Vice by Ai is one of those books I purchased after browsing a local bookstore, not really expecting to buy anything but always on the lookout for something new and different. As it turns out, this is quite different from the poetry I usually discuss here. Ai is a much harder-edged version of Tracy Chapman, always reminding us that for every “winner” in life there’s a “loser.” I’m half way through the book, and I’ve yet to find anything faintly resembling an upbeat poem.
In some superficial ways she reminds me of Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath, but Ai is not a confessional poet. In fact, she rarely, if ever, appears directly in her poems. But her poetry, so far at least, seems to see life from the perspective of those who’ve been maimed by life, maimed in ways most of us have never directly experienced. Thankfully.
Even those few poems that are about “famous” or apparently successful people show how, or why, they failed. For instance, here’s a poem about a marine who is portrayed in the famous picture of American marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.
I CAN’T GET STARTED
for Ira Hayes
1. SATURDAY NIGHT
A coyote eats chunks of the moon,
the night hen’s yellow egg,
while I lie drunk, in a ditch.
Suddenly, a huge combat boot
punches a hole through the sky
and falls toward me.
I wave my arms. Get back.
It keeps coming.
2. SUNDAY MORNING
I stumble out of the ditch
and make it to the shack.
I shoot a few holes in the roof,
then stare at the paper clippings of Iwo Jima.
I remember raising that rag
of red, white and blue,
afraid that if I let go, I’d live.
The bullets never touched me.
Nothing touches me.
Around noon, I make a cup of coffee
and pour a teaspoon of pepper in it
to put the fire out.
I hum between sips
and when I finish, I hug myself.
I’m burning from the bottom up,
a bottle of flesh,
kicked across the hardwood years.
I pass gin and excuses from hand to mouth,
but it’s me. It’s me.
I’m the one dirty habit
I just can’t break.
You don’t have to Google very hard to discover the sad story of Ira Hayes, and, in fact, it seems like a story I’ve heard somewhere before, but takes on a whole new meaning when read in conjunction with Ai’s poem, as if we’re seeing it through Ira’s very eyes.
For at least a moment, we see the world through the eyes of one who feels that he is so weak, so flawed, that he can’t change, “It’s me./ I’m the one dirty habit/ I just can’t break.” There’s something particularly sad about this recognition. Most of us would like to believe that “the poor” are just like us and that if they can be raised up for a moment that their problems will be solved.
Taken within the context of the other poems in this collection, it may be even more troublesome. How do we help people like this if rising them up to “hero” status cannot save them from themselves, may, in fact, exacerbate their problems precisely because they feel unworthy of such recognition.