“A baby who would inherit the end of the world:”
Confession in Ai’s No Surrender
by Kathleen Nalley
In her posthumous work, No Surrender, the morally defunct characters typical of Ai’s previous poetry collections are nowhere to be found. While there are priests, they are not committing unforgiveable acts on children; while there are mothers, none of them are as cruel as the one who forces her daughter to wear a choke collar and get on all fours. The personas of No Surrender are not the psychotic outliers no one wants to talk about. Instead, they are seemingly “normal” people, making decisions whose consequences are known and are not that bad (at least, in comparison to previous characters).
Despite the book’s lack of seismic shock value, its voice still belongs to Ai, if perhaps a calmer, less dramatic, in-your-face Ai. No Surrender was written as Ai was dying of breast cancer and published after her death. If No Surrender has any reoccurring theme, it is the triumph of living despite seemingly insurmountable circumstances.
Most of the poems in No Surrender hint at autobiography. “Baby Florence” appears throughout the book (Ai’s real name was Florence). Racial themes permeate its pages, from Irish to African to Indian to Asian — ironically, all the nationalities and cultures Ai claimed as her own. In “Motherhood, 1951,” the Baby Florence character witnesses her mother giving birth to another fatherless baby (Ai would have been four years old in 1951, which matches the timeline of the poem). In “Discipline,” the poem’s speaker is age seven, which is the age Ai would have been in 1954. The multiracial woman in “Fatherhood” muses “Who couldn’t have imagined/There’d be a place for someone like me in their history”, an idea that seems to have infiltrated Ai’s personal life.
“The Cancer Chronicles” follows a confessional bent. The poet Ai died suddenly from breast cancer — the speaker in the poem dies, also, of untreated breast cancer, knowing the disease is ravaging her body, but continuing in a state of denial: “And she knew she would die of it./But she would not give into it./She would”, and “She would remain among the living,/Giving no sign of her struggle”.
Perhaps No Surrender was Ai’s most confessional, most personal work and, ultimately, what she was leaving behind for the world. Instead of a focus on Dread, Vice, Greed, Fate, Sin or Cruelty (the names and themes of her previous works), this final book emphasizes the resilience of the human spirit — a denial of death and an acceptance of life, no matter the circumstances or fate. It is the culmination of a poet’s reconciliation of the self and the world.
Ai. No Surrender. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.