One of the most wonderful things that happened by collaborating with Regents Professor Richard Shelton of the University of Arizona was that of receiving boxes of books for our prison library for the creative writing workshop. It was always like Christmas when the boxes arrived and the inmate clerks and I began to process the items. Honestly, some of the books and poetry reviews were immediately cataloged and put on display and others, well, we kept them for ourselves.
There was a sweetness to be the first person to open a book or review and read the words before anyone else had deposited their DNA on it. Selfish perhaps, but sweet. It was prison after all.
One of the poets whose work I began reading was Ai. Her work was scintillating and disturbing at the same time. Often, I had to put her work aside until such time as I could pick it up again, just due to the very nature and treatment of her subject matter.
A bit about Ai –
Florence Anthony was an American poet and educator who legally changed her name to Ai Ogawa. She won the 1999 National Book Award for Poetry for Vice: New and Selected Poems.
Born: October 21, 1947, Albany, TX
Died: March 20, 2010, Stillwater, OK
Education: University of California, Irvine (1971), University of Arizona
Awards: National Book Award for Poetry, American Book Awards, More
Nominations: NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Poetry
Motherhood, 1951 – Poem by Ai Ogawa
Dear Saint Patrick, this is Peggy,
Or maybe it’s Pegeen to you,
Well, I’m really Stella Mae.
Peggy’s my nickname,
But anyway, will you please tell me
What to do about the rattlesnake
That’s in my room?
I know it’s there,
But I can’t find it anywhere I search.
I’ve ransacked the closet more than once,
Because that’s where we found the skin it shed.
I even put the cat in there and shut the door,
But he only went to sleep on my new dress
Which he had clawed from a hanger.
My grandma, Maggie, says you drove the snakes from Ireland
And they came here to Arizona.
She’s right, you know
For didn’t a rattler kill our cat, Blackie?
There he was beside the porch, stiff as a board
And baby Florence saw it.
She’s only three and doesn’t need to see death like that, not yet.
If you can, let her believe for now
That we will live forever.
Anyhow, I’m pregnant again.
I know I’ve sinned
But I am paying for it.
Don’t make my girl suffer
Because her mother used poor judgment
And got herself in trouble out of wedlock.
My mother’s disappointed in me.
My father doesn’t care
And says I don’t have to marry
Just to have a name for this one in the oven.
Father says there’s nothing wrong with our name
And will serve the babe as well as any other,
But mother is determined to give this one a legal father
Like Baby Florence has, but only on paper.
She doesn’t have a father either,
But she’s got her granddad, he says
And goes to work. He is a barber.
Mother is a cook and she works longer hours,
So I’m here with Baby Florence
And that infernal snake all day.
Outside, the new cat, dogs, chickens and hogs
Roam about the yard,
But they can’t help me, can they?
I keep praying, but you don’t answer.
I guess you’ve got no time for me,
So armed with a shovel,
I go in the closet once again
And succeed in smashing a wall.
Bits of plaster fall on my head,
But I don’t mind.
I’d rather be dead than never find the thing
That crawls about the room
Without fear of discovery.
This morning, I woke up to find a coiled imprint
At the foot of my bed.
They say I am protected from harm
Because the Virgin Mary put her heel
Upon a snake’s head and crushed it
For the sake of all pregnant women.
I am safe, I say to myself and pray for mercy
And recall the dead baby diamondback we found last fall.
It glittered like a tiny jeweled bracelet
And I almost picked it up,
Before I remembered my own warning to my daughter
To never, ever pick up anything suspicious.
I wish I’d done that with the man partly responsible
For the mess I’ve made.
The diamondback was like the lust I felt for him.
It glittered so beautifully
I had to pick it up and wear it for awhile,
Then like some Lazarus, it came to life,
By striking me with its poisonous fangs,
Leaving me to pay for my crime
Once by lying to myself
And twice for good measure.
Now I must suffer for my pleasure.
I curse, slam the wall again
And feel pain radiating from my navel
Down through my bowels
And am not able to get to the telephone
To call my mother.
I hear a splash and all of a sudden,
The snake darts from the hole I made in the wall
And crawls forward to slake its thirst.
I grit my teeth, but stand stock still
As the pain gnaws at my vitals.
I try to show no fear
As the snake takes a long drink of my water
Then slithers away,
But not fast enough to escape,
As screaming with pain and rage
with all the mother instinct I can muster,
and in the Virgin Mary’s name,
I raise the shovel and smash the snake,
Crushing its head,
As I double over and fall beside it
On the red, concrete floor.
For awhile, a ripple runs through its body,
Then it is still.
When my pain subsides, I fall asleep
And dream I’m dead
And hundreds of baby snakes are gathered at my wake.
They crawl all over my body
And I try to shake them off,
Until I realize they’re part of me.
At Saint Mary’s Hospital, the nurses and my doctor
Tell me how courageous I am
And the nuns even come to visit me.
They claim I have performed a miracle
And should be canonized.
Saint Peggy. “How does that sound?”
I ask Saint Patrick aloud
When left alone to hold my child.
I smile at her and tell her she is blessed.
The nuns have gone off to light some candles
And in the chapel.
They say they’re praying for special dispensation
But I don’t need that and neither does my girl.
Back home, after a few days, I realize
That I made a mistake in thinking I could take away my sins
When Mother tells me my new daughter is cursed
Because I killed a snake the day she was born.
“What a cruel mother you are,” I tell her
And she says, “Yes, I’m just like all the others.
I should have smothered you when you were born.
I was so torn up inside, I nearly died for you
And you repay me with not one bastard, but two.
I never thought I’d call a whore my daughter.”
When I protest, she says, “There’s the door.”
After that, I decide to ignore her
And in a state between agitation and rest,
I remember something I had forgotten.
As I lay beside the snake.
I saw a tiny bunch of eggs spill out of her
And realized she was an expectant mother too
And simply wanted a drink to soothe herself
One desert afternoon
When mothers must decide to save
Or execute their children.