No Surrender is poet Ai’s posthumous collection and indeed bears the imprint of a full life lived. Written in Ai’s characteristic poetic monologue, each poem is a story that inhabits the liminal space between the more expository world of prose and the oft cryptic and somewhat mystical realm of the lyrical. While the stories told in the poems themselves may or may not be autobiographical, themes common to the poet’s own background and experience figure prominently throughout this twenty-one poem collection: luck, alcoholism, Catholicism, relationships, motherhood and miscarriage, race, and ethnicity.
No Surrender looks back at the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and tales of these past times seamlessly share the pages with the days of QVC and chemotherapy. Marriage is usually portrayed as a means of escape or survival. As I read, unexpected gender and ethnic roles raised questions on perception, projection, and the power of memories resurrected.
In the poem “Womanhood” a woman called Michael, named after her father who was “neither angel, nor saint” but a “lousy bastard underneath the smiles,” reflects on the tragedies of her life which are at once quotidian and monumental. This reflection is refreshingly without the stormy veils of blame and resentment. Turning the tables again on who is customarily thought of as the oppressed, in “The Hunt” an Irish man’s mounting conflict over the Scottish slave girls owned by his Choctaw wife comes to a head in scene of complex domestic violence.
Each multi-page poem is composed of fairly short lines written with a skilled economy of words leading them to read like a beautifully spoken story, although a few of the poems read like dreams with non-linear sequence and rough or entirely absent transition. In some of the longer poems repetition, alliteration or rhyme is used effectively in a section or two and then drops off, which left me feeling like I had transitioned into a different poem than the one I had begun reading. Please note my review comes from reading the advance uncorrected proofs.
From babies that escaped certain death to white slaves and brown masters to a male rape survivor, No Surrender reads like true history, telling what really happens in people’s lives beyond others’ perception of who they should be and the stories they can claim as their own. The stories told in No Surrender are inclusive of the authentic experience of individuals regardless of the collectively understood story of the social, cultural, or genetic groups to which they may belong. Somewhat like the genre-spanning poetic form Ai used to tell these stories, their truth comes from shining light on the thresholds and boundaries erected by preset expectation and seeing beyond.