One afternoon, I sat on my third-floor apartment balcony and watched a man repeatedly pounded the windshield of his wife’s Toyota Tercel with a wooden bat. The man’s anger disrupted the peaceful façade of the quiet, tree-lined street. Car alarms, set-off by the sudden rupture of passion, competed for attention. The neighborhood suddenly came alive as spectators peaked through drawn curtains to assess the situation. Reassured that their cars were not the ones being damaged, one-by-one they disarmed and sunk back into their comfortable chairs. A domestic dispute between a man and his wife was no one else’s business.
“I hate you, you cheating bastard.” The wife’s words shot out of her mouth like jagged spears of glass. Her teary eyes burned with passion as she spoke, betraying her words. As if trying to drown out her voice, the man’ s bat connected with the side mirror, the windshield, the roof, the window, and then the windshield again, creating craters with each blow. From where I sat, unable to look away, I witnessed a disturbing scene, which could have been ripped right from one of Ai’s poems, played out in front of me. Violence, love, lust, raw human emotions unchecked and uncensored are subjects that Ai captures with mastery in her poetry.
A dark force inside of the woman kept her sitting there, egging her husband. Was it fear, was anger, or was it a mixture of both that had churned and grinded together to turn into something much more powerful, lust?
Suddenly, the bat shattered the side window, causing the woman’s courage to shatter with it. She let out a terrified sob, and she gunned the Tercel down the street, weaving from side-to-side, dodging parked cars. The man ran after his wife with tears in his eyes. When she did not stop, he sat down on the curb and buried his face inside his giant hands. The bat, which seconds ago was swinging with rage and passion, was now limp between his hairy legs.
But minutes later, the dented Tercel coasted back up the street and stopped in front of the distraught husband. The wife cautiously peeled herself out of the car seat. She walked up to him and rubbed her hand over his sweaty head in gentle concentric circles. He clung to her legs and wiped his tears on her thigh. All was forgiven.
Her hands groped at his face, leaving behind hot imprints. Her body twisted itself into him. Her identity was so damaged. It had become the abject. Consumed by the sudden burst of fever between them, she acted against her own self-interest.
The man rose and wrapped his arm, thick like an anaconda, around her shoulders and maneuvered her inside. Was the display of violence just their version of foreplay?
I watched them walked out of sight, hands in each other’s back pockets like teenagers in an intimate embrace, before going back inside where I turned on the TV just in time to see a man slammed a small ball straight down centerfield with a wooden bat. The impact ripped through the air, bouncing echoes off the walls of my apartment, leaving me to wonder how a ball can keep absorbing so much pain.
Pain, love, desire, and the confusion that results when the three mixes, is this what it means to be a woman? In some women, desire seems to victimize and violate, creating a space of abjection. In contemporary critical theory, Julia Kristeva uses abjection to explain the state of being that exists between the subject and the object. Abjection is caused by loss of distinction between the self and the other. According to Kristeva, “There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced.”
This state of abjection describes people who have been marginalized in some way, such as people of color, prostitutes and poor, abused or disabled people. In this context, “the abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule or law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them.” [Julia Kristeva, “Approaching Abjection”]
To be a woman, then, is to risk being in conflict with one’s own desires, as well as society’s desire to put woman neatly away in her place. What about the way in which female desire is interpreted and expected to be acted out that makes it the wooden bat upon which some women beat themselves? And why, in contrast, for other women, is female desire such a source of power? When the self is intact, desire can be used as a way to reinforce a sense of control and as a weapon that yields power and demands change. Through their actions and the way they deviate from society’s expectations, the women who embrace their desires as a force of power are able to reconfigure the roles that they are expected to play, creating twists and turns in the social order.
The woman speaker in Ai’s “Why Can’t I Leave You,” like the wife and her dented Tercel, gives up control of her desires, surrendering control of her life to the desires which renders her powerless.
I undress, then put on my white lace slip
for you to take off, because you like that
and when you come in, you pull down the straps
and I unbutton your shirt.
I know we can’t give each other anymore
or any less than what we have.
There is safety in that, so much
that I can never get past the packing,
the begging you to please, if I can’t make you happy,
come close between my thighs
and let me laugh for you from my second mouth.
This woman’s desires, though she does not derive power from them, are part of her identity. They weaken her, forcing her to accept less than what she needs. Her sense of self is shattered, becoming the abject, forcing her to beg and passively manipulate instead of making demands for the things that she needs and wants, convincing her to stay with a man, who, on his best day, does not have enough within him to provide her with the contentment she desires, even if “there is safety in that.” She cannot bring herself to want more than the things that he likes or be happy unless she is making him happy.
However, she is still aware of the power of her passion, “come close between my thighs/and let me laugh for you from my second mouth.” She still knows how to use it to seduce him and exercise her limited power over him. Though she may be unaware of their full power, her desires are still the silent forces in the background that affected her inability to leave.
In contemporary poetry and literature, female desire is often viewed simultaneously as a force of mysterious power and as a source of evil and corruption. In Ai’s “The Mother’s Tales,” a mother is devoured by her own mysterious desires.
I was young, free.
But Jaunito, how free is a woman? —
born with Eve’s sin between her legs,
and inside her,
Lucifer sits on a throne of abalone shells,
his staff with the head of John the Baptist
skewered on it.
And in judgment, son, in judgment he says
that woman will bear the fruit of the tree
we wished so much to eat
and that fruit will devour us
generation by generation,
This mother is judged for the desires and sins of all the generations that came before her. Being born a woman, she is shackled by her womanhood. This is her sense of self. But the self, in this case, is in conflict and her identity is poorly constructed, so the ego breaks down and becomes the other—the abject.
This mother is victimized twice, first by the man who had abused her and convinced her that a woman must be beat; and second by her own sense of morality against her female desires. And then as with most victims, she continues the cycle of victimization through the lessons that she passes on to her children.
so my son,
you must beat Rosita often.
She must know the weight of a man’s hand,
the bruises that are like the wounds of Chris.
And she must be pregnant always
if not with child
then with the knowledge
that she is alive because of you.
That you can take her life
more easily than she creates it,
With blind rage against the desires that made her weak and female, this mother instructs her son to rip his wife’s power from the womb, from the sacred place where life emerges. He is taught to take his wife’s desires and twist them into knots from which he can hang her like the body of Christ. This mother, a woman made so powerless by the circumstances of her own life, is only able to empower herself by becoming an indirect aggressor. By demanding from her son that his wife “must know the weight of a man’s hand,” she is creating a new generation of men whom she can control, even if that control comes at the abjection of other women.
This mother is so far removed from her own desires and sense of self that she is only defined by violent acts. They have become her truth—a truth, which to her is sacred and immortal like her religious beliefs. She accepts the burden to pass on this violence against female desire as a way to stop its corruption. In telling her son to beat desires out of the woman who lies with him and spawns his children, this mother is gaining back a sense of who she is. Through her lessons, she reaffirms her place in a world, even if it is a place where women only exist in the space of abjection.
The self in the personaes Ai’s poems inhabit is often broken, but is always present, dictating actions and reactions. A woman’s desires stab at her from the inside, puncturing the ego, reshaping her identity. But if she can get a hold of these desires, she can wield them like weapons. In the “Tired Old Prostitute,” Ai’s persona experiences abjection brought on by her chosen profession, but she finds a way to re-envision herself and return her sense of self to its object state.
This is my property, I laid for it, paid for it, you know,
and I just want to build a cement walkway
right up to my front door.
I’ll be the only whore within fifty miles
who can claim she did something with her hands
that didn’t get a man hard.
What? — but I’m so tired. Can’t you wait a while?
I’m forty-five, my breath’s short, I like to sleep alone.
Yeah, yeah, I rolled in my jelly and it felt good,
but this belly isn’t wood or steel.
Man, turn your butt to my face.
But wait, I need a little help, help me, sweet thing.
Pull down your pants.
I like to see what I’m getting now,
before it gets into me.
Despite the fact that she was once victimized by her desires, this woman’s identity has found a way to reestablish itself, and it is now as steady as the house—she has “laid for it, paid for it.” Sitting on a firm foundation of self-reliance, but with desires still very much a part of her life, she is in control. She tells men what to do. “Pull down your pants./I like to see what I’m getting now,/before it gets into me.” She tells them what she likes and how she likes it.
In women who have a strong grip on their powers like this “tired old prostitute,” the ego employs desires to reverse the direction of powerlessness, allowing the woman to break out of her traditional role and rewrite cultural norms. From the prostitute to the woman in “Old Woman, Young Man” Ai’s poems expose cultural norm through her characters’ deviation from them.
Unashamed, I part my legs.
As always he says, look there’s a rose,
yes, but it’s lost its teeth.
He eats without tasting
and I reach to scratch my name
on the damp face rising
with a few crinkled gray hairs
shoving their white-tipped heads
against his scarred and frightened lips.
This “old woman” breaks cultural norms by acting out her desires with a younger man, taking what is traditionally a male role, and empowering herself through it. Unlike the wife in the Tercel who allowed her desires to oppress her, this old woman embraces her power and seeks pleasures from it. She satisfies her desires, but not at the cost of sacrificing her sense of self.
Another situation where the female desire is in control can be found in the poem, “Woman.” This woman knows what pleases her and is unabashed in going about getting it.
The adobe walls of the house
clutch the noon heat in tin fists
and while bathing, I fan my breasts,
watching the nipples harden.
I pinch them, feeling nothing, but wanting to,
and shift my weight from left buttock to right,
while the water circling my waist tightens,
as if you had commanded it.
I stand up, spreading my legs apart,
Ready to release the next ribbon of blood.
This woman knows her desires. She is unashamed of them. “I fan my breasts,/watching the nipples harden./I pinch them, feeling nothing, but wanting to.” She wants to discover her pleasures. She celebrates the “ribbon of blood” that is released from her. She celebrates the life that is created as the product of her pleasures and desires.
All right. You want me now, this way.
I haven’t locked the door.
My swollen belly feels only its heaviness,
and would weigh less than the pain
chipping away at my navel with an ice pick of muscle.
I can carry you.
The blood, halved and thinned, rolls down my legs,
cupping each foot in a red stirrup
and I am riding that invisible horse,
the same one my mother rode.
It’s hungry, it has to be fed,
the last man couldn’t, can you?
She is strong and bold. Her female desire is a source of limitless power. “I can carry you,” she declares. She rejoices and embraces the life force that courses through her. She is the creator. “Riding that invisible horse,/the same one my mother rode,” she is part of a something bigger, something which connects all women.
This woman knows what she wants, and she wants a man who can play the role that she casts for him. “It’s hungry, it has to be fed,/the last man couldn’t, can you?”
To be a woman is to know desires. A woman’s desires and her identity are linked. This is her sense of self. However, female desire as determined by the constructions of patriarchal power is a concept that is inherently in conflict with itself. In women whose identities are poorly constructed, the ego breaks down and become the other—the abject. When this happens, the woman is rendered powerless by her desires, victimized by her needs. The wife in the Tercel was such a victim. She was violated by her desires and became weaken by them. The repeated beating of her husband’s bat terrified her, yet at the same time, it excited her desires for him. Though she tried to leave, she came back, never realizing that she had the power to create change for herself.
However, in women who have a strong grip on their powers, like the “tired old prostitute” and the “old woman with the young man,” the ego employs desires to reverse the structure of power. By demanding that their female desire be acknowledged, these women expose flaws in what society deems as acceptable behavior from and toward women. And by deviating from conventional thinking, they act as agents of change, forcing society to bend to their needs, finding power in female desire instead of allowing it to suppress their voices.
- Ai | poetry foundation
- Ai | academy of american poets
- Ai | the new york times
- Ai | modern american poetry
- Ai | sounds & silences