The Poet Ai Joins the Ancestors

The poet Ai Ogawa died Saturday from complications stemming from pneumonia and late stage breast cancer (Courtesy: )

The poet Ai Ogawa died Saturday from complications stemming from pneumonia and late stage breast cancer (Courtesy: )

The multiracial poet Ai, born Florence Anthony, has died. She was 62.

Born black, Irish, Native and Japanese American, Ai, a creative writing professor at Oklahoma State University, checked into Stillwater Medical Center on March 17 suffering from the effects of pneumonia. However, it was revealed that she was also apparently suffering from untreated late stage breast cancer. She passed away quietly surrounded by her close family and friends on March 20.

From the Daily O’Collegian:

According to her obituary, Ai received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona in Oriental Studies and a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of California-Irvine.

“She was originally hired at OSU in 1999 as a visiting poet,” Moder said.

OSU offered her a tenured position and she has been on the faculty ever since, Moder said.

Ai is the author of seven volumes of literature and received numerous awards, including the American Book Award in 1987 for Sin. She was one of eight recipients of the National Book Award for Vice: New and Selected Poems in 1999.

“(The National Book Award) is a very prestigious award,” Moder said. “She is really internationally known.”

Ai was recently recognized in December with a United States Artists Ford Fellowship in literature.

“It’s meant to support people with further work,” Moder said.

Ai has a volume of poems, No Surrender, that is expected to be published in September.

Not only was Ai a successful author but she was also active in the Native American Faculty and Staff Organization, where she was the vice president.

“She was quite involved with that group,” Moder said.

A former student of Ai’s, Jerry Williams, who lives in New York City and teaches at Marymount Manhattan College, wrote a blog on Sunday about the impact Ai had on him.

“As I learned more about Ai, I read her many books, felt her influence growing in me,” Wiliams wrote in his blog.

According to his blog, Williams has taught many of Ai’s books in his classes.

Lisa D. Chavez, who worked with Ai at Arizona State, also expressed her thoughts about Ogawa.

“She was a great poet, and the poetry world is less bright without her,” Chavez commented on Williams’s blog.

Williams’s blog can be read here.

According to her obituary, there is an arranged viewing for students, friends, and colleagues from 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Palmer Marler Funeral Home in Stillwater.

More from her shocked circle of students and friends here.

Killing Floor was what got me going. She, like the late Lucille Clifton, was a revelation. The woman had me almost gasping for breath. In the title poem, I loved her grasp of moment (and dreams) in the death of the Jew Lev Bronstein, known to most of us as the Communist Leon Trotsky, rival of another butcher, Josef Stalin. Trotsky, driven into exile by Stalin, survived numerous assassination attempts until he was chopped to death in 1940 by an axe-wielding assassin in Mexico at a house given to him by leftist artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. (It’s been alleged that Rivera arranged it all at the behest of Stalin, and probably to get revenge against Trotsky for having an affair with Frida.)

Ai took me over and never let me go. It’s the beautiful, intimate cruelty of these words that conjure up these moments.

Killing Floor

by Ai

1. RUSSIA, 1927

On the day the sienna-skinned man
held my shoulders between his spade-shaped hands,
easing me down into the azure water of Jordan,
I woke ninety-three million miles from myself,
Lev Davidovich Bronstein,
shoulder-deep in the Volga,
while the cheap dye of my black silk shirt darkened the water.

My head wet, water caught in my lashes.
Am I blind?
I rub my eyes, then wade back to shore,
undress and lie down,
until Stalin comes from his place beneath the birch tree.
He folds my clothes
and I button myself in my marmot coat,
and together we start the long walk back to Moscow.
He doesn’t ask, what did you see in the river?,
but I hear the hosts of a man drowning in water and holiness,
the castrati voices I can’t recognize,
skating on knives, from trees, from air
on the thin ice of my last night in Russia.
Leon Trotsky. Bread.
I want to scream, but silence holds my tongue
with small spade-shaped hands
and only this comes, so quietly
Stalin has to press his ear to my mouth:
I have only myself. Put me on the train.
I won’t look back.

2. MEXICO, 1940

At noon today, I woke from a nightmare:
my friend Jacques ran toward me with an ax,
as I stepped from the train in Alma-Ata.
He was dressed in yellow satin pants and shirt.
A marigold in winter.
When I held out my arms to embrace him,
he raised the ax and struck me at the neck,
my head fell to one side, hanging only by skin.
A river of sighs poured from the cut.

3. MEXICO, August 20, 1940

The machine-gun bullets
hit my wife in the legs,
then zigzagged up her body.
I took the shears, cut open her gown
and lay on top of her for hours.
Blood soaked through my clothes
and when I tried to rise, I couldn’t.

I wake then. Another nightmare.
I rise from my desk, walk to the bedroom
and sit down at my wife’s mirrored vanity.
I rouge my cheeks and lips,
stare at my bone-white, speckled egg of a face:
lined and empty.
I lean forward and see Jacques’s reflection.
I half-turn, smile, then turn back to the mirror.
He moves from the doorway,
lifts the pickax
and strikes the top of my head.
My brain splits.
The pickax keeps going
and when it hits the tile floor,
it flies from his hands,
a black dove on whose back I ride,
two men, one cursing,
the other blessing all things:
Lev Davidovich Bronstein,
I step from Jordan without you.

And then there is this one, again full of immediacy and without preamble, about the writer and neo-militarist Yukio Mishima, who was gay and had a fetish for sweat, white gloves and a bloody, ceremonious death. It go to the point where merely memorizing the first two lines was enough for the whole poem:

Nothing But Color

by Ai

for Yukio Mishima

I didn’t write Etsuko,
I sliced her open.
She was carmine inside
like a sea bass
and empty.
No viscera, nothing but color.
I love you like that, boy.
I pull the kimono down around your shoulders
and kiss you.
Then you let it fall open.
Each time, I cut you a little
and when you leave, I take the piece,
broil it, dip it in ginger sauce
and eat it. It burns my mouth so.
You laugh, holding me belly-down
with your body.
So much hurting to get to this moment,
when I’m beneath you,
wanting it to go on and to end.

At midnight, you say see you tonight
and I answer there won’t be any tonight,
but you just smile, swing your sweater
over your head and tie the sleeves around your neck.
I hear you whistling long after you disappear
down the subway steps,
as I walk back home, my whole body tingling.
I undress
and put the bronze sword on my desk
beside the crumpled sheet of rice paper.
I smooth it open
and read its single sentence:
I meant to do it.
No. It should be common and feminine
like I can’t go on sharing him,
or something to imply that.
Or the truth:
that I saw in myself
the five signs of the decay of the angel
and you were holding on, watching and free,
that I decided to go out
with the pungent odor
of this cold and consuming passion in my nose: death.
Now, I’ve said it. That vulgar word
that drags us down to the worms, sightless, predestined.
Goddamn you, boy.
Nothing I said mattered to you;
that bullshit about Etsuko or about killing myself.
I tear the note, then burn it.
The alarm clock goes off. 5:45 A.M.
I take the sword and walk into the garden.
I look up. The sun, the moon,
two round teeth rock together
and the light of one chews up the other.
I stab myself in the belly,
wait, then stab myself again. Again.
It’s snowing. I’ll turn to ice,
but I’ll burn anyone who touches me.
I start pulling my guts out,
those red silk cords,
spiraling skyward,
and I’m climbing them
past the moon and the sun,
past darkness
into white.
I mean to live.

I wish you had lived longer, Ai. But I am certainly glad for your work.

~ by blksista on March 24, 2010.

4 Responses to “The Poet Ai Joins the Ancestors”

  1. Thank you all, for this has been so hard on us, but we have returned knowing such wonderful and compassionate people that will be always consider our new friends and family. That for years to come will be a joyous time to remember such a strong minded person and poet, and such an amazing woman that was not to be reckoned with. But your words will continue on. For you are and always will be remembered. Love you Ai and you will be missed.


  2. Ai was the real thing. I’m too pissed off now to write. Because how many lives does it take to make a voice like that? She was a cat who loved and spat and you never knew where she really was at. Except in her poems.


  3. Remembering Ai’s poetry: an excerpt from “La Bal Masque”


  4. Ai,

    May the ancestors be waiting for you with both hands.


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