Weekly Prompt: Dramatic Monologues (remembering Ai)

Ai in 1972

In honor of the poet Ai, who recently passed away, this week’s prompt focuses on the dramatic monologue — a technique for which she was famous.

Born Florence Anthony, she adopted the name “Ai” after discovering that she had been conceived through an affair between her mother and a Japanese man that she (Ai) had never met.  The Poetry Foundation’s bio on her describes her particular sensibilities well:

Ai is a poet noted for her uncompromising poetic vision and bleak dramatic monologues which give voice to marginalized, often poor and abused speakers . . . She has said that her given name reflects a “scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop” and has no wish to be identified “for all eternity” with a man she never knew. Ai’s awareness of her own mixed race heritage—she self-identifies as Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche—as well as her strong feminist bent shape her poetry, which is often brutal and direct in its subject matter.

Ai’s poetry practically vibrates with the force of its imagery.  Her lyrics leap from the page and inhabit the personas she takes on without apology.  One of the things for which she was noted was her ability to enter the voices of those at the margins of society and infuse them with dignity and magnetic strength.

To illustrate, here is the opening to her poem Salomé:

I scissor the stem of the red carnation
and set it in a bowl of water.
It floats the way your head would,
if I cut it off.
But what if I tore you apart
for those afternoons
when I was fifteen
and so like a bird of paradise
slaughtered for its feathers.
Even my name suggested wings,
wicker cages, flight.
Come, sit on my lap, you said.
I felt as if I had flown there;
I was weightless.
You were forty and married.
That she was my mother never mattered.
She was a door that opened onto me.
The three of us blended into a kind of somnolence
and musk, the musk of Sundays. Sweat and sweetness.
That dried plum and licorice taste
always back of my tongue
and your tongue against my teeth,
then touching mine. How many times?—
I counted, but could never remember.
What stands out for me in these opening lines is the unforgettable boldness and clarity of its images: the scissored red carnation becomes a severed head, her description  of dried plum and licorice give a sickening viscerality to the complexity of the speaker’s relationship to the “you” — he is at once abuser and lover, taker of innocence, and seductor, the wielder of an invisible tyranny in which the mother is also implicated: at the end of the poem, when a ghostly sword slices through the speaker’s throat, the mother’s dress is like that “of a grenadier,” and we are made to see how her kiss becomes an act of terrible violence disguised as tenderness.

In honor of Ai’s life, work, and legacy, here’s this week’s prompt.

Prompt: Write a poem in the form of a dramatic monologue in the voice of a single speaker who is not yourself.  Optionally, if you do not wish to write a traditional persona poem, you may imagine the speaker’s voice as a loose projection of your own.

One thought on “Weekly Prompt: Dramatic Monologues (remembering Ai)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.