The passing this past week of the poet Ai caught me off guard. We are just on the heels of the passing of Lucille Clifton, who was not only a foundational poet of lyric and personal circumstance, but the first brick in the wall for so many young poets, especially poets of color. Lucille Clifton was wise and revered and her name did not recess into memory for even a moment right up until her death.
Ai, perhaps, is a different matter all together. Ai did not always strive to make herself known, to make herself visible. During my time in the MFA program at Arizona State University, Ai lived in Tempe, was beloved by all, faculty and students alike, but she was for the most part a ghost to us, a slight figure in the landscape, a quiet space.
But the quiet space of her existence countered the explosion in her work. I remember the exact moment, the exact place, the exact visual memory of holding her book, Greed, and reading these lines:
Open wide and let me in,
or else I'll set your world on fire ...
You haven't heard the word is coming down
like the hammer of a gun
I read these lines from "Riot Act, April 29, 1992" sitting in Hayden, the underground library on the main campus of ASU. It was scorching outside even though it was October. I had found a place in the desert and loved it there. I had found a place in my poetry. I had developed what I thought was a 'voice' which was my own. When I read these few lines of Ai's poem, it seemed as though someone had kicked the doors in, that my perfectly built house, my steady voice, my lineation, my subject, my voice ... it all crumbled. It all became clearly the facade of something underneath which I really hadn't allowed myself to discover, something muddy and thick, something ugly that I didn't want to meet. I didn't want to deal with some rash, pissed off, hungry, destructive, confrontational thing bubbling to the surface
I thought, you can say this? You can write this in a poem? How can you say this? How can you write this and make a poem that is a beautiful poem? I'd just read, a few weeks earlier, Rilke's elegies, and remembered the line, beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure ... and the library tipped a little on it's side as that ugly I was running from started to rise up in my throat.
Ai led me to my ugly center and challenged me to do something with it. She also helped me to understand that the poem is anything I make of it, that my voice is my voice. It can sing one day and curse the next, it can sonnet its way onto the page or it can disrupt every notion we have of what a poem should be or how it should sound or what it should look like and that, as a writer, I shouldn't force myself to be any single thing. Scatter yourself. Kick in the doors. Curse at the book that evades you.
Jerry Wiliams wrote a short piece on The Best American Poetry site blog which I think really touches on the heart of this loss:
In Memoriam to Ai (1947 - 2010) by Jerry Williams
Ai When I was in high school and college I started seeing work in literary magazines by a woman with this exotic name who wrote what every other poet seemed too afraid to write—disturbing poems, violent, sexy, unspeakably moving, grief-stricken, harrowing, cutting, beautiful, and yet the verse seemed skillfully controlled and peaceable. For me, most other poets sat in the back seat and Ai drove (which is ironic because she never in her life, from what I understand, possessed a driver’s license). I sort of mythologized her, and I knew I wanted to be her kind of poet—if the world would let me be one—fearless....
You can read the rest of this article here.
It's been a season of loss.