Friday
Apr222011

2003

The Singing                

By C.K. Williams

Original and Current  Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Saara Myrene Raappana writes:

At first, I was suspicious of C.K. Williams’ The Singing. When it comes to poetry, I’m a clean freak—I like my free verse in tidy stacks of wordplay. I love the symmetry created by rhyme, be it direct or slant; I brake for terza rima; give me a ghazal only if it’s metrically strict and restrained. So when I saw The Singing’s sprawling, gangly lines of conversational language, its sparse—and sparsely worded—images drawn along by trains of ethereal philosophy, I felt off-balance. Upset. These poems seemed to revel in disorganization, growing like vines in whatever direction offered the most room. I wanted to take a pair of gardening shears to them. At the very least a rake.

Why, then, did a stanza here, a line there tap on my cold, metrical heart? Why did those stripped-down images repeat through my head days later? Why, despite all my discomfort, did I end up loving these poems?

Here’s my theory: Williams is a magician—an adept one—and who doesn’t love a great magician? On first read, I was distracted by the smoke of Williams’ informal tone and then entranced by the flash powder of his relentlessly forthright statements. In “Dissections,” as the speaker inspects a skeleton at an anatomy exhibit, he says, “I felt embarrassed, as though I’d intruded on someone’s loneliness / or grief, and then, I don’t know why, it came to me to pray, / though I don’t pray, I’ve unlearned how, to whom, or what.” The poems feel direct, unedited, effortlessly musical. Williams’ elliptical, syntactically befuddling sentences carry a metrical and emotional cadence that belies their apparent plainness. At the conclusion of “Dissections,” Williams ends a seemingly meandering journey from anatomy models to sorrow, to empathy, to faith and lack thereof with: “Flint and fire, science and song, and all of it coming to this, / this unhealable self in myself who knows what I should know.” The magician has dropped two eggs, a feather duster, and a pair of gardening shears into a hat and, with a wave of his wand, pulled out a sharp-beaked bird of paradise.

The Singing is a book of doubt, lament, and elegy, but, as is characteristic for Williams, genially so. These poems struggle with identity, perception, and the weight of both. In “This Happened,” he chants, “Weightfully upon me was the world. / Weightfully this self which graced the world yet never wholly itself. / Weightfully this self which weighed upon me . . .” Whether a doe, a piano teacher, an anatomy skeleton, or the death of a cherished friend, Williams’ subjects are heavy with fear and sorrow, but granted a kind of buoyancy by their connection with the speaker, the “I” of the poem that is Williams’ poetic persona. That’s the deftest of Williams’ magic tricks—the creation of intimacy with his subjects that spills over onto the reader.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the book’s final section, which contains poems about 9/11. Here, Williams tackles the despair and fright of that event and its aftermath. “Fear” reveals Williams as a despondent idealist: “I still want to believe that we’ll cure the human heart . . . / . . . but hasn’t the metaphorical heart been slashed?” In the final stanza, a “half-chorus of grackles” —a ubiquitous bird that returns again and again to ransack dumpsters and parking lots—as “negative celestials, risen from some counter-realm to rescue us. / But now, scattering towards the deepening shadows, they go, too.” 

The book’s third section, an extended elegy, spans from the month of illness before his painter friend’s death to a year afterward, each segment carrying its own type of heartache. Williams interlaces tender particulars like “the sheet of Arches / paper tacked to its board . . . the wash, the cottonwoods / I helped you plant” with long strings of internal monologue that transmit, through their candor, both the heft of Williams’ own anguish and the unavoidable human experience of grief:

Never so much absence,
so many longings ash,
as you are ash. Never
so cruel the cry within,
Will I never again
be with you?
Ash. Ash.

The poem ends with an oboe repeating scales (“descending the stairway it itself / unfurls before itself”), as if the speaker has realized that his grief, rather than finding resolution, will continue to echo like a lovely, sad song drifting in through his window.


Saara Myrene Raappana
has new poems in 32 Poems, Cave Wall, The Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review Online, and Southern Poetry Review and has been featured on Verse Daily. She is a managing editor for Cellpoems.

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Carol Muske-Dukes for Sparrow: Poems
  • Charles Simic for The Voice at 3:00 AM: Selected Late and New Poems
  • Louis Simpson for The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001
  • Kevin Young for Jelly Roll: A Blues

Poetry Judges that Year: Bruce Weigl, David Baker, Kate Daniels, Kwame Dawes, Jane Hirshfield

The Year in Literature:  

  • Moy Sand and Gravel by Paul Muldoon won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Louise Gluck was named Poet Laureate of the United States

Other Information:

  • C.K. Williams (1936- ) was born in Newark, NJ.
  • In addition to the National Book Award for The Singing, Williams won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Flesh and Blood, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for Repair, and in 2005 he won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

Suggested Links:

 

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Thursday
Apr212011

2002

In the Next Galaxy

By Ruth Stone

Original and Current Publisher: Copper Canyon Press    

Katie Peterson writes:

What if you woke up one day and everything looked the same, but some essential principle of reality behind existence had changed, and that change could be felt everywhere, with all the appearances intact? In one famous episode of the Twilight Zone, “The Invaders,” a hardened but apparently innocent woman is tormented by two tiny spacemen with miniscule guns who turn out to belong to the US Air Force. In another episode, an apparently perfect town is actually an experiment created by giant aliens. In both, the true nature of the ordinary is revealed by confusions of scale that turn what appears to be most normal into what is most strange. Rod Serling understood that the fact that everything appeared normal on the surface was actually absolute evidence that everything was deeply, categorically, profoundly crazy. So does Ruth Stone, whose 2002 collection, In the Next Galaxy, combines the visionary and the ordinary in short lyrics of great complexity. Stone sees things differently than most people but in a way available to all. In a poem entitled “Reality,” she writes of her husband’s body, prepared for burial after his suicide:

As a fish, gutted for trade,
so my darling as a cadaver
was slit, his viscera removed;
pulled out by a gloved hand
as waste; the still pulsing
microscopic flagella,
only recently going about its business
in the small scape of the veins,
the glut of the great esophagus
and the first bend of the squirming bowel.

Walter Stone’s death is the biographical fact that has informed much of Ruth Stone’s verse. What she has enabled that biographical fact to ask of her is all her own. Submitted, for your perusal: Ruth Stone, the cadaver-opening investigative spirit of real Twilight Zone – ordinary life.

Stone’s poems have been called “misleadingly simple.” Most of them feel born in a field and taken into a house, or found in a train station or bus station and packed into a suitcase. Whether writing about the pleasures of inhabitation or the challenges of transience, Stone prefers, in subject matter, the elemental aspects of a life: beds, kitchens, neighbors, and strangers. Her vocabulary, even at its most complex, feels received and reflected upon rather than vigorously attended to. Her sentences, though never simple, appear declarative, until you notice the obsessive desire to list that often closes a lyric of great intensity. List-making is for the disorganized, not the organized, and Stone’s lists have the mood of designs against disorder. The title poem of the collection is one of Stone’s most disarmingly dramatic:

 

In the Next Galaxy
 
Things will be different.
No one will lose their sight,
their hearing, their gallbladder.
It will be all Catskills with brand-
new wraparound verandas.
The idea of Hitler will not
have vibrated yet.
While back here,
they are still cleaning out
pockets of wrinkled
Nazis hiding in Argentina.
But in the next galaxy,
certain planets will have true
blue skies and drinking water.

Stone layers her neighborly tone on top of a heavy subject. We wonder whether she’s talking about the next galaxy over (a house down the block) or the next world (an afterlife in which our moral nature is transfigured and restored to goodness). It must be the case that she’s talking about both, as the pleasures the next galaxy affords (“blue skies and drinking water”) are sufficient rather than excessive. Stone’s language gets tangled in a particularly American knot, combining words of Native, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek descent when she first talks about what the next galaxy will be like: “all Catskills with brand- / new wraparound verandas.” A visionary knows that her true interest in the next world is an interest in describing the problems of this one, however. In the next lines, the poet handles the evils of the 20th century with a delicacy conditioned and created by fear. “The idea of Hitler,” and the “pockets of wrinkled / Nazis hiding in Argentina,” imagined here as absences in the (better) next galaxy, are rare instances of metonymy—Stone, in general, prefers the definite article, and the declarative subject. Here metonymy functions as a fearful delicacy, a way of picking up evil by the edges in order to show it in all its horror. A poem like this one holds the extremity of pleasure and the extremity of pain: Stone’s great gift is her ability to imagine a world that can hold both.

Misleadingly simple, Stone’s poems are far from pure. It is hard to think of another contemporary poet as willing to talk about the body who also has a gift for doing so with candor. Stone is age-inappropriate in the best sense, and her reflections on culture are far from polite. Consider the following lines from “At Eighty-Three She Lives Alone”:

No one knows you. No one speaks to you.
All of their cocks stare down their pant legs
at the ground. Their cunts are blind. They
barely let you through the checkout line.
Have a nice day. Plastic or paper?

The vision of public space here is something like Night of the Living Dead. But Stone sees the body for everything that it’s worth, and when she asserts the value of memories of pleasure, we believe her as well. In the beautiful (and deceptively simply titled) “Lines,” she sees how the body is a vessel for both the persistence and perishability of memory:

Sharp as the odor of fresh sawdust,
the color of lost rooms,
those erotic odors, angst of brevity;
like crossing your thighs
in a spasm of loneliness.

Ruth Stone was born in 1915. After her husband’s death in 1959 she raised her three daughters as a single parent while teaching at colleges and universities across the country. Each poem in In the Next Galaxy feels as if it has required a lifetime of experience and this one is no different. It takes an exacting patience to account for the impatience of sex with such tender articulation and such an understanding of the necessity of human connection.

Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree (New Issues, 2006). She has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Her reviews have appeared in the Boston Review and the Chicago Tribune. She teaches literature at Bennington College. (Photo credit: Ariana Ervin)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Harryette Mullen for Sleeping with the Dictionary
  • Sharon Olds for The Unswept Room
  • Alberto Rios for The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body
  • Ellen Bryant Voigt for Shadow of Heaven

Poetry Judges that Year: Dave Smith, Elizabeth Alexander,
Margaret Gibson, Bob Holman, Dorianne Laux

The Year in Literature: Practical Gods by Carl Dennis won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information: 

  • Ruth Stone (1915- ) was born in Roanoke, VA.
  • Stone wrote her most recent collection, What Love Comes To: New and Selected Poems, at the age of ninety-three. The book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

Suggested Links:

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Wednesday
Apr202011

2001

Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry

By Alan Dugan

Original and Current  Publisher: Seven Stories Press 

Alan Dugan first won the National Book Award in Poetry in 1962 for Poems. 

An appreciation of Dugan’s work may be found here >

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Agha Shahid Ali for Rooms Are Never Finished
  • Wanda Coleman for Mercurochrome
  • Cornelius Eady for Brutal Imagination
  • Gail Mazur for They Can't Take That Away from Me

Poetry Judges that Year: Raphael Campo, Toi Derricotte,
Marie Howe, Stanley Plumly, Tom Sleigh

The Year in Literature:

  • Different Hours by Steven Dunn won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Billy Collins was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information: 

  • Alan Dugan (1923-2003) was born in Queens, NY.
  • Poems Seven was Dugan’s last published book of poetry before his death in 2003.

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Tuesday
Apr192011

2000

Blessing the Boats      

By Lucille Clifton

Original and Current Publisher: BOA Editions Ltd.

John Murillo writes:

When Lucille Clifton passed away at age 73 in February of last year, American poetry lost one of its brightest and most consistent lights. The author of thirteen poetry collections, as well as many volumes of children’s literature, Ms. Clifton was that rare poet whose work can reach into lecture hall, prison dayroom, coffee shop, or community center, and touch anyone who is ready to be annealed.

A close friend of mine loves to tell the story about a poetry workshop given in a women’s prison, where she opened one afternoon’s session by reading Clifton’s poem, “Miss Rosie.”  She couldn’t move onto the actual lesson for nearly thirty minutes because the women kept demanding that she read the poem again.  And again. And again, still. She tells me about the discussion that ensued, and about the women—hardened by circumstance and survival’s dictates—who for years had denied themselves tears, who finally gave in to their sorrows , crying and consoling each other; she tells me how phenomenal and raw the poems were that came out of that day’s workshop; and how minutes before the workshop ended, a few of the women—prohibited from carrying writing utensils back into their cells—took their pens and scrawled the poem along their own forearms, wrists, and backs of their hands.  In this way, she explains, they were able to take poetry—in particular, Lucille Clifton’s poetry—back with them into their world, to help make their time at least a bit more bearable.

MISS ROSIE

when I watch you
wrapped up like garbage
sitting, surrounded by the smell
of too old potato peels
or
when I watch you
in your old man’s shoes
with the little toe cut out
sitting, waiting for your mind
like next week’s grocery
I say
when I watch you
you wet brown bag of a woman
who used to be the best looking gal in Georgia
used to be called the Georgia Rose
I stand up
through your destruction
I stand up

I attended a reading once where Ms. Clifton claimed that her job as a poet was to “comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.” Immediately, of course, I thought of Walt Whitman and how he issued a nearly identical dictum in his preface to Leaves of Grass:  “The job of the poet,” great-granddaddy Walt tells us, “is to cheer up slaves and to horrify despots.” As I sat listening to Ms. Clifton read her wonderful poems, and remembered my friend’s prison workshop, I was struck by the notion that Lucille Clifton, in her own quiet way, may be the unsung heir to Whitman’s legacy. Though the two poets couldn’t be more different in method (compare Whitman’s sprawling biblical free verse with Clifton’s terse, clipped lines), the same heart seems to beat in both. Clifton, like Whitman, is a poet equally at home in the body and the spirit. In fact, one could argue that neither poet sees much of a divide between the two, believing instead in a unified Self. In many of their poems, this sense of oneness extends even to absorb other selves. So in the same way that Whitman admits—no, boasts—that he contradicts himself and “contains multitudes,” Clifton, without hint of sarcasm or irony, can craft first person narratives as fox, as dead father, as Adam, Eve, and serpent. Such empathy allows both poets the insight, the hard-earned wisdom, for which we keep coming back to the best of their work.

Of her many volumes, I consider Blessing the Boats Ms. Clifton’s magnum opus. A selection that includes poems from only a twelve-year period (1988-2000), it does miss some of her most cherished and anthologized work. (The poem that the women prisoners loved so much, for instance, “Miss Rosie,” won’t be found here.) Also, die-hard Clifton fans may miss favorite poems not included in the sampling from this period’s collections (Next, Quilting, The Book of Light, and The Terrible Stories). But it’s the selection of new poems that I believe ultimately give this collection its heat and allow it to stand right up there, say, with another favorite: Good Woman (BOA Editions, 1987). The new poems are raw, steeped in a rage I never perceived when reading her earlier work (if only, perhaps, because as a younger, less world-weathered reader, my antennae weren’t primed to pick up such frequencies). And placed where they are, at the beginning of the manuscript, they provide a lens through which to read the subsequent poems. What we find is that the rage—subtle as it may have been—was there all along.

By the time Blessing the Boats was published, Lucille Clifton, then 63, had lived through Jim Crow Era segregation and all that came with it, had lost a son, and had survived cancer twice. She knew a thing or two about life and mortality, about this world and its cruelties, and she wrote from the heart of it.   Here is a wisdom without pretense, a voice we can trust because we know she won’t lie about what she’s seen.  (Think Plato’s cave-dweller returned from the light with bad news for the manacled: “Hate to tell y’all, but I been there and seen it.  And it ain’t all good.”)

Among the most moving poems in this section is “Dialysis,” an account of a cancer survivor’s agonizing road to recovery:

DIALYSIS

after the cancer, the kidneys
refused to continue.
they closed their thousand eyes.

blood fountains from the blind man’s
arm and decorates the tile today.
somebody mops it up.

the woman who is over ninety
cries for her mother.  If our dead
were here they would save us.

we are not supposed to hate
the dialysis unit.  We are not
supposed to hate the universe.

this is not supposed to happen to me.
after the cancer the body refused
to lose any more.  Even the poisons
were claimed and kept

until they threatened to destroy
the heart they loved.  In my dream
a house is burning.

something crawls out of the fire
cleansed and purified.
in my dream I call it light.

after the cancer I was so grateful
to be alive.  I am alive and furious.
Blessed be even this?

It’s that question at the end that marks this collection’s tone:  The deep need to believe—despite all evidence to the contrary—that everything is part of a Divine Plan, is of the natural order of things, runs up against the facts of life.  “Blessed be even this?”  What happens when one’s faith is challenged at every turn?  How can one live honestly and not question?  “Even this?”  Here we get Clifton the existentialist, Clifton the blueswoman.

As she tells us in this poem, she is “alive and furious.”  Such fury is warranted, no? 

Included in this section is an ekphrastic poem about a photograph of a lynching; a remembrance of the four little girls killed in a church bombing in 1963 Alabama; and a persona poem in the voice of James Byrd, Jr., who was murdered in 1998 by three white men who chained him to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged him two miles until his head and right arm were torn from his body.  Through Byrd’s mouth, Clifton speaks her own grief and the grief of others for whom such suffering is anything but novel: “I am done with this dust.  I am done.”

When we lost Lucille Clifton, we lost a true poet, one who never hesitated to comfort the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable.  To spend any time around her was to know grace and graciousness.  She was kind, gentle, and generous.  But you’d play yourself for a fool thinking she was any kind of weak.  Her tongue was meant for truth-telling and she told her truth whether or not (or, especially if?) it was uncomfortable and hard.  In her conversation, in her poetry, she laughed with us and cried with us.  She held us tight.  She saw through us and saw us through.  And she had the integrity not to water anything down, no matter the accolades it may have cost her.

WHY SOME PEOPLE BE MAD AT ME SOMETIMES

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and I keep on remembering
mine

John Murillo is the author of the poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher Books, 2010). A graduate of New York University's MFA program in creative writing, he has received fellowships from the New York Times, Cave Canem, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, among others. He is a founding member of the collective, The Symphony, and is currently visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Cornell University. (Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Kim Addonizio for Tell Me
  • Galway Kinnell for A New Selected Poems
  • Kenneth Koch for New Addresses: Poems
  • Bruce Smith for The Other Lover

Poetry Judges that Year: Mark Doty, Agha Shahid Ali, Deborah Digges, Nikki Giovanni, Philip Levine

The Year in Literature:

  • Repair by C.K. Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Stanley Kunitz was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information:

  • Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) was born in Buffalo, NY.
  • Clifton was born Thelma Lucille Sayles.
  • Clifton won an Emmy for co-writing the TV version of the 1972 album, “Free to Be You and Me.”

Suggested Links:

Clifton reading two poems at the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival, "What Haunts Him" and "Sorrows"
Produced by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

 

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Monday
Apr182011

1999

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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