I hate when poets are called brave. Gets on my nerves. Fearless is another term I find dubious. Poets win grants. They are professionals. Most poetry festivals are lamer and more sedate than Star Trek conventions. If I pick up a poetry book and see the words “brave” or “fearless” in any of the blurbs, I think twice about buying it. No one is brave or fearless if they live in the suburbs, have tenure, or inhabit parts of Manhattan that have been made safe by the police force. This is not brave. Being fearless in a poem is along the same lines as being an aggressive grandmother expressing road rage in an old Buick sedan. Spare me. Being “brave” in a poem is like those snide one liners people zing you with from the safety of a Facebook comment.
But, sometimes, poets write poems that aren’t being considered for an award. Sometimes they are writing out of some necessity beyond the latest AWP bullshit. (anyone for the “long poem” or the “poem of place?”) Sometimes poets are good in ways no one gave them permission to be. No one kissed their bums at the work shop, or published them in some glossy university magazine that is full of “brave” poets. They just wrote something that was fully cooked (Hate the term raw) and happened to contain your children. They served it up to you, and you ate it, and asked for second helpings, and, only realized later when you went back to your part of the world where police make it unnecessary for you to be brave, that you ate your own future. They make you complicit in a crime. They made you destroy the evidence. They feed you something you hadn’t counted on, and it goes beyond your usual dietary restrictions. These poets are sneaky, and lethal, and kill you with stealth, and have the skill for abomination. Abomination—true abomination—takes great skill. All true burns are controlled burns. All the knives are sharpened to such perfection that the victims can voice no cry. Such poets don’t need to be brave or fearless because they scare the shit out of you. After reading them, you know your pantoum sequence is a lie, and your ears are made of tin, and it does not matter if you won six grants, and had a blurb from Jesus: you know you’re a liar, and a hack, and you better step up your game. The poet I picked for this week is like that: a skilled assassin, a pro in the way pros ought to be, taking what she thought was useful from American poetry, and leaving the rest with its throat slashed on the floor.
I first read Ai when I was a teenager and didn’t know any better. She didn’t whine, even when she was dumped, or ignored, or had to suffer fools gladly. She got them back. Her poems had sex in them, but not as a recreational activity. They were driven by some inner magic I couldn’t forget, and which stayed with me for days, and it made me rip up two notebooks of poetry. She was intense in a way that made the comedians and the clever keep their mouths shut. They’d never say to her: Ai, where’s your sense of humor? Compared to her, Christopher Walken was a fucking nun playing Lady of Spain on a mandolin. She tossed all the buildings out of the way, sent cars flying, and made me stand alone to face her, and, being street smart, I got the hell out of there.
I would have never wanted to meet Ai. Her poems have a fierce precision that precludes any literary lunches. Ai’s work reminds me that poets don’t need to be brave, or fearless. They need to be good, and, if possible, ferocious. I know she’s dead, but if I was near her grave, I’d walk carefully and I’d take off my hat. You can never be too careful. A friend of mine went to Monk’s memorial service and had the bad taste to ask Miles Davis for an autograph. “Man,” Miles said, “we’re at a funeral.” My friend said: “I’m sorry, Miles.” Miles Davis said: “Don’t be sorry; be careful.” This seems like an Ai poem. She was not brave and fearless. Great birds of prey don’t have to be brave and fearless. They just know what they’re doing, and they eat you.
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.