In her eighth collection of poetry, Ai (1947-2010) represents the many faces of a multifaceted America that is as heartbroken as it is triumphant. No Surrender – Poems represents the culmination of an extraordinary poet’s journey through countless characters brought to life in a style she alone forged and in which she flourished before her unexpected death earlier this year while this collection was in the final stages of production. The strength of the dramatic monologue resonates as strongly as ever in these poems that document the voices of the anonymous and the inconsequential: the fallen nun, the diabetic amputee in storm-torn New Orleans, the drunk Irish immigrant, and the unwed teenage mother.
The poet exposes the complexly dark narratives passing by us each day, raising each individual to the level -of a story that must be told.
Ai’s unique gift for making the abstract real in the voice of an individual, to bestow on the reader a new type of understanding, is truly at its peak here, as when she writes, “The word ‘remains’ is no match / For the reality of a piece of skin / Taken home in a plastic bag / Marked with a number taken from a tag / Tied to the armrest of the airplane seat / Where you died” in the poem “Widow.” As is often the case in Ai’s work, the characters of these poems are seeking salvation through a violent rebirth.
No Surrender exposes desperation and just as much earnestness as the best of her earlier works, with the poet’s ear attuned to the subtleties of added experience.
The ribbon of pain in the Irish immigrant experience runs throughout this collection, significant for both the universality of these stories and their individual heartbreak and experience. Nuns, writers, drunks, fallen priests, and mothers are made real in disarmingly everyday language that cuts right to the bone.
Unflinching views of suffering and resilience are what unify these pieces and what lie at the heart of Ai’s genius. Together these poems examine the shape a life takes against circumstance in dozens of forms, ranging from an unflinching and surprising account of the morning after a rape to hopelessness and hunger in the face of a deadly hurricane. Ai’s poems grapple with reality head-on in a way that few contemporary writers attempt.
Come to these poems to get outside yourself. Come to experience a tiny universe of despair, and to just as quickly inhabit a story overflowing with vitality and hope, as in “The Inheritance”: “I rose from my own ashes. / If only you could have too, / But one day you would make your bed of tobacco leaves / And lie down to sleep forever, / Leaving me only smoke to call my mother.” Here, with grace and honesty, abstractions are filled in to astonishing degrees as in poems called “Motherhood, 1951,” “Widowhood,” and “Violation.” In “Widowhood,” Ai writes, “The plastic bag containing your bone fragments / Beside me on the seat, / Accepting that this is just another step / In the sweet eventuality of letting go” puts us face to face with the dirty reality of loss. As always in her work, Ai’s lines are uncompromising and unapologetic, bucking off trends and fads. Contemporary and disarming, these poems above all feel necessary, and they bring us back to what poetry can do.
Ai (1947-2010) is the author of seven previous books of poetry, including the National Book Award-winning Vice. She described herself as being one-half Japanese, one-eighth Choctaw, one-quarter Black, and one-sixteenth Irish, a mixed heritage that heavily influenced her work. Throughout her long career she was honored with awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2009 she was named a United States Artists Ford Fellow. She was a professor of English at Oklahoma State University.
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