There is an uncanny silence surrounding Ai’s recent death from late-detected cancer on March 20. So much so that I didn’t believe it to be true and looked to “reputable” sites for days for confirmation. But turns out it’s true: she’s joined the ancestors.
When I first read Ai she scared me; or maybe it was an alarm. Best known as a persona poet, writing in the first person is where she says she was taught and discovered the strength of her ideas; ironic for me who was being taught right then as I read her (but can’t say I discovered to be true) just the opposite; that to write in the third person lends relevance and credibility to ideas.
Clearly, an individual poem has to dictate its own individual voice.
Ai’s physical voice may be silent but she gave voice to characters from Death to Jimmy Hoffa, darkly humorous sometimes, always piercing, and credible. Probably they’re her own voice, really; none of us are as monolithic as we are perceived or would even like to present ourselves to be.
Ai (1947 – 2010)
2. MEXICO, 1940
I wake then. Another nightmare.
I rise from my desk, walk to the bedroom
and sit down at my wife’s mirrored vanity.
I rouge my cheeks and lips,
stare at my bone-white, speckled egg of a face:
lined and empty.
I lean forward and see Jacques’s reflection.
I half-turn, smile, then turn back to the mirror.
He moves from the doorway,
lifts the pickax
and strikes the top of my head.
My brain splits.
The pickax keeps going
and when it hits the tile floor,
it flies from his hands,
a black dove on whose back I ride,
two men, one cursing,
the other blessing all things:
Lev Davidovich Bronstein,
I step from Jordan without you.