Monday, March 29, 2010

Ai

Ai Ogawa, a poet who understood power and pain more than most, has died.  See the NY Times obituary, which includes some poems, here.  There is also a tribute by one of her students, Jerry Williams, here, with a growing list of comments and appreciations.  And a page from Oklahoma State University, with another of her wonderful poems.

Ai was undiluted.  Strong stuff at a time it was not common to be so. I was fortunate enough to end my stay at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MFA program with a poetry workshop she taught as a visiting professor. At that time she used 'Ai' as her publishing name and had transformed (it was all about transformation, for her) her given name, Florence, to one that she pronounced the same but that grew out of a unique and tortured phonetic construction of her own -- Pelorhanke, or something close to that.  She wasn't one to accept any of her history, or any piece of the world at all, without tearing it apart and reconstructing it. Her poetry and the workshop freed me for the first time to write in the voice of some one utterly unlike myself.  The first real poem, in one sense.

She was full of contradictions.  She wrote about salted open wounds and overt brutality; married at the time of those workshops, she frequently spent the hours passively leaning on her husband's arm, complaining of a headache while he taught the workshop.  She collected old purses.  I have some evening bags from my grandmother -- one of them a hand-size purse of delicately knitted cord, strung all over with jet-black bugle beads.  I think of Ai every time I pull it out of the box to look at it again. I can't imagine my grandmother carrying it, but I can imagine Ai finding it in an antique store and just having to have it.  She spoke about her heritage - Choctaw, Irish, Japanese, and so on - but refused to categorize herself as any of these.  They were part of her, but not categories, and not defining.  As she did with everything else, she disassembled her past and built it up again.  A thing of her own making.

If you aren't familiar with her poetry, search the Internet and find it now.  Some of the poems are almost too brutal (for me) to read.  They always have a direct voice -- usually a monologue from a tangible (but not her own) personality that is compelling, and violent, and wholly imagined into reality. Her poems come with a guaranteed chill, right up the back of your neck.

1 comment:

Catherine Rankovic, USA said...

Great post. I hadn't heard she had passed. She was referred to nearly everywhere, a poet's poet.