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.

for Ira Hayes


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.


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.

10 thoughts on “Ai’s “I Can’t Get Started””

  1. Maybe you are remembering “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”
    I believe it was written by Oliver LaFarge. Among others, Johnny Cash recorded it. By the way, Lael’s face looks familiar. Great photo.

  2. Well, I was almost right. It was written by Peter LaFarge, son of Oliver LaFarge. Oliver was an anthropologist who studied Native Americans and wrote Laughing Boy, a novel about the Navajo. The song doesn’t get into Ira’s head as much as the poem but generalizes more to the way society treated Native Americans.

  3. YouTube has several versions of Cash’s song, but they’re pretty unevenly done. The one I liked best visually, a concert in front of a crowd of Indians, sounded terrible. The best sound track had some awfully hokey pictures that seemed to contradict what Johnny Cash was saying.

  4. Pete Seeger also did a version of ‘Ira Hayes’. Dylan later recorded it and it was released on an album called ‘Dylan’ by Columbia Records. The album contains studio out-takes that Bob never meant to be heard. Currently not available.

    Re: the poem. I think it’s pretty good and sums up poor Ira’s plight.

  5. “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.”

    Sounds like PTSD to me. My gut feeling is that Ira Hayes could well have had PTSD prior to serving in the military. PTSD combined with alcoholism is a deadly combination for countless men and women. I don’t recall ever reading a poem that so accurately described the thought processes of a suffering alcoholic.

    What comes close is Johnny Cash singing “Hurt”:

    “I hurt myself today
    To see if I still feel
    I focus on the pain
    The only thing that’s real
    The needle tears a hold
    The old familiar sting
    Try to kill it all away
    But I remember everything”

    Looked around Google and found the following quote from Ai:

    It’s 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.

    and these interviews:

    Ai writes with a power similar to Toni Morrison. I don’t know how many times I started reading BELOVED, but stopped after the first few pages because I was overwhelmed. Then one night several years later I started reading BELOVED again and stayed up all night reading that extraordinary book.

    I first heard about Ira Hayes from Bob Dylan when I bought the album “Dylan” in 1973.

  6. I last heard a cover of p. lafarge’s song by townes van zandt. his version speaks volumes. thanks for ai poem. enjoyed people’s comments. kjm

  7. mr. webster i’m glad you posted on ai. she is quiet different from the things you normally post, but then again if she’s situated next to some of the other poets you had us read in school, especially in the context of dramatic monologue, i think it’s a good comparison.

    what i enjoy most is her way of taking the traditionally male form and injecting a female voice. my books are in storage, so i can’t remember if ‘twenty-year marriage’ is in that one or not. i always wondered if that was a love poem or not, maybe as much as cummings’ ‘she being brand’ poem is.

  8. Jeb’s comment reminds me how affecting it was to see Bob Dylan played by Cate Blanchett in “I’m Not There.” Like a reversal of the original Shakespeare plays in which all the women were played by men.

    Ai, Cate Blanchett. I’m going to try to think of some other women who have used their voices to portray a man. Whoopi Goldberg in “Ghost.” (!) Those women during the American Civil War who dressed as men and fought side-by-side with them.

  9. I don’t understand the conclusion. To say that this belief that “the poor” (what?) are “just like us” is flawed because a man with PTSD was raised to hero status (i.e., a level of intrusion in someone’s personal life that is hard for anyone to stomach, much less someone with a mental illness) makes no sense.

    “”The poor”” are just like us. They are us. We are all us. Being worshiped as a hero is not the cure to ANYONE’S emotional distress, and the fact that someone (who saw and was damaged by actual war) couldn’t handle the pressure of fame and fortune isn’t an indication that people who struggle to make ends meet are fundamentally broken somehow in a way that helping them can’t cure. Especially if you’re starting with even more pressure.

    It’s a really flawed premise and it ends up sounding to me like you think “the poor” deserve their place, since they can’t handle anything better.

    1. Don’t know what gives you the idea that that is my “premise,” but I assure if I believed that I would never have worked as a caseworker or teacher.

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