by Casey Rocheteau
If I were to pinpoint one poet who has shaped my consideration of voice, authenticity, and precision, it's Ai. Ai came into my life when I met another young poet at Cave Canem, Ai Elo, who took Ai as her namesake. While so much of my own work up until that point had been voice-driven, I didn’t yet have the understanding of how to root myself in persona. Ai, with all her badass swagger and empathy, even in her darkest works. Her influence in the field is underappreciated, but how does one speak of the modern persona without paying homage to her? At a time in American history where criminality and artifice reign supreme, we have to bring light to the darkest corners of our past. Ai excavated the historical and the present in equal measure, showing us fear's intimate languages without ever flinching in the face of it. A poem like "Interview with a Policeman" showcases her understanding of anxious fear and reads as if it could have been written this year. Without her work as a template, my own hybridity or fascination with violence or anger doesn't have a framework or historical root.
I often think of her dedication to The Killing Floor, which reads “for the ghosts”. As a poet who feels as haunted by the past as I do the present, that dedication invokes much more than the ancestors, but their enemies, and the howling remnants of their violences—physical, spiritual, emotional and otherwise. I sometimes feel the urge to say that all poetry is for the ghosts, as much as it is for the living. It is this embodied conjuring in poems like “Killing Floor” or “Cuba, 1962” where a seed is planted. It grew into the forest where we find Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly, and A. Van Jordan’s Macnolia among others. It is this dedication to the ghosts that I have come to think of as the poetics of haintology. Where Derrida’s hauntology asks us to consider the nature of inheritance and that which is neither present nor absent, haintology exists in the epigenetic and historic. In this way, humanity’s impact is immortalized in the bloodline and memory. Ai’s work is not about memorializing the dead, but reanimating the wounds they caused and sustained.
Persona, at its best, is less about the mask than it is about the mirror. Ai gives us both carnival house of mirrors and infinity mirror rooms. “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Fiction”, from Sin,explodes with hunger in the line “My soul, a wound that will not heal” until the cannibalistic need for destruction belongs to all of us—“our enemies endless,/our need to defend infinite.” Without telling us where to put our grief, we are desecrated and absolved until “we become our own transcendent annihilation.” In the same collection, “The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981”, a poem in the voice of a child murderer ends with the devastating line “Only God is never satisfied”. With each of Ai’s voices, we are granted new insight into desire and longing, often from the perspective of those enacting violence. Ultimately, the unending atrocities we’ve come to think of as part of the human condition—war, genocide,, intimate partner violence, systemic oppression—Ai lays them at the gate of heaven in this line, making God the hungriest ghost of all.
As a poet fixated upon the past, I often use persona as a means of disrupting our perception of linear time. Reading Ai’s work today, she does this with the clean precision of cutting through time to give us a brutal longing interior that is eternally present. I am always striving for this precision in my own writing. Moreover, she teaches us to be unafraid of exploring the darkness to reveal our fears, our grief, our many selves and the legacy of brutality embedded in our histories. For this example, this permission, I am eternally grateful.