This Old Poem #90:
Ai’s Grandfather Says
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/8/04

  Florence Anthony is yet another of the PC Elitist black poets who chose to reject their birth name in favor of a name of their own choosing. Unlike Ntozake Shange’s name change, however, Flo’s nominal switch was not due to puerile political political posturing- love that alliterative beat, man!- but to personal trauma. Just what kind of trauma would drive someone to change her name from something normal to the silly Ai (a ripoff of the earlier AE & HD- yet whose pen names were just that)? Here’s who:

  Ai, who has described herself as ½ Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche, was born in Albany, Texas, in 1947; she grew up in Tucson, Arizona. She legally changed her name to "Ai," which means "love" in Japanese. Qouth Ai: ‘Ai 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’. Raised also in Las Vegas and San Francisco, she majored in Japanese at the University of Arizona and immersed herself in Buddhism. Currently based in Tempe, she has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and various universities; she has also been a frequent reader-performer of her work. Ai holds an M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine. She is the author of Dread (W. W. Norton & Co., 2003); Vice (1999), which won the National Book Award for Poetry; Greed (1993); Fate (1991); Sin (1986), which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation; Killing Floor (1979), which was the 1978 Lamont Poetry Award of the Academy of American Poets; and Cruelty (1973). She has also received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Bunting Fellowship Program at Radcliffe College. She teaches at Oklahoma State University and lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

  The fact that in Western society only men have surnames does nothing to blunt the illogic of Ai’s stance, nor does the classic PC ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’ trauma really seem all that traumatic. & just how many ½s are there to this pretty blank slate, yet oh so complex, poetaster?
  Too many, as well as too many published pieces of shit. Here’s a typically PC & banal snip from a  ‘feminist’ poem called Conversation:

Did you ever, you start,
wear a certain kind of dress
and just by accident,
so inconsequential you barely notice it,
your fingers graze that dress
and you hear the sound of a knife cutting paper,
you see it too
and you realize how that image
is simply the extension of another image,
that your own life
is a chain of words
that one day will snap.
Words, you say, young girls in a circle, holding hands,
and beginning to rise heavenward
in their confirmation dresses,
like white helium balloons,
the wreathes of flowers on their heads spinning,
and above all that,
that's where I'm floating,
and that's what it's like
only ten times clearer,
ten times more horrible.
Could anyone alive survive it?

  Ostensibly a shot against conformity the poem lacks any real subtlety & the horror of confirmation dresses is just, well, too silly to contemplate. The poem is not trying to be humorous, for Ai is devoid of humor. In a sense, she is a ‘darker’ Carolyn Forché- both in skin color & subject matter. Note that I said nothing about quality for there is none, although I grant she is generally a bit better at enjambment than other PC Elitist poets. However, her poems have no music. Like this 1:


Coming home, I find you still in bed,
but when I pull back the blanket,
I see your stomach is flat as an iron.
You've done it, as you warned me you would
and left the fetus wrapped in wax paper
for me to look at. My son.
Woman, loving you no matter what you do,
what can I say, except that I've heard
the poor have no children, just small people
and there is room only for one man in this house.

  This is what passes for profundity in Ai’s moor of a mind. Although it’s better than the prior poem it’s still rather banal for the imagery, coming post-Plath, is really not that shocking & the poem just lays like the fetus, dad & with no real purpose save a failed shock value. Any political comment is so ‘out there’ that 1 wonders why Ai decide to do a poem, & not just a bumper sticker? The music? What did you say? Here’s some from a well-titled piece of crap called More:

I'd float past all the sad towns,
past all the dreamers onshore
with their hands out.
I'd hold on, I'd hold,
till the awful heaviness
tore from me,
sank to bottom and stayed.
Then I'd stand up

like Lazarus
and walk home across the water.

  In the poem America is anthropomorphized, which is not a bad conceit, but little is done with it save the same old Left wing kvetching. & why did she end the thing with the trite Lazarus cliché? I mean, even eliding the penultimate line still leaves you with guess who? Ugh! Guess what Ai handles even worse & clumsier than her faith? You got it, she’s written often of her alleged incest. It’s really bad, but take a gander:

Grandfather Says

"Sit in my hand."
I'm 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 seeks 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?"
"Where?" I answered.
Then I said, "Oh, play hide-and-seek."
She looked hard at me,
then she said, "That was the last time.
I'm stopping that game."
So it ended and I forgot.
Ten years passed, thirtyfive,
when I began to reconstruct the past.
When I asked myself
why I was attracted to men who disgusted me
I traveled 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.
It was pulling me down
and there I found grandfather waiting,
his hand outstretched to lift me up,
naked and wet
where he rubbed me.
"I'll do anything for you," he whispered,
"but let you go."
And I cried, "Yes," then "No."
"I don't understand how you can do this to me.
I'm only ten years old,"
and he said, "That's old enough to know."

  Where to begin? The lack of music? The clichés that drip from every line? The melodrama? Jeez, this poem is so bad you almost wish grandpa had just slapped the whining little Flo, knowing she was gonna infect Academia with this classically workshopped wreck of a poem. Here, I shall improve it:

Grandfather Says

"I'll do anything for you,
but let you go."

I cried, "Yes," then "No."

"I'm only ten years old."

He said, "That's old enough to know."

  Whew! That really took alot of effort! I mean, tell me what the original has that this doesn’t? Given the title & the author all that I cut is presumed. The nub of the poem is in these 5 lines. The incest is implied, even with a different title. Is this a good poem? No. I’d state it’s probably not even a poem. Then where does that leave the original?
  Did I tell you about her name thing?

Final Score: (1-100):

Ai’s Grandfather Says: 15
TOP’s Grandfather Says: 30

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