Ai remembered through “Immortality”

March 22, 2010

Ai, another great poet has died, and from a disease that meanders and shreds the fullness of life.  Here is an in memoriam at Best American Poetry by Jerry Williams to spell it out for you.

Here is an essay I wrote some years back, when I first really started studying poetry in Goddard’s MFA program (thanks to Bea Gates for pointing me in Ai’s direction).  I remember how much I loved studying the fierce verse, the women characters in this poetry, and what some women poets were effortlessly saying in their work about love, death, truth, and the power of a woman’s essence, even in a person’s memory: Ai is/was one such poet!

A Husband’s Despair Seen through Symbolism: Ai’s “Immortality”

In her book Sin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), Ai gathers an array of characters using dramatic monologue.  I am immediately reminded of some of Frank Bidart’s poems, and the idea of characters “living” in poetry looms in my mind.  The birth, rebirth, and reincarnation of personalities intrigues every reader, and in Ai’s poem “Immortality,” not only do readers see the personality of the main male character, but they also feel his love for the dead woman character, who is seen only in his memory. 

This poem, which can clearly be considered a persona poem, is also a love poem packed with symbolism.  Every time I read it, I understand a little more of the underlying issue: the love of a man toward his wife who has killed herself, “giving it all up with [her] poison” (lines 33-34).  What causes me to feel the husband’s anger and disappointment despite his love is Ai’s use of symbolism within the dramatic monologue.

In each of the three stanzas, Ai leaves readers with an extended picture of a husband’s feelings about the death of his wife.  Her male speaker begins, “I dreamed I was digging a grave / that kept filling with water. / The next day you died” (1-3).  Ai presents an image of loss right from the beginning of the poem, yet immediately readers feel more than the heartache of the speaker.  Even though in a dream, the speaker’s attempt to dig a grave, as it fills with water rather than remains hollow to make room for a coffin, symbolizes his feelings of disappointment and defeat, and we see more of this as the poem unfolds. 

With feelings of disappointment continuing in stanza two, the speaker reflects on the days in which he and the woman met, parted, and found each other again:

            I thought of the Great War;

            the day we met.

            ……………………………

            And just like that, we parted.

            Then one day you found me hoeing potatoes.

            Let me help, you said,

            and handed me a child

            with bright red hair like yours.

            I married you.  We fought.

            Blood sanctifies and blesses;

            it binds.

            Anna, where are you now? —

            waltzing down a long mirrored corridor,

            wrapped in glory that is red, bitter. (10-11, 21-31)

Here readers understand the depth of the speaker’s initial loss because they see that he has married the woman and taken in her child; they are blood to him, relatives by choice.  Looking more closely at the lines, we also find the symbolism that Ai places within her character’s memory.  The husband searches for his wife, Anna, through the closeness that has bound them, but he is lost.  She has disappointed and angered him with her absence.  The “long mirrored corridor” the husband refers to is Anna’s death—a death by choice as she “waltzes down” it without turmoil or remorse.  Furthermore, it is the resentment of her husband and her own sin that dress her at the end of this stanza, as she is “wrapped in glory that is red, bitter,” symbolic to a robe of a sinful death caused by suicide.

The last stanza not only conveys a husband’s disappointment in and anger toward his wife but also unveils his love for her that will be with him forever.  Throughout the poem the speaker references potatoes, a symbol itself.  And each mention connects to his wife in some way: either he anticipates eating one as he digs her grave (stanza one), he is hoeing them when he and Anna meet again after being apart (stanza two), or finally biting one after throwing dirt on her coffin (stanza three).  Therefore, potatoes, like Anna, are extremely important to him, and Ai’s use of this connection is most profound at the poem’s close.  The last image of the speaker biting a potato epitomizes a husband’s degree of angry surrender to a woman, a wife he was not ready to give up, who selfishly chose to leave him.  The speaker shares his sorrow:

            I can’t forgive your [his wife’s] going.

            I take the potato from my pocket.

            One bite, then another,

            if only this were all it took

            to live forever.

With each bite, the husband hopes for a lasting connection to his dead wife, realizing that the potato is really all he has to help him hold onto his memory of her.  The potato becomes her, alive and in his grasp, yet, ironically, he understands that it, too, will decay or be devoured with no chance of preventing its inevitable end as well.

Ai’s use of symbolism leaves a lasting impact on me, and I do not think I will ever look at a potato quite the same again.  The poet does not center on the object itself to remind the reader of its presence; the potato is the catalyst for the theme of death/immortality that underlies the poem and the speaker’s monologue.  The potato is what is left to hold onto by Ai’s readers and her speaker, but it is what cannot be touched that leaves us thinking, the symbol behind the potato.

~ And what cannot be touched, the spirit of a great poet, leaves us remembering. ~ R.I.P.

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