A Dialogue at the Core of Her Being

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In his review of The Waterboy, Roger Ebert confesses that he doesn’t really cozy to Adam Sandler movies. “I try to keep an open mind,” writes Ebert “and approach every movie with high hopes. It would give me enormous satisfaction (and relief) to like him [Sandler] in a movie.” To come clean like this is an ethical move I appreciate, and so it is at this point where I also come clean. Despite my attempts to keep an open mind, I should admit that in regard to this specific poet, my own preferences and the reader’s may not be in alignment.

This is not to say that I think Ai is to poetry what Adam Sandler is to film (she’s no Happy Gilmore). Ai is a serious poet with serious talent; however, I have never been moved by her aesthetic. I would say the same, by the way, of U2, Mahler, Salman Rushdie, and James Cameron. I find all supremely gifted, and I’m glad they are in the world doing their various work, but their relative virtues are lost on me. And so, it was with some trepidation that I began Ai’s collection of poems, published posthumously, after she very suddenly, very quickly, and very tragically died of complications relating to cancer in March of this year. Needless to say, if my experiences with this book mirrored those with previous Ai collections, it was going to make for an awkward situation. Ai is a beloved, award-winning poet who has made giving voice to the marginalized (a project I greatly respect) an integral part of her opus. I did not want to be the lone bastard who gave her final collection a negative or even lukewarm review. But, I told myself, I was prepared to do so.

Thankfully, such obnoxious behavior can be postponed. No Surrender is a fine book. It’s smart, funny, angry, political, and utterly poetic. Ai successfully blends personal autobiographical poems with her trademark dramatic monologues, making for a truly original text—a kind of personified hybridity—that is both haunting and humorous.

Part of what has bothered me in the past about Ai’s poetics is her adherence to and execution of the dramatic monologue. In contemporary America, the dramatic monologue is a tough genre to pull off. There are few other practitioners; plus, one never knows exactly how one is supposed to interpret the various personas. In a historical moment when so much poetry is personal—even poems donning disguises—it remains unclear to me if Ai’s different voices are proxies for her own voices or just proxies. Are we supposed to see through the looking glass of the persona into the poet herself? Or, is the character staring back at us in the poem’s mirror a version of us? That elements of Ai’s personas contain scraps of details similar to her own life makes things even more difficult. Where is Ai (the name itself an invented persona) within the many Ai’s/I’s?

Ai has described herself as “one-half Japanese, one-eighth Choctaw, one-quarter Black, and one-sixteenth Irish.” I find this construction telling in two ways. First, all those fragmented selves do not, literally, add up to a whole self, a detail I doubt is random. Second, and more importantly, Ai intends the reader to know that a dialogue among her various ethnicities lies at the core of her being. For Ai, the self, like the poems, seeks identity through discourse and exchange.

Identity (a term I have grown weary of yet still deploy) turns out to be the main theme of No Surrender. A series of poems with titles like “Motherhood, 1951,” “Sisterhood,” “Womanhood,” “Widowhood,” “Brotherhood,” “Manhood,” and “Fatherhood” make up the first ten poems of the book. Each of these pieces interrogate the roles Ai’s characters must play and the cultural assumptions associated with each. In my favorite of these, “Womanhood,” an Irish woman named Michael talks to us about her father who called her “boy” and about how she’d “rather be a boy and get to swear and drink, / Spit and piss outside on a dare.” Tortured by the death of her brother, whose name she carries, she seems to live in order to dive deeper into guilt—guilt from miscarriages, adultery, divorce, and simply being alive: “Then I thought I was cursed / Because I had been given my brother’s name. I decided he hated me / Because I was alive and he was doing time in Purgatory. / I suffered privately.” The poem closes with a unification of those divided selves in an oh so Irish moment: “I chugalug my beer / Then climb onto a table and dance, Waiting to hear what I fine lad I am / Father, son, daughter at last.” An beguiling trinity, one that offers a strange but compelling unity. In her many poetic personas, Ai has become father, son, and daughter, begging the question if the poet, too, discovers through diverse personification some sense of unity.

Because she frequents heavy personification and the dramatic monologue more than any other contemporary American poet, Ai is often compared to Robert Browning. But Browning’s devotion to form, in particular his gorgeous iambic lines and unpredictable rhymes distinguish him from Ai, who, in general, eschews traditional verse. In many of her new poems, though, she plays with sound in pleasing ways. In the above, for example, “beer” and “hear” are not end rhymes, but we catch the internal harmony, just as we appreciate the off-rhyme of “dance” and “last.” In one of the best and funniest poems in the book, “Violation,” a darkly comic tale of a mock or actual rape of a twenty-something male, Ai almost channels Dr. Seuss:

And eventually, I mean like another year,
I become a hotline volunteer.
No, I didn’t turn gay,
but that’s the way I’m dealing with the feeling
that I got violated no matter
what anyone else might say.

Rhyming couplets, internal rhymes, staggered end rhymes, dark humor, and colloquial slang compressed into six lines is pretty strong work. “Violation” is an immensely likeable poem that plays with expectations of form much the same way the poem’s plot goofs on expectations of gender.

While most of the pieces take comical turns—one of the best involves a runaway Nun who flees to Vegas and meets the ghost of Elvis—a few poems stand out for their earnestness. I was most struck by a series of four poems that explore Native American issues. These pieces feel like signature poems not only because of their thematic consistency but also because the cover of No Surrender features a gorgeous example of Native American ledger art in which a Plains warrior shoots a vanquished cavalryman. The Native-centric cover, the plurality of Native-centric poems, the title of No Surrender, and the overt embrace of Native resistance makes one wonder if Ai, who had been living in Oklahoma for the past several years, had finally found a cultural model of endurance and survivance that matched up with her ambitions for her poetic project.

That poetic project gets beautifully encapsulated in the final two poems of the book, which for me have become among her most memorable. The penultimate, entitled “Deathbed Scenes” explores the relationship between the Japanese Princess Takamatsu and her granddaughter. With an understanding that death is near, the Princess (who was famous for underwriting cancer research) walks us through her spiritual journey that culminates in the creation of a poem about her life and death. What’s fascinating is that both the Princess and the granddaughter function as rather thinly veiled alter-egos for Ai herself. She is both the dying woman and the poet—yet neither role comes off as precious or self-indulgent. It seems impossible for both personas to simultaneously embody the regal and the self-effacing, and yet they do.

No Surrender’s closing note, entitled “The Cancer Chronicles,” has to be Ai’s most honest, most thoroughly stripped down poem of her career. Written in the third person, this long poem, divided not into sections but “stages,” is riveting reading. In fact, let me do both the poet and the reader the honor of not summarizing it or quoting from it; rather let me urge the reader to experience the experience in its totality.

I’m convinced these final two pieces are the reason the book jacket makes opposite claims about the poems between its covers—something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. In her blurb, poet Marilyn Chin offers this observation about Ai’s departure from form: “After her lifelong work in writing consummate persona poems and dramatic monologues to rival those of Browning, Ai does an about-face and offers great surprises in this posthumous volume.” However, in a fascinating counter-blurb, the book’s jacket copy opens with this confident claim: “In No Surrender, her final collection, Ai returns again to the form of the dramatic monologue for which she is best known.”

Who’s correct? Chin or Norton? Does Ai take her poetics in a refreshing new direction, or does she write some of the best dramatic monologues of her distinguished career?

Thankfully, both.

Dean Rader’s debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (2014) was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book of the year. He was won numerous awards for his writing, including the 2016 Common Good Books Prize, judged by Garrison Keillor, and the 2015 George Bogin Award from the Poetry Society of America, judged by Stephen Burt. He writes and reviews regularly for the San Francisco Chronicle, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and The Huffington Post. Two new collections of poetry appeared in 2017: A book of collaborative sonnets written with Simone Muench, entitled Suture (Black Lawrence Press), and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon), about which, Publishers Weekly writes “few poets capture the contradictions of our national life with as much sensitivity or keenness.” More from this author →