(by Ai, W.W. Norton, 2003: paperback $13.95)
If it were a cuisine, Dread would not be a dish to serve with “green tea and poppy-seed cake” [“Intercourse”] out on the yard at grandmother’s house. It is not polite. It screams “like a breath held too long” [“True Love”]. It devours the senses then violates. To experience Dread is to “put your hand in the fire” [“True Love”] and watch it burn. Ai constructs the experience of dread and pours it into the reader’s mouth. We swallow, “thinking it tastes like blood.” [“Intercourse”]
As one of the leading poets writing dramatic monologues, Ai gives voice to taboo subjects, allowing her characters to whisper their secrets into your ear.
“My writing of dramatic monologues was a happy accident, because I took so much to heart the opinion of my first poetry teacher, Richard Shelton, the fact that the first person voice was always the stronger voice to use when writing. What began as an experiment in that voice became the only voice in which I wrote for about twenty years. Lately, though, I’ve been writing poems and short stories using the second person, without, it seems to me, any diminution in the power of my work. Still, I feel that the dramatic monologue was the form in which I was born to write and I love it as passionately, or perhaps more passionately, than I have ever loved a man.”
-Ai (Modern American Poetry)
The winner of the Lamont Poetry Award for Killing Floor: poems, the American Book Award for Sin, and the National Book Award for Vice: new and selected poems, Ai is a poet willing to explore and expose the relevant subjects of dark human tendencies in contemporary culture.
In Dread, Ai embodies the tormented voices of adults recalling moments of dread from their childhoods—memories of war, the aftermath of 9/11, sexual abuse and domestic violence. “My mother begged him to spare my life,/but he said, ‘Woman, I am Africa/and Africa takes what it wants.’” [“The Calling”]
Reading Dread is like racing breathlessly through an urban jungle where the landscape is littered with ghosts, a grandfather who molests his granddaughter, and violent lovers who leave marks on each other’s bodies like wolf bites. It takes us “back through time/to the dark and heavy breathing part of my life/I thought was gone,/but it had only sunk from view/into the quicksand of my mind.” [“Grandfather Says”]
At first glance, the poems in this collection leave the reader feeling a sense of vertigo. We are shoved head first into gross human tendencies and desires, which gives us serious pause. We question if poetry is supposed to be about such ugly emotions; but this is the strange beauty of Ai. She is not easy on the stomach. She exposes us to emotions that we don’t normally want to have. She makes us face our depravity. Her brand of honesty is what gives her poetry its gritty energy—well-crafted lines that pulse with greed, sin, cruelty and dread.
Ai allows the reader to invade the inner lives her characters. She places us inside the minds of people we have never met while they are most vulnerable and force us to uncomfortably violate their privacy, to taste their sweat, and to bear witness to their disturbances. She gives us a “passport into the suffering of others” [“Delusion”]. And because we are there, in the darkness with your hands on the character’s face, rubbing the bump on his nose as he moans, we understand his nature even if seconds ago—before the poem has inflicted itself upon us—we would never have allowed ourselves to think about this:
“Sit on my hand.”
I am ten.
I can’t see him,
But I hear him breathing
in the dark.
It’s after dinner playtime.
hidden by trees and shrubbery.
He calls it hide-and-seek,
but only my little sister seek us
as we hide
and she can’t find us,
as grandfather picks me up
and rubs his hands between my legs.
I only feel a vague stirring
at the edge of my consciousness.
I don’t know what it is,
but I like it.
It gives me pleasure
that I can’t identify.
It’s not like eating candy,
but it’s just as bad,
because I had to lie to grandmother
when she asked,
“What do you do out there?”
Nothing is what it seems. The abusers are sometimes the victims; the victims sometimes enjoy being victimized; and ordinary people are sometimes extraordinary under the right light. Suddenly, we realize that reading these poems is not a passive experience.
The poems in Dread are not only disturbing and raw, they are also lengthy. While most poems in this collection average between three and four pages, there are poems like “Delusion” and “The Greenwood Cycle” that are over six pages long, making them difficult emotionally for the reader to finish and sometimes even to follow.
Ai sometimes manipulates chronology without using stanza breaks, forcing the reader to take leaps of faith between the past, present and future. In “Grandfather Says” we are introduced to a young girl playing hide-and-seek, but when the game ends, we are faced with a thirty-five year old woman, who is suddenly a little girl again at the end of the poem. This creates narrative density and a mysterious sense of time within the poem, shrouding the characters in layers of psychological complexity. This confusing and panic-driven pace adds to the overall tone of the poem, allowing the reader to experience it in a rich, circular time structure instead of an easier to digest, linear progression.
Aside from dark human tendencies, another important theme in Dread is love, but in Ai’s world of Dread, even true love is examined in a hot, harsh light.
I lie in bed contentedly, despite my unease,
thinking maybe you freed yourself from me this time,
until I hear your key in the lock,
then I turn, facing the mirrored bathroom door
and pretend to be asleep,
imagining how tomorrow you’ll be so glad
I didn’t see you raise the heavy, glass ashtray
above my head for a few minutes,
before you put it back on the table
and admitted to yourself at last
that you belong to me.
A reader becomes uneasy, working through poems like this, each one a bitter pill without a warning labels. We don’t know what we will have to swallow next. Will this poem make us depressed; will this other poem make us sympathize with a pervert? We are right to wonder that perhaps this is too much Dread. But we read on anyway, because the honest depiction of brutality engrosses us. It is something to which we can relate. The mixture of poignant beauty and human vulnerability in a collision course with hard-edged characters gives these poems a truth that both troubles and surprises.
I watched the Trade Center Towers
burning, then collapse
repeatedly on the television,
until I could see them clearly
when I shut my eyes.
The blackened skies even blotted out my vision,
until I screamed and threw myself on the floor
and rolled there as if I were on fire.
We shared our sorrow,
ate it like bread.
It was our defense
against the senselessness of it all.
They “wanted” to believe that I was seeking
someone I’d lost
and I absorbed their need.
I understood the power of belief and used it.
We recognize this woman. She is a friend, a coworker, a cousin, mother, sister, aunt. If we were there on that day, head covered in ashes, we might have been her. For a moment, as a reader, we become lost in our own memories. We remember exactly where we were as we watched the Towers burn and collapse over and over again on television, the same way that she had watched them.
Although Ai’s poems contain snapshots of brutality, violence and depravity, they are just and truthful in their depictions; the reader is left with traces of hope. As they depict the complexities of human relationships, tragic needs and wants, Ai’s poems, though they may be disturbing, enrich the reader’s sense of humanity.
In Dread we read of a young girl who gets molested, of a good cop who loses his brother. In these poems sometimes the sky rains ashes and bad news for days, drowning even the fish, but all is not lost. There are times when it still “feel[s] as if the whole world/is one big candy apple,/red and juicy just for me….” [“Disgrace”]
Ai’s poems in Dread remind us about the dirty business of living, and the feelings we get from it stay with us. The experience they contain cannot help but be complicated, dark and wonderfully human.