Ai ~ Annotated Bibliography

aiAi is the only name by which I wish, and indeed, should be known. Since I am the child of a scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop, and I was forced to live a lie for so many years, while my mother concealed my natural father’s identity from me, I feel that I should not have to be identified with a man, who was only my stepfather, for all eternity.

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.

            — (Modern American Poetry)


A Buddhist and Creative Writing Professor. The poetess Ai is a pseudonym of Florence Anthony. Born in Tucson, Arizona, Ai is multiethnic: Japanese, Black, Choctaw, and Irish. Known for her mastery of dramatic monologues, Ai uses the different voices in her poetry to tear at the vulgar sores of our human condition, uncovering hunger, sexual deviations, social disconnection, violence, and vengeance.

Ai has received awards from the Guggenheim Fellowship (1975) and the National Endowment for the Arts (1978 & 1985), as well as multiple Book Awards for her collections.


Cruelty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Edition(s): 1973 / paperback / ISBN 0-395-17714-6
Page count: 46
Book Design by:

About this Book: The poems in this book deal with hard-edged topics such as suicide, abortions, hanging, and domestic violence. This book takes an unfliching look at the unpredictability of our gross desires.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “After a Long Time” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Anniversary” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Before You Leave” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Corpse Hauler’s Elegy” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Deserter” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Dwarf” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Estranged” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Everything: Eloy, Arizona 1956” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Forty-Three-Year-Old Woman, Masturbating” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Hitchhiker” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Indecision” – The American Poetry Review
  • “New Crops for a Free Man” – The American Poetry Review
  • “One Man Down” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Possessions” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Prostitute” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Tennant Farmer” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Tired Old Whore” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Twenty-Year Marriage” – The American Poetry Review
  • “The Unexpected” – The American Poetry Review
  • “But What I’m trying to Say Mother Is” – The Iowa Review
  • “Abortion” – Ironwood
  • “The Cripple” – Ironwood
  • “Cuba, 1962” – Ironwood
  • “Why Can’t I Leave You” – Ironwood
  • “The Widow” – Ironwood
  • “Woman” – Ironwood
  • “Young Farm Woman Alone” – Ironwood
  • “I Have Got to Stop Loving You” – Lillabullero
  • “Cruelty” – Renaissance
  • “Disregard” – Renaissance

Critical Response: Critics agree with the Library Journal  that “this book… has the smell of life about it. Ai writes with power” and efficiency, shining light on taboo subjects.

Publisher Website:

Killing Floor: poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Edition(s):  1979 / paperback / ISBN 0-395-27593-8
Page count: 49
Book Design by:

Award(s): 1978 Lamont Poetry Selection Award for the best second book by an American poet from the American Academy of Poets

About this Book: In this collection, Ai paints intensifying images of sexuality and violence. She expands on Cruelty’s theme of dark human tendencies. In “The Kid,” she assumes the voice of a boy-murderer, who emerges unperturbed after destroying his family.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “Father and Son” – Antaeus
  • “He Kept on Burning” – Antaeus
  • “Confession” – Antaeus
  • “The Kid” – Antaeus
  • “The Singers” – Antaeus
  • “The Gilded Man” – Agni
  • “Lesson, Lesson” – Black Box
  • “Sleep Like a Hammer” – Chicago Review
  • “Ice” – Chicago Review
  • “Almost Grown” – Choice
  • “The Mortician’s Twelve-Year-Old Son” – Exile
  • “Jericho” – Iowa Review
  • “The Ravine” – Ironwood
  • “She Didn’t Even Wave” – Ironwood
  • “The Expectant Father” – Ironwood
  • “The German Army, Russia, 1942” – Ironwood
  • “Talking to His Reflection in a Shallow Pond” – Michigan Quarterly Review
  • “29 ( A Dream in Two Parts)” – Ms.
  • “The Ravine” – Ms.
  • “Nothing But Color” – Paris Review
  • “Killing Floor” – Paris Review
  • “Guadalajara Hospital” – Virginia Quarterly Review

Critical Response: Though no one doubts Ai’s talent, most critics agree with The New York Times Book Review, which has the following to say on the “emotional excesses” in this collection. “The poems’ context is often murky; strange, terrible and ‘beautiful’ images of mutilation… sex, death and violence recur with a predictable monotony…”

Publisher Website:

Cruelty; Killing Floor: poems. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1987.

Edition(s): 1987 / paperback / ISBN 0-938-41038-5
Page count: 99
Book Design by:

About this Book: This collection is a reprint of Ai’s first two collections.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • See Cruelty and Killing Floor.

Critical Response: See Cruelty and Killing Floor.

Publisher Website: Thunder’s Mouth Press was an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group Inc. Thunder’s Mouth Press no longer exists. The Perseus Books Group purchased the Avalon Publishing Group.

Sin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Edition(s):      1986 / paperback / ISBN 0-395-37908-3
Page count: 80
Book Design by:

Award(s): American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation

About this Book: Chilling voices of powerful men and mass-murderers eminate from the pages of Sin. In “The Good Sheperd: Atlanta, 1981,” the killer speaks of “devouring his children.” “…A man like me eats and is full./Only God is never satisfied.”

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “The Priest’s Confession” – Agni Review
  • “The Emigre” – Agni Review
  • “Saint Anne’s Reel, 1870” – The American Literary Review
  • “The Man with the Saxaphone” – The American Voice
  • “Solome” – Antaeus
  • “Kristallnacht, Part 1” – Bennington Review
  • “The Death of Francisco Pizatto” – Bennington Review
  • “The Detective” – Cambridge University Poetry Magazine
  • “Blue Suede Shoes” – Callaloo, No. 26 (Winter, 1986) pp. 1-5
  • “Blue Suede Shoes” – Callaloo, Vol 24, No. 3, the Best of Callaloo Poetry.
    A Special 25th Anniversary Issue (Summer, 2001) pp. 683-687
  • “More” – Crazy Horse
  • “Elegy” – Crazy Horse
  • “The Mother’s Tale” – Crazy Horse
  • “Blue Suede Shoes” – The Iowa Review
  • “They Shall Not Pass” – The Iowa Review
  • “Two Brothers” – Ironwood
  • “The Testimony of Robert Oppenheimer” – Michigan Quarterly Review
  • “The Journalist” – Missouri Review
  • “Conversation” – Paris Review
  • “Kristallnacht, Parts 2 – 4 ” – Poetry
  • “Immortality” – The Seatle Review

Critical Response: According to The New York Times Book Review, this is Ai’s best collection. Other critics echo an admiration for her ability to “penetrate” her characters. However, according to Poetry (Modern Poetry Association), “… all Ai’s monologists sound like Ai.”

Publisher Website:

Fate: New Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Edition(s): 1991 / paperback / ISBN – 0-395-55637-6
Page count: 77
Book Design by: Robert Overholtzer

About this Book: Fate is littered with dark themes. The poetry in this collection gives voice to the dead, which includes General George Custer, President Lydon Johnson, James Dean and Elvis Prestley.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “Jimmy Hoffa’s Odyssey” – Agni Review
  • “Lyndon Libre” – Alembic
  • “Go” – Areté
  • “The Cockfighter’s Daughter” – Café Solo
  • “The Resurrection of Elvis Presley” – Chelsea
  • “General George Armstrong Custer: My Life in the Theater” – Hayden’s Ferry Review
  • “James Dean” – Ironwood
  • “Capture” – Ironwood
  • “Fate” – Manoa
  • “The Shadowboxer” – Manoa
  • “Last Seen” – Pequod
  • “Eve’s Story” – Pequod
  • “Evidence: From a Reporter’s Notebook” – Pequod
  • “Boys and Girls, Lenny Bruce, or Back from the Dead” – Ploughshares
  • “Interview with a Policeman” – Poetry
  • “Reunions with a Ghost” – Quarterly West

Critical Response: Poetry (Modern Poetry Association) concludes, “Instead of harrowing our nervous systems, {the book’s} assault on the senses ultimately desensitizes.” On the contrary Library Journal praises the strength of Ai’s unnamed, down-and-out characters and defends the poet. “Ai’s horrific, surreal vision continues to mature with each book.”

Publisher Website:

Greed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

Edition(s): 1993 / paperback / ISBN 0-393-31201-1
Page count: 96
Book Design by: Guenet Abraham

About this Book: Poems from this collection are markers for the times, depicting the harsh, truthful realities of inner-city life. Ai tackles important, historical moments like the L.A. riots, the Rodney King’s beating and Mayor Marion Barry’s drug charges.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “Self Defense” – Agni Review, No 36
  • “Life Story” – Agni Review
  • “Hoover, Edgar J.” – Agni Review
  • “Knockout” – Callaloo, Vol 15, No 4 (Autumn, 1992) pp. 880-881
  • “Self Defense” – Callaloo, Vol 15, No 4 (Autumn, 1992) pp. 877-879
  • “Finished” – Caprice
  • “Appomatox” – Caprice
  • “Penis Envy” – Caprice
  • “Zero Velocity, II” – Graham House Review
  • “Respect, 1967” – Lingo
  • “Jack Ruby on Ice” – Muleteeth
  • “Riot Act” – Muleteeth
  • “Reconciliation, 2, 3, 4” – On the Bus
  • “Zero Velocity, I” – On the Bus
  • “Self Defense” – On the Bus
  • “Archangel” – On the Bus
  • “Family Portrait, 1960” – Ploughshares
  • “Oswald Incognito & Astral Travels” – Snail’s Pace Review
  • “Party Line” – Snail’s Pace Review
  • “Miracle in Manila” – Tribes
  • “Reconciliation, 1” – University of Louisville Review
  • “The Ice Cream Man” – Zone

Critical Response: Margaret Atwood writes the following on the importance and necessity of Ai to the American poetry landscape, “Ai is a strong, powerful poet who writes about real things. These are daring, disturbing, ambitious poems that go for the heart of America.”

Publisher Website:

Vice: new and selected poems. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Edition(s): 1999 / paperback / ISBN 0-393-32018-9
Page count: 272
Book Design by: Abbate Design

Award(s): 1999 National Book Award for Poetry

About this Book: Vice includes a collection of 58 monologues from Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate and Greed along with 17 new poems capturing characters from recent headlines, such as O.J. Simpson, Jon-Benet Ramsey and Monica Lewinsky.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “Passing Through” – The American Poetry Review
  • “Chance” – Bed of Rice: Momento Mori
  • “Chance” – Caprice
  • “Afterschool Lessons form a Hitman” – Focus on Art
  • “The Paparazzi” – Focus on Art
  • “Star Vehicle” – Focus on Art
  • “Knock, Knock” – New Letters
  • “Sleeping Beauty” – New Letters
  • “Rapture” – On the Bus
  • “Visitation” – On the Bus
  • “The Antihero” – Poetry International
  • “Stalking Memory” – Pequod
  • “Back in the World” – Quarterly West
  • “Charisma” – Rattle
  • “False Witness” – Sniper Logic

Critical Response: Critics agree with the Library Journal that Ai’s ability to pause the spotlight on the sufferings of the ordinary people results in poetry that is “richly rewarding, but not for the squeamish.”

Publisher Website:

Dread. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.

Edition(s): 2003 / hardcover / ISBN 0-393-04143-3
2004 / paperback / ISBN 0-393-32619-5
Page count: 136
Book Design by: Blue Shoe Studio

About this Book: For the first time, some of the fictionalized characters in her poems are from Ai’s family. Included in this collection are poems about her mother and father. Ai dedicated this book to survivors of childhood trauma.

The poems in this book have appeared in the following magazines and anthologies:

  • “The Greenwood Cycle” – Callaloo, Vol 24, No 4 (Autumn, 2001) pp. 947-952
  • “The White Homegirl” – Callaloo, Vol 24, No 4 (Autumn, 2001) pp. 953-954
  • “Dread” – Canary River
  • “Rude Awakening” – Columbia Magazine
  • “Intercourse” – Crazy Horse
  • “The Psychic Detective: Identity” – Crazy Horse
  • “Greetings Friend” – Divide
  • “Family” – Estrella Mountain Community College
  • “Fairy Tale” – Estruscan Press
  • “The Broker” – The Manthology
  • “The Calling” – The Mantholog
  • “The Secret” – New Delta Review
  • “Lullaby” – Pacific Review
  • “Grandfather Says” – Pacific Review
  • “Delusions” – Southwest Review
  • “The Psychic Detective: Fantasy” – Witness
  • “Passage” – The Writer’s Garret

Critical Response: The substance of this book is in its personal nature. The New York Times Book Review writes, “We feel in this book, as perhaps never before in Ai’s work, the presence of the writer and her anguished condition.”

Publisher Website:

Dread ~ Book Review

(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:

Grandfather Says
“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.
We’re outside,
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.

True Love
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.


An Exploration of Female Desires through the Personae of the Poet Ai

One afternoon, I sat on my third-floor apartment balcony and watched a man repeatedly pounded the windshield of his wife’s Toyota Tercel with a wooden bat. The man’s anger disrupted the peaceful façade of the quiet, tree-lined street. Car alarms, set-off by the sudden rupture of passion, competed for attention. The neighborhood suddenly came alive as spectators peaked through drawn curtains to assess the situation. Reassured that their cars were not the ones being damaged, one-by-one they disarmed and sunk back into their comfortable chairs. A domestic dispute between a man and his wife was no one else’s business.

“I hate you, you cheating bastard.” The wife’s words shot out of her mouth like jagged spears of glass. Her teary eyes burned with passion as she spoke, betraying her words. As if trying to drown out her voice, the man’ s bat connected with the side mirror, the windshield, the roof, the window, and then the windshield again, creating craters with each blow. From where I sat, unable to look away, I witnessed a disturbing scene, which could have been ripped right from one of Ai’s poems, played out in front of me. Violence, love, lust, raw human emotions unchecked and uncensored are subjects that Ai captures with mastery in her poetry.

A dark force inside of the woman kept her sitting there, egging her husband. Was it fear, was anger, or was it a mixture of both that had churned and grinded together to turn into something much more powerful, lust?

Suddenly, the bat shattered the side window, causing the woman’s courage to shatter with it. She let out a terrified sob, and she gunned the Tercel down the street, weaving from side-to-side, dodging parked cars. The man ran after his wife with tears in his eyes. When she did not stop, he sat down on the curb and buried his face inside his giant hands. The bat, which seconds ago was swinging with rage and passion, was now limp between his hairy legs.

But minutes later, the dented Tercel coasted back up the street and stopped in front of the distraught husband. The wife cautiously peeled herself out of the car seat. She walked up to him and rubbed her hand over his sweaty head in gentle concentric circles. He clung to her legs and wiped his tears on her thigh. All was forgiven.

Her hands groped at his face, leaving behind hot imprints. Her body twisted itself into him. Her identity was so damaged. It had become the abject. Consumed by the sudden burst of fever between them, she acted against her own self-interest.

The man rose and wrapped his arm, thick like an anaconda, around her shoulders and maneuvered her inside. Was the display of violence just their version of foreplay?

I watched them walked out of sight, hands in each other’s back pockets like teenagers in an intimate embrace, before going back inside where I turned on the TV just in time to see a man slammed a small ball straight down centerfield with a wooden bat. The impact ripped through the air, bouncing echoes off the walls of my apartment, leaving me to wonder how a ball can keep absorbing so much pain.

Pain, love, desire, and the confusion that results when the three mixes, is this what it means to be a woman? In some women, desire seems to victimize and violate, creating a space of abjection. In contemporary critical theory, Julia Kristeva uses abjection to explain the state of being that exists between the subject and the object. Abjection is caused by loss of distinction between the self and the other. According to Kristeva, “There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced.”

This state of abjection describes people who have been marginalized in some way, such as people of color, prostitutes and poor, abused or disabled people. In this context, “the abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule or law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them.” [Julia Kristeva, “Approaching Abjection”]

To be a woman, then, is to risk being in conflict with one’s own desires, as well as society’s desire to put woman neatly away in her place. What about the way in which female desire is interpreted and expected to be acted out that makes it the wooden bat upon which some women beat themselves? And why, in contrast, for other women, is female desire such a source of power? When the self is intact, desire can be used as a way to reinforce a sense of control and as a weapon that yields power and demands change. Through their actions and the way they deviate from society’s expectations, the women who embrace their desires as a force of power are able to reconfigure the roles that they are expected to play, creating twists and turns in the social order.


the poet Ai

The woman speaker in Ai’s “Why Can’t I Leave You,” like the wife and her dented Tercel, gives up control of her desires, surrendering control of her life to the desires which renders her powerless.

I undress, then put on my white lace slip
for you to take off, because you like that
and when you come in, you pull down the straps
and I unbutton your shirt.
I know we can’t give each other anymore
or any less than what we have.
There is safety in that, so much
that I can never get past the packing,
the begging you to please, if I can’t make you happy,
come close between my thighs
and let me laugh for you from my second mouth.

This woman’s desires, though she does not derive power from them, are part of her identity. They weaken her, forcing her to accept less than what she needs. Her sense of self is shattered, becoming the abject, forcing her to beg and passively manipulate instead of making demands for the things that she needs and wants, convincing her to stay with a man, who, on his best day, does not have enough within him to provide her with the contentment she desires, even if “there is safety in that.” She cannot bring herself to want more than the things that he likes or be happy unless she is making him happy.

However, she is still aware of the power of her passion, “come close between my thighs/and let me laugh for you from my second mouth.” She still knows how to use it to seduce him and exercise her limited power over him. Though she may be unaware of their full power, her desires are still the silent forces in the background that affected her inability to leave.

In contemporary poetry and literature, female desire is often viewed simultaneously as a force of mysterious power and as a source of evil and corruption. In Ai’s “The Mother’s Tales,” a mother is devoured by her own mysterious desires.

I was young, free.
But Jaunito, how free is a woman? —
born with Eve’s sin between her legs,
and inside her,
Lucifer sits on a throne of abalone shells,
his staff with the head of John the Baptist
skewered on it.
And in judgment, son, in judgment he says
that woman will bear the fruit of the tree
we wished so much to eat
and that fruit will devour us
generation by generation,

This mother is judged for the desires and sins of all the generations that came before her. Being born a woman, she is shackled by her womanhood. This is her sense of self. But the self, in this case, is in conflict and her identity is poorly constructed, so the ego breaks down and becomes the other—the abject.

This mother is victimized twice, first by the man who had abused her and convinced her that a woman must be beat; and second by her own sense of morality against her female desires. And then as with most victims, she continues the cycle of victimization through the lessons that she passes on to her children.

so my son,
you must beat Rosita often.
She must know the weight of a man’s hand,
the bruises that are like the wounds of Chris.
And she must be pregnant always
if not with child
then with the knowledge
that she is alive because of you.
That you can take her life
more easily than she creates it,

With blind rage against the desires that made her weak and female, this mother instructs her son to rip his wife’s power from the womb, from the sacred place where life emerges. He is taught to take his wife’s desires and twist them into knots from which he can hang her like the body of Christ. This mother, a woman made so powerless by the circumstances of her own life, is only able to empower herself by becoming an indirect aggressor. By demanding from her son that his wife “must know the weight of a man’s hand,” she is creating a new generation of men whom she can control, even if that control comes at the abjection of other women.

This mother is so far removed from her own desires and sense of self that she is only defined by violent acts. They have become her truth—a truth, which to her is sacred and immortal like her religious beliefs.  She accepts the burden to pass on this violence against female desire as a way to stop its corruption. In telling her son to beat desires out of the woman who lies with him and spawns his children, this mother is gaining back a sense of who she is. Through her lessons, she reaffirms her place in a world, even if it is a place where women only exist in the space of abjection.

The self in the personaes Ai’s poems inhabit is often broken, but is always present, dictating actions and reactions. A woman’s desires stab at her from the inside, puncturing the ego, reshaping her identity. But if she can get a hold of these desires, she can wield them like weapons. In the “Tired Old Prostitute,” Ai’s persona experiences abjection brought on by her chosen profession, but she finds a way to re-envision herself and return her sense of self to its object state.

This is my property, I laid for it, paid for it, you know,
and I just want to build a cement walkway
right up to my front door.
I’ll be the only whore within fifty miles
who can claim she did something with her hands
that didn’t get a man hard.
What? — but I’m so tired. Can’t you wait a while?
I’m forty-five, my breath’s short, I like to sleep alone.
Yeah, yeah, I rolled in my jelly and it felt good,
but this belly isn’t wood or steel.
Man, turn your butt to my face.
But wait, I need a little help, help me, sweet thing.
Pull down your pants.
I like to see what I’m getting now,
before it gets into me.

Despite the fact that she was once victimized by her desires, this woman’s identity has found a way to reestablish itself, and it is now as steady as the house—she has “laid for it, paid for it.” Sitting on a firm foundation of self-reliance, but with desires still very much a part of her life, she is in control. She tells men what to do. “Pull down your pants./I like to see what I’m getting now,/before it gets into me.” She tells them what she likes and how she likes it.

In women who have a strong grip on their powers like this “tired old prostitute,” the ego employs desires to reverse the direction of powerlessness, allowing the woman to break out of her traditional role and rewrite cultural norms. From the prostitute to the woman in “Old Woman, Young Man” Ai’s poems expose cultural norm through her characters’ deviation from them.

Unashamed, I part my legs.
As always he says, look there’s a rose,
yes, but it’s lost its teeth.
He eats without tasting
and I reach to scratch my name
on the damp face rising
with a few crinkled gray hairs
shoving their white-tipped heads
against his scarred and frightened lips.

This “old woman” breaks cultural norms by acting out her desires with a younger man, taking what is traditionally a male role, and empowering herself through it. Unlike the wife in the Tercel who allowed her desires to oppress her, this old woman embraces her power and seeks pleasures from it. She satisfies her desires, but not at the cost of sacrificing her sense of self.

Another situation where the female desire is in control can be found in the poem, “Woman.” This woman knows what pleases her and is unabashed in going about getting it.

The adobe walls of the house
clutch the noon heat in tin fists
and while bathing, I fan my breasts,
watching the nipples harden.
I pinch them, feeling nothing, but wanting to,
and shift my weight from left buttock to right,
while the water circling my waist tightens,
as if you had commanded it.
I stand up, spreading my legs apart,
Ready to release the next ribbon of blood.

 This woman knows her desires. She is unashamed of them. “I fan my breasts,/watching the nipples harden./I pinch them, feeling nothing, but wanting to.” She wants to discover her pleasures. She celebrates the “ribbon of blood” that is released from her. She celebrates the life that is created as the product of her pleasures and desires.

All right. You want me now, this way.
I haven’t locked the door.
My swollen belly feels only its heaviness,
and would weigh less than the pain
chipping away at my navel with an ice pick of muscle.
I can carry you.
The blood, halved and thinned, rolls down my legs,
cupping each foot in a red stirrup
and I am riding that invisible horse,
the same one my mother rode.
It’s hungry, it has to be fed,
the last man couldn’t, can you?

She is strong and bold. Her female desire is a source of limitless power. “I can carry you,” she declares. She rejoices and embraces the life force that courses through her. She is the creator. “Riding that invisible horse,/the same one my mother rode,” she is part of a something bigger, something which connects all women.

This woman knows what she wants, and she wants a man who can play the role that she casts for him. “It’s hungry, it has to be fed,/the last man couldn’t, can you?”

To be a woman is to know desires. A woman’s desires and her identity are linked. This is her sense of self.  However, female desire as determined by the constructions of patriarchal power is a concept that is inherently in conflict with itself.  In women whose identities are poorly constructed, the ego breaks down and become the other—the abject. When this happens, the woman is rendered powerless by her desires, victimized by her needs. The wife in the Tercel was such a victim. She was violated by her desires and became weaken by them. The repeated beating of her husband’s bat terrified her, yet at the same time, it excited her desires for him. Though she tried to leave, she came back, never realizing that she had the power to create change for herself.

However, in women who have a strong grip on their powers, like the “tired old prostitute” and the “old woman with the young man,” the ego employs desires to reverse the structure of power. By demanding that their female desire be acknowledged, these women expose flaws in what society deems as acceptable behavior from and toward women. And by deviating from conventional thinking, they act as agents of change, forcing society to bend to their needs, finding power in female desire instead of allowing it to suppress their voices.