification that perpetrators of violence use and how there lives are often mundane. She doesn’t need to tell the reader that the speaker of the poem is evil, for the speaker’s actions make that all too obvious. What she shows us is how they excuse their actions, how they blend into to society, and how the rest of us fail to notice them.
While Ai’s poems often focus on perpetrators of violence, she also explores the perspective of victims and historical figures. Of her poem about historical figures, “She Didn’t Even Wave” and “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer” are two of the best.
Ai’s use of juxtaposition also allows the reader to explore disturbing issues and evaluate his or her own actions. In her last book, Dread, the poem “Fairy Tale,” deals with a WWII veteran reacting to 9/11 as well as reflecting on his years as a fighter pilot and on the story “Little Red Riding Hood.” In fact, it is the fairy tale that creates the connective tissue that allows the speaker to explore the traumatic events and who he really is.
One thing that I love about Ai is that she doesn’t shy away from unpleasant events. She explores them and doesn’t try to comfort us with easy answers, but rather holds a mirror up to the world.