Another sad loss of a poet: Ai passed away on Friday early Saturday morning. There's been minimal media coverage of her death so far, and no clear indication of the cause. UPDATE: According to the Best American Poetry blog, Ai checked into the Stillwater Medical Center in Oklahoma on Wednesday with pneumonia. It turned out that she had late stage breast cancer. Her family was with her for when she passed away a couple days later. (Thanks to Vievee F. for sharing this.)
Emerging from a rich ancestry -- Ai identified as Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche--she grew up in Tucson, Arizona. She studied Japanese at the University of Arizona and creative writing in the MFA program at the University of California at Irvine. She legally changed her name from Florence Anthony to "Ai," which is the Japanese word for love. She was also a committed Buddhist.
Much honored for her poetry -- she is a winner of a National Book Award; American Book Award; Lamont Poetry Award; Guggenheim Fellowship; a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; and a Bunting Fellowship -- Ai authored six collections that turned on the dark edges of life and explored feminist thinking. Her poems often spun on first-person dramatic monologues and stared down the bleakness that can be embedded in intimacy. Her voice was fierce.
Cruelty (1973) was the first book. She also wrote Killing Floor (1979); Sin (1986); Fate (1991); Greed (1993); Vice (1999); and Dread (2003). She also wrote one novel, Black Blood (1997). The New York Times' review of Ai's final book called her a "necessary poet."
This (moral) strength is the real substance of the book. Here is an imagination that has consistently fought its way into the most terrible places of human experience, that has entered the skin not only of the stricken but of those who strike them with an unflinching commitment. We feel in this book, as perhaps never before in Ai's work, the presence of the writer and her anguished condition. It might not be all that useful these days for us to be entering the skin of a sheriff unleashing a race riot. It is illuminating, though, and in fact humanizing, to reflect on the theatricality born of pure indignation that makes such a reading experience possible. One can only feel grief for Ai that the world offers her so much subject matter, but that she has had the courage to confront it again and again is astonishing.
She taught at Oklahoma State University and lived in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She also spent time in Detroit at Wayne State University as a visiting poet.
Thanks to Gabrielle Calvocoressi--remarkable poet and truth-teller in her own right--who first alerted me to the news via Twitter.
We smile at each other
and I lean back against the wicker couch.
How does it feel to be dead? I say.
You touch my knees with your blue fingers.
And when you open your mouth,
a ball of yellow light falls to the floor
and burns a hole through it.
Don't tell me, I say. I don't want to hear.
Did you ever, you start,
wear a certain kind of dress
and just by accident,
so inconsequential you barely notice it,
your fingers graze that dress
and you hear the sound of a knife cutting paper,
you see it too
and you realize how that image
is simply the extension of another image,
that your own life
is a chain of words
that one day will snap.
Words, you say, young girls in a circle, holding hands,
and beginning to rise heavenward
in their confirmation dresses,
like white helium balloons,
the wreathes of flowers on their heads spinning,
and above all that,
that's where I'm floating,
and that's what it's like
only ten times clearer,
ten times more horrible.
Could anyone alive survive it?
Image Credit: Macondo Foundation