Another poem that immediately comes to mind for me when I remember poetry is out there and mine for the reading, is Ai's Salome. What struck me most about her work when I first read it was how brutal it was. How frank and honest. At the time I was so used to the flowery poetry of sonnets & more canonical poets I was supposed to find interesting. Instead, I was drawn to Ai's powerful, almost gut-wrenching poetry. It was like nothing I had ever read before. I didn't know poetry could be like this and it fascinated me.
The collection that I always come back to is Sin. In it (and several of her other collections), she writes her poems as dramatic monologues by assuming the persona of a historical or fictional character. Something else I had never seen in poetry before I read her work. As a writer of fiction, this immediately appealed to me and I marveled at how she pulled it off. What she imagined them to be thinking, what she invented and made her own. The poem I found most powerful (and shocking and altogether, what the hell?) from the Sin collection is Salome. The first four lines in particular have always been an example to me of how powerful a few simple words can be when arranged in a specific manner.
Brief bio from another outstanding poetry anthology - The Before Columbus Foundation Poetry Anthology:
"A true child of America's multiethnic and multicultural drift, Ai's father was Japanese and her mother was part black, Choctaw, and Irish. Just as she refuses to compromise her particular vision by writing from some preordained 'women's' point of view (a fact which draws criticism from some), she refuses to be placed into any ethnic pigeionhole. Ai's poetry relentlessly goes for the jugular. Critics have commented on the knife-like quality of Ai's writing; and her poems do slash sharply -- through history, across contemporary cultural divisions, and deep into the consciousness of the reader -- to lay bare the profound disorder that lies just beneath the surface of things."
I scissor the stem of the red carnation
and set it in a bowl of water.
It floats the way your head would,
if I cut it off.
But what if I tore you apart
for those afternoons
when I was fifteen
and so like a bird of paradise
slaughtered for its feathers.
Even my name suggested wings,
wicker cages, flight.
Come, sit on my lap, you said.
I felt as if I had flown there;
I was weightless.
You were forty and married.
That she was my mother never mattered.
She was a door that opened onto me.
The three of us blended into a kind of somnolence
and musk, the musk of Sundays. Sweat and sweetness.
That dried plum and licorice taste
always back of my tongue
and your tongue against my teeth,
then touching mine. How many times?--
I counted, but could never remember.
And when I thought we'd go on forever,
that nothing could stop us
as we fell endlessly from consciousness,
orders came: War in the north.
Your sword, the gold epaulets,
the uniform so brightly colored,
so unlike war, I thought.
And your horse; how you rode out the gate.
No, how that horse danced beneath you
toward the sound of cannon fire.
I could hear it, so many leagues away.
I could see you fall, your face scarlet,
the horse dancing on without you.
And at the same moment,
Mother sighed and turned clumsily in the hammock,
the Madeira in the thin-stemmed glass
spilled into the grass,
and I felt myself hardening to a brandy-colored wood,
my skin, a thousand strings drawn so taut
that when I walked to the house
I could hear music
tumbling like a waterfall of China silk
I took your letter from my bodice.
Salome, I heard your voice,
little bird, fly. But I did not.
I untied the lilac ribbon at my breasts
and lay down on your bed.
After a while, I heard Mother's footsteps,
watched her walk to the window.
I closed my eyes
and when I opened them
the shadow of a sword passed through my throat
and Mother, dressed like a grenadier,
bent and kissed me on the lips.Ai, “Salome” from Sin (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986).
Copyright © 1986 by Ai. Source: Sin (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986).
A brief insight into why she explores such dark topics, is her response to why she changed her name to Ai: "Ai is the only name by which I wish, and indeed, should be known. Since I am the child of a scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop, and I was forced to live a lie for so many years, while my mother concealed my natural father's identity from me, I feel that I should not have to be identified with a man, who was only my stepfather, for all eternity."
Other Ai links to check out:
Critics & Her Response