Saturday, September 15, 2012

appreciation ai

"Conversation" is I think one of Ai's best poems . . .

my first memory of it is that I heard her read it before I read it on the page . . .

as I remember the occasion, it was an unusual experience, I think it happened only one other time when I was at a reading,

a Raymond Carver reading at the Harvard Lampoon building (am I remembering this right?) before his fame, there were only about a dozen attending, and I had room

to lie down on my back in a corner and close my eyes and just listen rather than having to also look,

his story about the armless photographer and the husband whose wife has just left him, and as he read it and it went along

I kept thinking to myself at various points in the story (which I had not read beforehand, I was encountering it for the first time),

well that's it,

it has to end now because it can't get any better than this,

but it kept getting better and better until the end which was the best of all,—

and that's what I remember about the Ai reading of this poem, I had the same experience as the Carver,—

as she read it I kept thinking okay that's it,

the poem will end now because it can't get any better,

but it did, it just kept getting better and better . . .

it might have been the qualities of her recitation, she was one of the best readers I've ever seen, and she performed it perfectly,

slowly and dramatically and effectively, but as she read it and finished it

I had the rare thrill to feel as Emily Dickinson said a poem should make you stir the hair

on your head or take your head off or was it Housman's beard that said that, electric, prickles like on your skin.

It was that good. Not just her performance of it, but the poem itself still moves me . . .

And not just because it's so different from Ai's normal style of persona-poem, no‚ its intrinsic merit continues to muse me.

As I remember it, Ai's poem was(is) an elegaic response to the death of Robert Lowell, and is addressed to Lowell . . .

as such it's much better than Elizabeth Bishop's in memoriam, "North Harbor" . . .

Yes, Bishop is a great poet, but "North Harbor" is perfunctory and prosaic, interesting only for its historic biographic affinity.

(As usual my opinion is the meager minority of one . . . the Bishop is in the Norton and the Ai isn't. The three Ai poems they include are in her default mode of the Dramatic Monologue.)


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 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?


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