Ai’s “Visitation”

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:

VISITATION

“Heaven and earth.
What else is there?”
Said Walt Whitman in your dream,
then he smiled at you
and disappeared,
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.

Who You Calling a Victim?

I’m not sure I’d agree with Ai that the poems in vice are about “transcendence — that’s what I’m striving for in all these poems; no matter what the characters go through, no matter what their end, they mean to live.” At least not my definition of “transcendence.” What they do exemplify beautifully is empathy, empathy for those society often seems to abhor. She identifies with her characters and allows us to see them through their own eyes.

I must admit that considering how many of the poems are about “outsiders,” those who defy society’s conventions or who are destroyed by them, I was rather surprised when I read this poem but soon came to see it as the epitome of Ai’s work:

INTERVIEW WITH A POLICEMAN

You say you want this story
in my own words,
but you won’t tell it my way.
Reporters never do.
If everybody’s racist,
that means you too.
I grab your finger
as you jab it at my chest.
So what, the minicam caught that?
You want to know all about it, right?-
the liquor store, the black kid
who pulled his gun
at the wrong time.
You saw the dollars he fell on and bloodied.
Remember how cold it was that night,
but I was sweating.
I’d worked hard, I was through
for twenty-four hours,
and I wanted some brew.
When I heard a shout,
I turned and saw the clerk
with his hands in the air,
saw the kid drop his gun
as I yelled and ran from the back.
I only fired when he bent down,
picked up his gun, and again dropped it.
I saw he was terrified,
saw his shoulder and head jerk to the side
as the next bullet hit.
When I dove down, he got his gun once more
and fired wildly.
Liquor poured onto the counter, the floor
onto which he fell back finally,
still firing now toward the door,
when his arm flung itself behind him.
As I crawled toward him,
I could hear dance music
over the sound of liquor spilling and spilling,
and when I balanced on my hands
and stared at him, a cough or spasm
sent a stream of blood out of his mouth
that hit me in the face.

Later, I felt as if I’d left part of myself
stranded on that other side,
where anyplace you turn is down,
is out for money, for drugs,
or just for something new like shoes
or sunglasses,
where your own rage
destroys everything in its wake,
including you.
Especially you.
Go on, set your pad and pencil down,
turn off the camera, the tape.
The ape in the gilded cage
looks too familiar, doesn’t he,
and underneath it all,
like me, you just want to forget him.
Tonight, though, for a while you’ll he awake.
You’ll hear the sound of gunshots
in someone else’s neighborhood,
then, comforted, turn over in your bed
and close your eyes,
but the boy like a shark redeemed at last
yet unrepentant
will reenter your life
by the unlocked door of sleep
to take everything but his fury back.

It’s easy to see the young black kid lying dead on the floor killed by the police as a victim of “a racist system.” It’s harder to also see the policeman who does the shooting as a victim, but it’s pretty clear that he’s a victim in more ways than most of us would like to admit.

First, he’s charged with enforcing the rule of an often unjust society, enforcing the laws written to protect those who have from those who don’t have. More often than not, they are portrayed badly in the media for doing so, “but you won’t tell it my way./Reporters never do.” Personally, having fought in Vietnam, I’ll have to admit that I’m generally surprised that more policeman don’t abuse their power because it’s damn hard not develop an “us versus them” mentality in such situations.

Thankfully I’ve never killed anyone I’m aware of, but just the act of trying to kill someone, anyone, night after night changes you in ways unimaginable to those who haven’t tried to do so. I can’t imagine killing someone that directly and not being haunted by that act, “but the boy like a shark redeemed at last/ yet unrepentant/ will reenter your life/ by the unlocked door of sleep/ to take everything but his fury back.”

The greatest strength of Ai’s vice is that it forces you to see society from the view of its victims, even those you don’t realize are victims.

Ai’s “I Can’t Get Started”

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.