For this month’s Famous People post, Ai’s “Hoover, Edgar J.

The poet Ai’s is usually summed up with something along the lines of “noted for her uncompromising poetic vision and bleak dramatic monologues” (Poetry Foundation bio). The first couple times I tried to read Vice, her National Book Award-winning new and selected from 1999, the bleak and uncompromising part turned me off. But friends kept recommending her because I write dramatic monologues, so I went back. My initial take: the 1st person (all her dramatic monologues are in 1st person) sometimes works well , and sometimes sounds like the poet putting words/metaphors the character wouldn’t actually say into their mouths, to less effect.

One poem I do like though is “Hoover, Edgar J.” It’s a long-ish, tight, fast-moving poem with internal rhyme that takes soundbite/quotation/political colloquial and pushes it to poetry without sounding like ‘poetry.’ The tension of line and speech holds things taut here, and the character painted, right in line with J Edgar’s pop culture persona (I don’t know much about his deep biography), is complex and fascinating (and a little scary).

The poem begins

I’m the man behind the man
behind the man
and I have got my hands in everybody’s pockets.
I know who’s been sticking his plug
in Marilyn Monroe’s socket.
The shock it would give,
if everybody knew what King Arthur Jack
won’t do to keep his rocket fueled.

Once or twice it veers into sections that sound more like AI making a point than a character’s monologue,

I have the proof
of every kind of infidelity
and that makes me the one free man
in a country of prisoners
of lust, greed, hatred, need
greater than the fear of reprisal,
all the unrecognizable sins
and all those unrecognizable,
except to me and God. […]

but then the line continues and brings it all back to voice, “except to me and God. Maybe God.” Love that “Maybe God.” Fabulous characterization.

The poem continues, touching on Hoover himself (“I had a head bald / as a licked clean plate / and a face . . . “), and on sex, power, presidents, race, freedom, paranoia, threats, and back always to Hoover (“it is eat, or be eaten / and Grandpa Hoover / has the biggest teeth.”) The ego in this monologue is pretty delicious.

The poem ends on a few lines that bring together all the elements of rhythm, voice, self:

Don’t say I told you. Do.
I want the lowdown sonsofbitches
who betray me to know
I’m on to them like a fly on shit.
I will not rest,
until I spit in their mouths
and piss on their faces. The fools.
J. Edgar Hoover runs this country.
J. Edgar Hoover rules.

You can read more Ai poems online here and here.