The sixty some pages of “New Poems” that ends vice are very similar to those that make up the first two hundred pages of the book, though the poem on President Clinton’s affair obviously couldn’t have been written in the past. Unfortunately, for me, at least, the shock-effect of earlier poems doesn’t wear too well.
Strangely, I find myself annoyed when Ai tries to get inside the heads of famous people, particularly when her insights don’t jive with my own insights. I can’t quite imagine ever presuming to understand why real people have done what they have done, though I enjoy seeing the world from inside the mind of a fictional character. I’m not sure why that distinction bothers me, but it does, considerably so.
While I’ve found effective poems that are seared into my memory, like Anne Sexton, I think I prefer Ai in smaller doses. Even the most optimistic poems, like this one, leave me in pain:
“Heaven and earth.
What else is there?”
Said Walt Whitman in your dream,
then he smiled at you
but you wanted him to come back.
You wanted to tell him that there was more.
There was the hardsell
you had to give yourself to stay alive
HIV positive five years
and counting backward to the day
your other life was stripped
bare of its leaves
at the start of the war of disease
against the body.
You don’t have AIDS,
yet, you know it’s coming
like a train whose whistle
you can hear before you see it.
When you feel the tremors
of internal earthquake,
will you do the diva thing?
Will you Rudolf Nureyev your way on stage
so ravaged and dazed
you don’t know who you are,
or commit your public suicide in prlvate
windows open wide
on the other side,
where your father, Walt is waiting
to take you in his arms
like a baby returning there on waking,
beside the picnic basket
in the long grass,
where the brittle pages of a book
are turning to the end.
After 20 some years of teaching American Lit, I’d have to be pretty stupid not to be aware that Walt Whitman’s optimism is too much for many, if not most, readers. Any positive associations the reader might identify with the mention of Whitman at the beginning of this poem are probably cut short by the lines “There was the hardsell/ you had to give to yourself to stay alive/HIV positive five years.” No one I know has entirely escaped the horror of that disease. Still, Walt managed to stay eternally positive despite a hellish personal life, so I guess it’s not impossible. Better to fight for hope than to stand frozen on the tracks as death roars down on you. I guess it could be argued that this poem ends on an optimistic note, with Walt “waiting to to take you into his arms,” but even this seems undercut by the ending phrase “where the brittle pages of a book/ are turning to the end.”
Although there are some poems in vice that I’d never consider putting in a high school text, there are also many poems that would enrich any anthology of modern poetry. Ai reminded me of some painful early memories of my time in Vietnam, my short career as a caseworker, and even some experiences as a teacher. Certainly, I doubt anyone can be a “whole” person, or at least a complete adult, without being aware of the suffering of our fellow humans, and Ai helps us to vicariously share that pain.
That said, I doubt I’ll be returning to this volume regularly like I do to Theodore Roethke, Stanley Kunitz, or even David Wagoner.