Being a human is scary: the memories that swell inside, the lives (other than our own) we carry within ourselves, the pulse of want, the pulse of power, fear, the want, the want, the want. Not only the want, but what happens because of it: a new invention of self-- a self that is just like any other, a self with flaws, a self that leaks need in all of its inky mess.
Ai's Vice poems delve deep into the throat of dark desire. These poems are secrets turned confession. The confessions are not the poet's alone, but instead the persona she invents or imagines, yet each voice plays as an extension of self, somehow. This extension of self happens in channeling a plethora of voices. A good bit of the voices in Ai's poems are unusually lurid, so sinister the reader wants to ask why.
Why a murderer? Why an evil priest? Why a child beater? I asked as I read, as my stomach turned, as I wanted to peer further into the poems, as it no longer mattered who wrote the poems as the voices within the verse began to echo, agonizing echoes. In the echoes, the voices bounced off of me, and I got why. It's in us. These monsters are part of every single person. We are the news we listen to, we are the stories we've heard. This is how self becomes everything surrounding.
Ai's use of voice creates setting; the persona in each piece illustrates not only character, but environment, and culture the same-- a good example of this is in The Hitchhiker:
We stop, and as she moves closer to me, my hands ache,/
but somehow, I get the blade in her chest./
I think a song: "Everybody needs somebody,/
everybody needs somebody to love,/
as the black numerals 35 roll out of her right eye/
inside one small tear." (14)
This poem has vivid enough language to play across a television screen. The voice of the perpetrator, the tear of the victim, the music he sings (why do I hear it crackly and on the radio?) takes us straight to the place, straight to the time; we can feel the car seat against our legs and remnants of the dry Arizona heat mixing in with the cool desert night.
Ai writes brave poetry: poetry with fear that doesn't fear, and she gets it right, but this collection isn't only about the boldness to say what hasn't been said. The collection works as a time travel machine too, a way for the poet to change history, to re-imagine history.
In Blue Suede Shoes (A Fiction) Ai tells her own Joe McCarthy story. And if ever a favorite baseball poem this one could be it for me-- because we are not at the game, but instead in the life after the game. And it hurts here: on this stoop where social class does its divide, and it hurts here where 1923 is no longer, and Joe just wants to be in the time when he was a golden boy. Damn, it stings in the yesterday, damn it stings:
Yesterday Bill comes by the hotel /
and he sits on the bed, but he can't relax. /
Uncle, he says, and points to my feet, /
All I ever wanted was this pair of blue suede shoes. (56)
And it just keeps stinging:
Remember Dorothy and the Yellow Brick Road? /
There's no pot of gold at the end, /
but we keep walking that road, /
red-white-and blue ears of corn /
steaming out of our minds: America, /
the only thing between us /
and the Red Tide. (56)
In the same way that it's scary to be a human, it's scary to be an American. Ai's poetry examines this, this anomaly of being, existing in collective memory, invented memory, media memory, memory that is instilled in us. Her poetry demonstrates that we are everything that happens in history; when we read about a murder we become a murder; when we think about being a mother we are first woman, woman that is "born with Eve's sin between her legs, / and inside her." (67) Vice is about identity, examining oneself and pulling out the parts of others, and living with those others within us.