Powerful, violent, gritty, gut-wrenching, and polarizing—these are just some of the words that come to mind when I think of Ai Ogawa’s poetry. The narrative poet is known for her short and intense dramatic monologues, her chilling offerings of a slice of someone else’s life. The fact that her poems are also told in first person narrative allows both Ai and the reader to step into her characters’ shoes. And bear in mind that these shoes are far from comfortable.
When Ai chooses her characters, she does so from the most marginalized and disenfranchised groups in the country—the outsiders, the downtrodden, the forgotten, the racially profiled, and the voiceless. She probes and exposes the underbelly of American culture and society, choosing to write about ‘taboo’ topics like abortion, child abuse, murder, and spousal abuse. Ai then, gifts her narrator with a voice so violent and so strong the reader cannot unhear it. The echo of her stories stick with you and into you like invisible needles, long after you’ve forgotten the actual words.
Now, for today’s poetry review, we’re doing an analysis of the poem, Woman to Man. The poem was first published in 1973 in Cruelty, Ai’s first collection of poetry. When Cruelty first came out, it did so in the midst of the second wave of feminism, and in the same year, the National Black Feminist Organization was founded.
One would think that a work as powerful and eye-opening as Cruelty would be embraced by all feminists, but a lot of feminists were actually offended by Cruelty’s content. They saw the violence, the tales of abuse, and the almost-salacious phrasing so clearly, but failed to hear the strength in the voices of Ai’s characters. But Ai’s narrators are strong—they are survivors. They face all these brutalities and rise above these experiences every single time. The violence Ai uses to describe her character’s life shakes the reader into wakefulness—if not into action, then into feeling something. Case in point, Woman to Man.
From the start of the poem, Ai uses ‘violence’ to grab the reader’s attention and convey certain emotions.
Lightning hits the roof,
Shoves the knife, darkness,
Deep in the walls.
They bleed light all over us.
The effect is jarring. You’re hooked—unsettled, but hooked. Now, the way the words ‘lightning,’ ‘knife,’ and ‘bleed light’ are used hints at an unpleasant realization. Note that when lightning flashes, everything the light touches becomes garish, exaggerated, and intensified. You see things clearly, sure. But also in ultra-sharp focus. This is what happens to the woman in our poem.
As the title suggests, our speaker is a woman addressing a man. But while women are usually portrayed as timid, loving, emotional, or feminine, the persona’s voice shows little of those traits. Instead, there is coldness, distance, and even a hint of derision. The persona goes on to say:
And your face, the fan, folds up,
So I won’t see how afraid
To be with me you are.
Ah, there it is. Could it be hurt that pushes our narrator into coldness?
Her succeeding lines establish the type of relationship she has with the man.
We don’t mix, even in bed…
In spite the physical intimacy they continue to share, there is an unbridgeable distance between them. Our narrator continues to elaborate:
There’s no need to hide it,
You’re snow, I’m coal,
I’ve got the scars to prove it.
And that’s how we get to the heart of the issue. The man is afraid to be with the woman. He will also never fully understand the woman—for he is snow and she is coal. She bears the scars that come with her identity as both a woman and a woman of ‘color.’
As those words also point out, Woman to Man features an interracial couple. While interracial relationships are pretty much a part of the norm these days, back in 1973, the topic was still quite taboo. See, interracial marriages only became legal in 1967 after the landmark civil rights decision of Loving v. Virginia.
Simple backgrounder: the case was filed by Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Loving, a black woman. Mr. Loving had been imprisoned for a year after ‘violating’ the state’s anti-miscegenation order of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. When the Lovings won the case, it ended all race-based marriage restrictions in the country.
Before we go any further, it is important to point out that the poet Ai Ogawa is, herself, a product of a ‘scandalous’ affair between her mother and a Japanese man that her mother had met “at a streetcar stop.” Ai was born Florence Anthony, but had decided to change her name to “Ai,” (the Japanese word for ‘love’), as a reflection of her own mixed heritage.
Now, putting the poem in that context, we can assume that the man, (perhaps like the father Ai never knew), is afraid of the social repercussions that come with being with a woman of a different race. To avoid loving her, he shuts himself off from her.
The woman is aware of the man’s weakness, the same way she knows her own strength and power over him. In the last few lines, the persona speaks of lending the man strength by giving him ‘a taste of black’ he won’t forget. But it is a strength that she knows is temporary for the man can never completely fathom, nor does he have access to, the well of strength within her. The strength she gained from the wealth of hardships she’s experienced, the scars she has collected.
For a while, I’ll let it make you strong,
Make your heart lion,
Then I’ll take it back.
Notice how despite speaking of lending the man strength, she also speaks of taking that strength back. This is what stops the reader from assuming that the piece is a love poem. Woman to Man is nothing more than, and nothing less than, a slice of the woman’s life. Reality on steroids or a heroin crash. A glimpse into an affair doomed by circumstance and the fear resulting from it.