Confession in Ai’s No Surrender

“A baby who would inherit the end of the world:”
Confession in Ai’s No Surrender

by Kathleen Nalley

In her posthumous work, No Surrender, the morally defunct characters typical of Ai’s previous poetry collections are nowhere to be found. While there are priests, they are not committing unforgiveable acts on children; while there are mothers, none of them are as cruel as the one who forces her daughter to wear a choke collar and get on all fours.  The personas of No Surrender are not the psychotic outliers no one wants to talk about. Instead, they are seemingly “normal” people, making decisions whose consequences are known and are not that bad (at least, in comparison to previous characters).

Despite the book’s lack of seismic shock value, its voice still belongs to Ai, if perhaps a calmer, less dramatic, in-your-face Ai. No Surrender was written as Ai was dying of breast cancer and published after her death. If No Surrender has any reoccurring theme, it is the triumph of living despite seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

Most of the poems in No Surrender hint at autobiography. “Baby Florence” appears throughout the book (Ai’s real name was Florence). Racial themes permeate its pages, from Irish to African to Indian to Asian — ironically, all the nationalities and cultures Ai claimed as her own. In “Motherhood, 1951,” the Baby Florence character witnesses her mother giving birth to another fatherless baby (Ai would have been four years old in 1951, which matches the timeline of the poem). In “Discipline,” the poem’s speaker is age seven, which is the age Ai would have been in 1954. The multiracial woman in “Fatherhood” muses “Who couldn’t have imagined/There’d be a place for someone like me in their history”, an idea that seems to have infiltrated Ai’s personal life.

 

“The Cancer Chronicles” follows a confessional bent. The poet Ai died suddenly from breast cancer — the speaker in the poem dies, also, of untreated breast cancer, knowing the disease is ravaging her body, but continuing in a state of denial: “And she knew she would die of it./But she would not give into it./She would”, and “She would remain among the living,/Giving no sign of her struggle”.

Perhaps No Surrender was Ai’s most confessional, most personal work and, ultimately, what she was leaving behind for the world. Instead of a focus on Dread, Vice, Greed, Fate, Sin or Cruelty (the names and themes of her previous works), this final book emphasizes the resilience of the human spirit — a denial of death and an acceptance of life, no matter the circumstances or fate. It is the culmination of a poet’s reconciliation of the self and the world.

Ai-No Surrender. W.W. Norton & Company
Ai-No Surrender. W.W. Norton & Company

Ai. No Surrender. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.

 

 

Why the repetition works

Why The Repetiton Works
by Cheryl Russell

One of the stories from The Best American Short Stories that I remember is Julie Otsuka‘s short story “Diem Perdidi,” a Latin phrase for “I have lost the day.” It is a phrase the narrator’s mother remembers from her high school Latin–a subject she was so proficient in she was awarded honors at her high school graduation. But now, the narrator’s mother is suffering from memory loss and by repeating the phrases “she remembers” and “she doesn’t remember,” Otsuka is able to draw the reader into the narrator’s grief as losing her mother a bit at a time.

Nearly every sentence in the story starts with one of two phrases: “she remembers” and “she does not remember.” If a sentence doesn’t start with one of these phrases, then it is probably written into the sentence. By using these phrases, Otsuka shows the cruelty of her mother’s disease, as well as it’s progression.

“She remembers” her fifth grade teacher, her mother killing the family’s chickens before this Japanese family was relocated to the desert, and her first love. “She does not remember” the names of those closest to her–her husband, the narrator–what she’s just done, such as pick a flower to put in her hair or eating lunch.

“She remembers” much of her past–in great detail–her father abandoning their family when she was young and her mother scattering salt in the corners of the house after his departure and the daughter who survived only moments after birth.

“She remembers” the names of the people at the grocery store where she currently shops, but “she does not remember” the names of her immediate family.

By repeated use of those two phrases–“she remembers” and “she does not remember,” Otsuka is able draw the reader into the narrator’s grief at her mother’s slow passing. While physically she remains in good shape, the essence of who she is, is fading away. “She remembers” and “she does not remember” serve to point out the slipping away of this woman, contrasting what is known to what is forgotten, and how what is own is continually slipping away, until “she does not remember” will become more frequent than “she remembers.”

The Best American Short Stories 2012
The Best American Short Stories 2012

Otsuka, Julie. “Diem Pardidi.” The Best American Short Stories 2012.” Ed. Tom Perrotta. Series ed. Heidi Pitlor. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 152-161. Print.

The Beauty in Intention

by Gabrielle Freeman

Obvious fact about books of poetry: in most cases, the reader can open the book to any random page and have the full reading experience. The individual poem on the page does not usually have to be read before or after any other poem in the collection. Before anybody gets all excited, trust me, I do understand that putting a book of poetry together is very difficult and does involve order. I once compared the process to wrestling a pissed off cat. Each poem needs to at least lead in to the next or make some sort of sense when read together, even if it is not linear. However, each poem should also be able to stand on its own.

I am currently reading Bruce Covey’s book Glass Is Really a Liquid. Writing a blog post about an entire book of poetry is daunting, so I decided to try my luck and go with open-to-random-page-and-write-on-that-one. I am enjoying the book, so I wasn’t necessarily worried about which poem I would land on, but serendipity brought me to page 110.

“The Difference Between Toggle Bolts & Molly Screws” and I became instant friends at its title. Because I have spent at least an hour total in my life trying to hammer, shove, and force toggle bolts through disintegrating drywall, ditto Molly screws, I thought this poem must have something to do with force. Well, yes and no. It has more to do with the purpose or intention of the bolt/screw than its application. Both expand, in different ways, once through the drywall in order to hold tightly to the wall, thereby allowing heavy objects to be hung where there is no wall stud without, you know, ripping through your sheetrock resulting in spackled patches and copious swearing.

Now, consider the following: “I do this: press gently through your center / Nestling, mixing into your microcosmic control / Until its wings finally cross the cusp, detach, / Unfold again on the opposite side, drawing me / As close to you as relative density might allow” (lines 7-11). These lines are sexual and technical, describing human intimacy as a fastening. The metaphor of the bolt and screw offer a concrete image that the reader can visualize, and it lends beauty and reverence to ordinary items. It almost made me forgive all those minutes I’ve spent pounding away at them, and I do say that tongue in cheek. I find a nod to humor in the imagery as well. When a poem can make the reader swoon and giggle at the same time, it really works.

I do want to mention my favorite lines from the poem: “where order / the first, trace to follow up your spine & amidst / Your hair an intended & immediate kiss” (26-28). The combination of the intimate and the rather mechanical is continued here. The kiss together with the words “intended & immediate” add to the feeling of truth written in this poem. The reader believes the action and the emotion presented because the poet includes the reader in the speaker’s experience; both the words and the actions are intentional. The action of the bolt and screw are intended; they achieve their purpose immediately.

Covey, Bruce. Glass Is Really a Liquid. Reston, VA: No Tell Books, 2010.

Pages From the Ages

By Liat Faver

            Phillip Lopate’s collection of works in The Art of the Personal Essay, takes readers on a journey to and from other civilizations, and delves as far back as Seneca, in the first years of the first century A.D., to the early 1990s. In an exploration of varied styles evolving from measured, deliberate, ornate flourishes, to conversationally-toned expositions and crafty sarcasm, the ride is a marvelous escapade that reminds us how far we’ve come as authors and readers, and how very little we’ve changed as humans.

I was most at home with Lopate’s The Rise of the English Essay, wherein we meet Addison and Steele, Lamb, Hazlitt, Chesterton, and Woolf, among other well-known authors. One must read several paragraphs of each of these entries to adapt to the unique flair of each author. When one has grown accustomed, the waters are smooth and welcoming, especially if one is, like me, an Anglophile.

William Hazlitt’s On Going a Journey is a vivid observation by one whose purpose is communion between the spirit of man, and the soul of nature. Hazlitt’s reverence for the natural world cannot be expressed in words, but if they could, he would “attempt to wake the thoughts that lie slumbering on golden ridges in the evening clouds; but at the sight of nature my fancy, poor as it is, droops and closes up its leaves, like flowers at sunset” (184). For one with a loss for words, his choices are melodic and lovely. Hazlitt turns ordinary sensations into symphonies, and it’s not all romance. His stunning portrayal of humanity in On the Pleasure of Hating stings with its accuracy: “Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal” (190).

Lopate sends us to Other Cultures, Other Continents with offerings by Turgenev, Tanizaki, Benjamin, Borges, and Fuentes, to name a few, and ends the anthology with The American Scene, with selections by classically renowned authors like Thoreau, Fitzgerald, and E. B. White, and brings in a few contemporaries with works by Baldwin, Vidal, Didion, Dillard, and many more. Lopate’s own Against Joie de Vivre, a series of wry observances, gets us laughing with honest portrayals of humans doing what we do.

When faced with Joie’s Doppelganger, Lopate muses about lying on the beach, where “there is no harder work I can think of than taking myself off to somewhere pleasant, where I am forced to stay for hours and ‘have fun’ . . . I distrust anything that will make me pause long enough to be put in touch with my helplessness . . . unable to ward off the sensation of being utterly alone . . .” (724). In the Here and Now reflects Lopate’s practical stance on the popular notion of inhabiting the present, a thing “much overrated . . . Besides, the present has a way of intruding whether you like it or not. Why should I go out of my way to meet it? . . . I . . . will salute it grimly like any other modern inconvenience” (725).

The Art of the Personal Essay is a pleasant and thorough romp through the ages, with more rich variety than can be briefly expressed. Readers will want to return to its pages to revisit its memorable and remarkable narratives, to savor its bounty of hues and textures. I only wish I could take it intravenously.

Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay. New York: Anchor Books. 1994. Print.

Some Practical Tips for Fellow Writers

I’m going to veer off course for this post and, instead of critiquing a particular work of fiction, share a few tips that have helped me as a writer. A few of these are ubiquitous throughout craft books and writing blogs, while others are slightly less obvious.

This is motivated in part by my desire to pass on wisdom I’ve borrowed over the years, but also, more selfishly, a need to reinvigorate my own writing. So, without further delay, here they are:

1) Make writing a habit.

This is arguably one of the most important advice a writer can receive. You will not improve as a writer if you don’t write. You won’t create better stories, you won’t develop stronger characters, and you won’t discover anything interesting about life if you aren’t writing. The easiest way I’ve found to keep writing (and others will agree with me) is to make it a habit. Set aside an hour or two every day, whatever you can spare, and write. That block of time is now off-limits to everything that doesn’t involve putting a pen to paper.

2) Find a space (physical and mental) to write.

This is related to my above point. You will have an easier time of sticking to your writing habit if you have not only a dedicated time but also a dedicated space. Don’t spend your writing time in the kitchen or the living room or in your office at work. Go somewhere that is not a part of your daily routine (the library, the attic, or an abandoned warehouse) and work there. But it is not just a physical space that you need; it is also a mental one. Forget about the groceries or the tax man and submerge yourself in the work. The doldrums of reality will be there when you return.

3) Eliminate distractions during your writing time.

Again, related to the above. Here’s a short list to help cut out the clutter (lists within lists, what will they think of next?). Bring only your writing materials and whatever you are currently reading, don’t bring your cell phone with you (I know it’s difficult!), don’t sit near outside-facing windows, and eat something beforehand so you aren’t hungry.

4) Discuss your writing with people of many different levels of writing skill and various walks of life.

No matter how well-traveled you are, you’ve only seen a finite amount that the world has to offer. In order to broaden the appeal of your works you should talk to as many different people as you can. Maybe your professional artist speaks and acts more like a doctor. If you don’t know anyone who works in one of those professions (or someone who knows someone who is, and so on with diminishing returns) how can you know how to paint characters in a similar situation?

5) Read works (fiction, nonfiction, poetry) that normally don’t appeal to you.

You should be reading. All the time. Newspaper, cereal boxes, subway graffiti, everything. I just finished reading a non-fiction book for the first time in quite some time (Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and it was great). I normally read exclusively fiction, which limits the kinds of writing I experience. If you force yourself to read outside your normal fare (better still if you enjoy it) you will expand your horizons and improve your own writing.

6) Write with a pen on paper.

If you already do this, congratulations! You win the prize of self-satisfaction! If you don’t, there is an element to writing that is only captured by writing in ink on real paper. It is a visceral experience, and your hand will ache after a good day of writing.

Those are the six tips I have for you today. Try any or all of them next time you sit down to write. Worst case, they don’t work for you and you still get a writing session out of it. But, just maybe, they will propel your creative self to places its never been before. And while you’re there, throw a rope to the rest of us.