By Ai 1947–2010 Ai
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.
And when I thought we’d go on forever,
that nothing could stop us
as we fell endlessly from consciousness,
orders came: War in the north.   
Your sword, the gold epaulets,   
the uniform so brightly colored,   
so unlike war, I thought.
And your horse; how you rode out the gate.
No, how that horse danced beneath you
toward the sound of cannon fire.
I could hear it, so many leagues away.
I could see you fall, your face scarlet,
the horse dancing on without you.
And at the same moment,
Mother sighed and turned clumsily in the hammock,   
the Madeira in the thin-stemmed glass
spilled into the grass,
and I felt myself hardening to a brandy-colored wood,
my skin, a thousand strings drawn so taut   
that when I walked to the house   
I could hear music
tumbling like a waterfall of China silk   
behind me.
I took your letter from my bodice.   
Salome, I heard your voice,
little bird, fly. But I did not.
I untied the lilac ribbon at my breasts   
and lay down on your bed.
After a while, I heard Mother's footsteps,   
watched her walk to the window.   
I closed my eyes
and when I opened them
the shadow of a sword passed through my throat   
and Mother, dressed like a grenadier,
bent and kissed me on the lips.

Ai, “Salome” from Sin (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986). Copyright © 1986 by Ai. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Sin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986)

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Poet Ai 1947–2010

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Home Life, Love, Youth, Living, Relationships, Desire, Infatuation & Crushes

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Dramatic Monologue



Ai is a poet noted for her uncompromising poetic vision and bleak dramatic monologues which give voice to marginalized, often poor and abused speakers. Though born Florence Anthony, she legally changed her name to Ai which means “love” in Japanese. 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 . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Home Life, Love, Youth, Living, Relationships, Desire, Infatuation & Crushes

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Dramatic Monologue

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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