Poem of the Week | April 16, 2013

This week we’re featuring a poem from the TMR archives, Ai’s masterwork, “The Journalist.” The poem appeared in issue 9.1, published in 1986. Ai, who died in 2010, had an illustrious career beginning in the early ’70s. She is known for her direct and uncompromisingly moral persona poems. Over the course of a long career, she won many awards including the National Book Award.

The Journalist


In the old photograph,
I’m holding my nose
and my friend, Stutz,
has a finger down his throat.
We’re sixteen, in Cedar Falls.
It’s all still a joke.
In my mind, I’m back there.
The blonde who used me
like a dirty rag is gone
in a red convertible.
The top is down.
She sits beside the Greek
from out of town,
his hair slicked down
with bergamont.
I don’t care, I do care
that she cruises the streets
of Little America without me.
I take a last drag off my Lucky,
pull my cap low
and take the old road to the fairgrounds.
I’m sixteen. What do I know
about love and passion, I think,
as I watch the circus set up,
watch as the elephants pitch and sway,
heads and trunks swinging wildly.
When the yellow leaves stir
and spin around me,
I walk back to the river
and skim stones
across the clear, gold water
of early evening,
til the 7:18 whistle blows.
Then as if on command,
I start running from childhood,
from the hometown
that keeps me a boy
when I want to be a man.
Manhood, a dream, an illusion, I think,
as I lay down the photograph
and stand in the anemic glow
of the darkroom lights,
my body giving off the formaldehyde smell
of the unknown.



In Viet Nam in 1966,
I stood among the gathering crowd,
as the Buddhist nun
doused her robe with gasoline.
As an American, I couldn’t understand
and as I stood there,
I imagined myself
moving through the crowd
to stop her, but I didn’t.
I held my camera in position.
Then it happened so quickly—
her assistant stepped forward
with a match.
Flames rose up the nun’s robe
and covered her face,
then her charred body
slowly fell to the ground.
That year in Viet Nam,
I threw my life in the air
like a silver baton.
I could catch it with my eyes closed.
Til one night,
it sailed into black space like a wish
and disappeared.
Or was it me who vanished,
sucking the hard, rock candy
of the future,
sure that a man’s life is art,
that mine had to be?
But tonight, I’m fifty-three.
I’ve drunk my way to the bottom
of that river of my youth
and I’m lying there
like a fat carp,
belly-down in the muck.
And nothing, not the blonde,
the red car,
or the smell of new money
can get me up again.
I lay out the photographs of the nun.
I remember how her assistant
spoke to the crowd,
how no one acknowledged her,
how we stood another two or three minutes,
til I put my hand in my pocket
brought out the matchbook
and threw it to the nun’s side.
I stare at the last photograph—
the nun’s heart that would not burn,
the assistant, her hand stretched toward me
with the matchbook in it.
What is left out?—
a man, me, stepping forward,
tearing off a match, striking it
and touching it to the heart.
I throw the photographs
in the metal wastebasket,
then take the nun’s heart
from the glass container of formaldehyde.
I light a match.
Still the heart won’t burn.
I put the fire out,
close my eyes
and see myself running,
holding a lump,
wrapped in a handkerchief.
I think someone will stop me
or try to, but no one does.
I open my eyes,
take the heart
and hold it against my own.
When I was sixteen,
I was the dutiful son.
I washed my hands,
helped my mother set the table,
got my hair cut, my shoes shined.
I tipped the black man
I called ‘boy” a dime.
I didn’t excel,
but I knew I could be heroic
if I had to.
I’d set the sharp end
of the compass
down on blank paper
and with the pencil end,
I was drawing the circle
that would contain me—
everything I wanted,
everything I’d settle for.
Life and all its imitations.
That day in Hue,
I had the chance to step
from the circle
and I took it.
But when I turned back,
everything inside it was burning.
My past was gone. I was gone.
But the boy was still there.
He watched the flames take the nun.
He took her heart. He was running.
“I was bound,” he said to himself. “I’m free.”
But it was a lie.


I put the heart back in the container,
hear the heavy footsteps
of my wife, the blonde,
who is grey now,
who is clumping up the stairs
in her rubber boots
like some female Santa Claus.
In the heavy canvas bag
slung over her shoulder—
all the smashed toys of my life.
Wait, I say, as I stand
with my shoulder against the door.
Wait. You haven’t heard
the best part yet—
a boy is running away from home.
He’s lost his cap.
He’s wearing the icy wind
like an overcoat.
He can’t go back. He won’t go back.
He never left