When Cruelty was published in 1973, I read the collection repeatedly, transported by the mystery in the poems and by the politics of gender on almost every page. The way the first poem in the collection, "Twenty-Year Marriage," opens is a clue to this poet’s psychology: "You keep me waiting in a truck / with its one good wheel stuck in a ditch, / while you piss against the south side of a tree. / Hurry. I’ve got nothing on under my skirt tonight." The speaker’s insinuation is calculated. The intentional, invented tension breathes on the page. She has our attention. But Ai knows-like any great actor-that language and pace are also crucial. Sometimes a poem may seem like personalized folklore, a feeling culled from the imagination. The characters hurt each other out of a fear of being hurt, and often they are doubly hurt. Do we believe her characters because they seem to evolve from some uncharted place beyond us but also inside us? They are of the soil, as if they’ve always been here; but they also reside on borders-spiritually, psychologically, existentially, and emotionally-as if only half-initiated into the muscular terror of ordinary lives. All the contradictions of so-called democracy live in her speakers. Most of the characters in Ai’s poetry are distinctly rural, charged in mind and belly with folkloric signification, always one step or one trope from homespun violence and blasphemy. What first deeply touched me in Cruelty is this: Ai’s images-tinctured by an unknown folklore-seemed to arise from some deep, unsayable place, translated from a pre-language of knowing or dreaming with one’s eyes open, as if something from long ago still beckoned to be put into words Yusef Komunyaka
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