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Vice: New & Selected Poems

By Ai Ogawa 

Original and Current Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Dilruba Ahmed writes:

Just a few months after Ai’s death on March 28, 2010, I began to read Vice, the poet’s new and selected poems, during a train ride to Baltimore.  And if, when traveling from place to place, we feel the need to trust in the world as a generally safe place and our fellow travelers as largely well-intentioned, then I might suggest that collections such as Vice should be read, perhaps, only in the relative comfort of one’s home. 

Through her dramatic monologues, Ai gives voice to figures we may not typically encounter in poetry: murderers, rapists, abusers. If we find ourselves asking why the poet enters these troubling, difficult personae, we may find our answer in these lines from “Evidence:  From A Reporter’s Notebook,” a poem that examines, from a journalist’s point of view, the media’s handling of victimization and false accusations amidst the tensions of the Civil Rights Era. Upon hearing a horrific testimony by an African-American woman raped by a white man, the speaker says:

I have learned not to wince
when such details are given;
still, I feel a slight
tightening of stomach muscles
before I make myself unclench
and do the true reporter thing,
which is to be the victim,
to relive with her again, again,
until it is my own night of degradation,
my own graduation from the shit to shit.

These lines drive to the heart of Ai’s poetic enterprise: she does not wince. She does not turn away.  She turns her direct attention to the loathsome, the violent, the terrifying and disturbing aspects of human life. Through her poems, Ai forces us to relive some of humanity’s darkest moments, whether as perpetrator or victim, even when history—and we—would prefer to remain oblivious. 

The “graduation of shit to shit” seems to imply that we may never rise above the base cruelty of the individuals given voice in Ai’s poetry. Ai’s poems nevertheless blur and complicate the boundaries between the culprit and the innocent, the culpable and the blameless. In another poem that grapples with crime, the media, and racial tension, “Interview with a Policeman,” Ai’s speaker declares:

You say you want this story
in my own words,
but you won’t tell it my way.
Reporters never do.
If everybody’s racist,
that means you too.
I grab your finger
as you jab it at my chest.
So what, the minicam caught that?
You want to know all about it, right?—
the liquor store, the black kid
who pulled his gun
at the wrong time.

Through her multidimensional, complex portrayals of the parties involved—criminal, reporter, police officer—Ai make each person complicit: the boy breaks the law and threatens another’s life, the policeman attempts to respond and consequently precipitates a full-fledged shoot-out. The reporter’s obligation to chronicle the truth is undermined by prejudice of one kind or another, complicated by the idea that he or she documents the offenses from a position of relative safety.

Go on, set your pad and pencil down,
turn off the camera, the tape.
The ape in the gilded cage
looks too familiar, doesn’t he,
and underneath it all,
like me, you just want to forget him.
Tonight, though, for a while you’ll lie awake.
You’ll hear the sound of gunshots
in someone else’s neighborhood,
then, comforted, turn over in your bed
and close your eyes….

Ai chronicles both the cruelty that transpires in the less-visible domestic and personal realms and the kinds of brutality that take place publicly, historically. In “The Mother’s Tale,” a woman slashes her partner and encourages her son to beat his wife into submission. In “Finished,” a victim of domestic abuse shoots and admits to shooting her abusive partner. Ai writes a poem called “Sleeping Beauty” for “the comatose patient raped by an aide.” Another poem, “The Good Shepherd:  Atlanta, 1981,” adopts the persona of a serial killer of children. “The Antihero” is written for Terry Yeakey, a police officer who rescued victims of the Oklahoma City bombings then later took his own life. “The Riot Act, April 29, 1992” refers to the Los Angeles riots that erupted after the acquittal of four police officers accused of beating Rodney King. Both “The Priest’s Confession” and “Life Story” grapple with sexual abuse among clergy members. In other poems, public figures as varied as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, General Custer, Oppenheimer, Hoover, and Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne speak from a first-person perspective.

“The Prisoner,” from Ai’s 1986 Cold War era collection, Sin, depicts an eerie scene of detainment and interrogation. The poem in three sections opens with these menacing lines: “Yesterday, the man who calls himself ‘Our Father’ / made me crawl on smashed Coke bottles.” The poem continues:

I’m not a terrorist, I say.
“That’s not what I heard,” he replies, standing up.
Aren’t you the friend of a friend of a friend
of a terrorist sonofabitch
who was heard two years ago to say
that someone ought to do something
about this government?”
I don’t answer.
Already, I’ve begun to admit that it must be true.
“I lack just one thing,” he says, “the name.”
“I know you think you’re innocent,
but you aren’t.
Everyone is guilty.”
He slaps me, then pushes one side of my face
toward the green glass.

Written several years before the U.S. government launched its “war on terror,” the poem seems to presage the more recent horrors of prisoner abuse at detention facilities such as the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

If Ai’s speakers ever express a reluctance to face the dark, the sentiment is only fleeting—or it is inescapably overwhelmed. In “Conversation,” a poem dedicated to Robert Lowell, Ai’s speaker asks, “How does it feel to be dead?” then almost immediately back-pedals: “Don’t tell me, I say. I don’t want to hear.” But her ghost-companion is relentless, and in a series of lengthy, end-paused phrases, divulges to her against her will what is “ten times more horrible” than what he is able to convey.

Ai’s poems take us to the brink, or beyond the brink, and while they do not suggest how anyone might be saved from the most wretched aspects of humanity, they do, with an unflinching eye and heart, probe and expose emotional and psychological states that few poems touch. Hope is fleeting in this collection, glimpsed in “More,” a dream-poem for James Wright in which America is personified as a prom night figure in “a worn-out dress / and too-high heels” with a pinned gardenia “brown and crumbling into itself.” Disheartened, the figure cries out, “What’s it worth… this land of Pilgrim’s pride?” The speaker, presumably Wright, replies:

As much as love, I answered.  More.
I never won anything, I said,
I lost time and lovers, years,
but you, purple mountains,
you amber waves of grain, belong to me
as much as I do to you.

Disturbing and grim, Ai’s poetry bears witness to some of humankind’s most sinister moments.  Ultimately, her poems refuse to protect us from the

…discord and disharmony
to go with all the inhumanity
that welcomes me each night
with open jaws and glistening teeth.
(“Evidence: From a Reporter’s Notebook”).

Dilruba Ahmed’s debut book of poems, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, 2011), won the 2010 Bakeless Prize for poetry. Ahmed’s writing has appeared in Blackbird, Cream City Review, New England Review, and The Normal School. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and lives near Philadelphia. For more information, visit her website at www.dilrubaahmed.com. (Photo credit: Mike Drzal)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Louise Gluck for Vita Nova
  • Clarence Major for Configurations: New and Selected Poems, 1958-1998
  • Sherod Santos for The Pilot Star Elegies
  • C.K. Williams for Repair

Poetry Judges that Year: Lucille Clifton, Deborah Garrison, Jarold Ramsey, Arthur Sze, James Tate

The Year in Literature: Blizzard of One by Mark Strand won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Ai Ogawa (1947-2010) was born Florence Anthony in Albany, TX.
  • Before her death in 2010, Ai received several prestigious awards from organizations including the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Bunting Fellowship Program at Radcliffe College.

(Left) Lucille Clifton presents Ai with her 1999 National Book Award for Poetry. (Right) Steve Martin escorts Ai to the stage. Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin ImageSuggested Links:

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