March 21, 2010
In Memoriam to Ai (1947 - 2010) by Jerry Wiliams
When I was in high school and college I started seeing work in literary magazines by a woman with this exotic name who wrote what every other poet seemed too afraid to write—disturbing poems, violent, sexy, unspeakably moving, grief-stricken, harrowing, cutting, beautiful, and yet the verse seemed skillfully controlled and peaceable. For me, most other poets sat in the back seat and Ai drove (which is ironic because she never in her life, from what I understand, possessed a driver’s license). I sort of mythologized her, and I knew I wanted to be her kind of poet—if the world would let me be one—fearless. I know it might sound extreme, but why waste time on flowers when you have knives? As I learned more about Ai, I read her many books, felt her influence growing in me. Years and years later, I ended up at Oklahoma State University where Ai taught creative writing. She blurbed my first collection of poems, served on my dissertation committee. I have taught her books in many classes, and I included three of her poems in the recent breakup and divorce anthology I edited—a great honor for me. Last July, we spoke on the telephone, and I sent her photos from my wedding. We e-mailed occasionally. I always wanted to stay on her good side. This past Saturday afternoon, when I was sitting on a bench in front of my apartment building in Co-op City, I got a call from a friend on the faculty at Oklahoma State. Sometime on Wednesday, March 17th, the poet Ai checked into the Stillwater Medical Center with pneumonia. As it turned out, she had reached a very advanced stage of breast cancer and passed away comfortably in the company of her family early Saturday morning, March 20th. Upon hearing this news, I completely broke down, and I didn’t understand why. I’m supposed to be tough (knives not flowers), but I could not stop crying. I feel that Ai was something of a poetic mother to me. Later that afternoon, one of her closest friends asked me my age and told me that my kundalini had dropped or opened up or uncoiled and released some new emotion in me. I cried a little watching the movie Step Brothers this morning. What is wrong with me? I assume that the chaos will now ensue. Oklahoma State will get bombarded with telephone calls on Monday. Ditto W.W. Norton & Co. Services will be arranged. All that human stuff. But the poems, Ai’s poems, will remain as immortal as ever. Here’s exquisite proof:
Conversation by Ai
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 silk 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?