Assuming the Mask: Persona and Identity in Ai’s Poetry
On the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Ai's poetry collection, Killing Floor, which received the Lamont Poetry Selection in 1978 and is being reissued by Tavern Books this month, Major Jackson re-examines the celebrated poet's work.
Some years ago, at a dinner party hosted by a friend, I was engaged in a conversation about poets and poetry with a new friend, an accomplished writer of fiction, someone with whom I did not want to too readily disagree, as I was uncertain of how it might affect our nascent bond. In light of the spirit of our free-ranging discussion and amiable banter, which pleased the other guests around us, we were proud of our convergences until we settled into a discussion of a poet we vociferously disagreed about and who represented a disparity in our tastes. The poet in question was Ai, whom I had met only once, in 1997 after a benefit reading for Louisa Solano, owner at the time of Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As I recall, hundreds of people showed up for the reading, which was held in a large auditorium at MIT. She read with another hero of mine, Philip Levine, and together they electrified the audience with an hour-long event that highlighted a greater purpose for poetry and galvanized those present with the belief that poetry could artfully address the most pressing concerns of our day. That evening felt like a watershed moment, and although I had already subscribed to poetry that possessed a social vision, I walked away with a deep affinity for Ai’s poetry and her project.
Ai, born Florence Anthony in 1947 in Albany, Texas, authored eight volumes of poetry in her lifetime whose titles read like an updated version of the seven deadly sins: Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate, Greed, Vice, Dread, and No Surrender. Educated at the University of Arizona (BA in Oriental Studies) and the University of California, Irvine (MFA in creative writing), she would emerge as one of the most important voices in American poetry, writing graphic and often disturbing dramatic monologues in the voice of public figures, famous celebrities, murderers, and everyday people. Her poetry relentlessly portrays the inner thoughts of people who suffer emotional and physical abuse, death, sexual assault, and all manner of tragedy or who themselves are the perpetrators of such cruelty and violence. In 1978, Ai received the Academy of American Poets’ Lamont Poetry Selection, now the James Laughlin Award, for her second book, Killing Floor. Selected by judges Maxine Kumin, Philip Levine, and Charles Wright, the book was critically celebrated and subsequently solidified her reputation as one of America’s most dynamic young poets. Two decades later, in 1999, she won the National Book Award for her collection Vice: New and Selected Poems. She was also awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute. Ai taught widely at academic institutions across the country: Binghamton University, George Mason University, Arizona State University, and the University of Colorado Boulder. At the time of her death, of cancer in March 2010, she was a professor of English at Oklahoma State University.
In interviews and at public forums, Ai was quick to point to her multiracial background, even going so far as to remark upon percentages of her ethnic amalgamation: Japanese, Irish, Choctaw, and black. Despite how existentially important her mixed heritage was to her, I read her simply as a poet with an inner complexity and perceptiveness that felt truly American because she was black. I was not alone. Many of my friends who either came under the sway of the Black Arts poets or profoundly appreciated their contributions—through which they fiercely and unapologetically extended conversations of freedom, justice, and equality—also sought models of poets who reaffirmed our personal lived experience as much as our shared political struggles. They saw in Ai and her deft deployment of the dramatic monologue another means by which to represent black experience and identity. Here was a poetry that seemed to contextualize American xenophobia and white supremacy within a larger, global framework of celebrity culture, genocide, violence, sex, and corruption, and, thus, implicitly asserted racial oppression as symptomatic of something that was tainted at our human core. For us she ranked among those post–Black Arts poets whose first books appeared in the 1970s and 1980s (Rita Dove, Cornelius Eady, C. S. Giscombe, Michael S. Harper, June Jordan, Yusef Komunyakaa, Audre Lorde, Nathaniel Mackey, Harryette Mullen, and Marilyn Nelson, among others) and who embraced a kind of linguistic inventiveness and innovation that my generation saw as widening the possibilities of what was achievable in a poem and what a reader might expect beyond protest and representation, especially from a black poet.
We also identified with Ai’s steadfast dedication to both her aesthetic and ethical vision. There seemed to reside in her poems a moral imperative to speak a bold truth (even if from behind a mask) about America, the quiet horrors faced daily in our communities and, at times, the hollowness of our dreams. I found her work to be fiercely human in how it went beyond aestheticizing the grotesque and the abject, which unfortunately many critics found gratuitous. We encounter ourselves in what critic Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, referred to as her “emotionally devastating soliloquies,” all those celebrities and their narratives of success, as well as stereotypes, myths, and false promises upon which our nation is built. For example, one hears in the poem “She Didn’t Even Wave” not only Marilyn Monroe mourning her mother’s death, but also a tacit critique of a woman’s reliance on her body to secure love and security at the expense of her emotional well-being.
Speaking of which, I marveled at her courageousness in interviews and poems to face down the shame of growing up poor and being born the product of an affair between her mother and a Japanese man whom her mother met at a streetcar stop, the details of which she learned while in her mid-twenties. This is not to be casually observed, for I believe it was the indignity, rage, and empathy she must have felt that animated and gave force to her poetry; it allowed her to see clearly into the pretense and hypocrisy upon which our society is founded. Writing about other lives, historical and imagined, many far more tragic than her own, must have endowed her with a sense of purpose to see the patterns of violence, abuse, neglect, hatred, and even love, which she would have known all in equal measure.
My new friend’s lightening statement that hurled me into a menacing query about Ai’s work was simply that she had not truly written dramatic monologues—well, at least not those in the vein of nineteenth-century poet Robert Browning—because so much of “Ai” was evident in the poems. In other words, we could see through the mask to the poet too easily. I thought this went without saying. To my friend, this was a failure of her poetry. To me this was a key aspect of her work and, to some extent, central to understanding the power of literary personae. Dramatic monologues, even those of Browning—or, say, the heteronyms of Fernando Pessoa—are always compromised by the presence of the author, meaning, a pure dramatic monologue is a fiction, because the interior monologue is a construction and fabrication shaped by the author’s experiences and imagination.
I cautioned my new friend to avoid comparing the two poets but rather to see Ai’s poetry as an evolution of the form and a new extension of her selfhood, whereby an interweaving of identities yields another lyric entity for the reader to inhabit. I found evidence supporting my understanding of her poetry in a 1978 interview she did with Lawrence Kearney and Michael Cuddihy. In response to questions about which poems she feels closest to in her book Killing Floor, she responds that the characters move “beyond their own lives into another world” that doesn’t inspire “fright” but suggests “an expanded consciousness.” Kearney asks, “A sense of oneness with life? That kind of consciousness?” to which she replies, “Not so much a oneness as a not being separate.”
This “not being separate” seems to me to be what Ai yearned for most, a belief, for example, that her fate is tied to the fate of us all, that the fate of a man traumatized by a rape he can’t remember is also tied to the fate of the cultural icons we so readily worship and cherish even more than we do our own family members. Of course Ai projects herself into her characters; this projection is dualistic and serves multiple purposes, chiefly a redemption of her own life, a reconciliation with the forces that make us all tragic figures. That evening I argued that the power of Ai’s vision was in the face presented to the reader—to assume the mask, one of the great tools of modernity for survival and art-making, was her groundbreaking revelation.
This essay originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2018 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2018 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.