By Lea C. Deschenes
By titling her poem “Reunions with a Ghost,” Ai foreshadows the poem’s connections with the myths of Odysseus, Orpheus, and Innana. All three narratives feature encounters with the underworld: Innana descends to visit her dark sister in the underworld, is stripped of the badges of her queenly status, killed, and then ransomed back by those above. Orpheus strikes out in grief to retrieve his dead love Eurydice but loses her when he turns back. Odysseus goes to seek advice of Tieresias, meeting the shade of his mother who died of grief over his absence. Odysseus attempts to find mutual comfort by embracing his mother’s ghost, but is unable to touch the dead. In addition to Sumerian and Greek myth, the poem references the Bible with references to Genesis and Jacob. By contrasting mythic narratives, Ai details her character’s reactions to a complex relationship as a journey through a personal underworld.
Beginning with an opening line that evokes Genesis, “The first night God created was too weak;/it fell down on its back/a woman in a cobalt blue dress,” Ai establishes the mythic framework of the poem and a departure from the standard tropes of these stories. The common ground of this relationship is the damaged nature of both participants. Linking the speaker with an act of imperfect creation, Ai evokes a relationship based on weakness. The woman’s continued survival (“I was that woman and I didn’t die./I lived for you,”) subverts expectations of the Odysseus and Orpheus storylines and introduces the idea of the female half of the relationship as survivor.
The next section portrays the man in the relationship as indifferent, drunk and self-involved, matching the weakness attributed to the woman. The scar on the man’s thigh parallels Odysseus’ childhood scar from a boar hunt which serves as an identifying mark and badge of masculinity. It also evokes the scar left on Jacob’s thigh after he wrestles an angel. Ai further probes the man’s character by describing his wonder and self-contempt at surviving an accident with a train in his youth (“…because you didn’t die/and you think you deserved to).
The intersection of religious and sexual imagery from the opening lines reoccurs as the woman kneels to touch the man’s scar. This moment presents the two characters in mutual vulnerability: the woman locked in contemplation of his injury, the man mostly naked, hobbled by his underclothes around his ankles. This vulnerability and recognition transforms into sexual intimacy as the speaker acts, sliding her hand up the man’s thigh to the scar (also reminiscent of the sexual overtones with Jacob and the angel) and causing the man to shiver. He returns the contact roughly, grabbing the woman by the hair.
Swept away by emotional and physical contact, the lovers fall into an underworld described as a lightless void in which no real progress is made (“…our falling in place./We sit up. Nothing’s different, nothing.”) Echoing their loss of self in the relationship, the characters become ‘we’ rather than “I” and “you”. The underworld acts as a unifying force for these two characters: a bond of common experience.
Following this lapse of boundaries, the speaker wonders what causes their attraction to one another when the relationship seemingly serves no positive purpose for either party. The answer may lie in the myths that provide the background for these characters: descents into the underworld in search of knowledge, comfort, and lost love.
For the woman, the Innana myth parallels the return of spring, her lover returned for six months at a time (similarly to the abduction of Persephone). While the attempt to reconnect with the lost feminine as a nurturer or lover is fruitless for both Odysseus and Orpheus, their descent plays a necessary role in the character’s future development. In Odysseus’ case, the dead mother emphasizes the need to return to heal his home and family. Unable to overcome his grief for Eurydice, Orpheus’ despair over his failure leads to his death at the hands of the Bacchae. The dual narratives present uncertainty and choice for the male half of the relationship.
The narrator lends the relationship the power of cyclical inevitability: “Is it love, is it friendship/that pins us down until we give in,/then rise defeated once more/to reenter the sanctuary of our separate lives?” This foreknowledge of periodic reprisal is echoed in the man’s last look with his “certainty that we must collide from time to time.”
The poem then shows the character’s renewed separation, now “me” and “you” once again. The man dresses, covering his scar. The woman goes “through the motions of reconstruction”, re-applying makeup. This reconstruction recalls Innana’s return from the underworld, reclaiming the items which are stripped from her in her descent.
The intimate ‘we’ returns for the character’s final kiss, then departs as the man returns to his separate sphere “arm in arm with your demon”. It is significant that Innana’s quest to satisfy her curiosity about the underworld succeeds after great trials, but her return requires the sacrifice of her lover to the underworld’s demons for six months of the year: The female character is willing to let her lover go to regain her station.
The final section of “Reunions with a Ghost” shows the disparity in what the two characters take away from the encounter. The woman draws on the more positive ending of Innana’s descent (“I’ve come through the ordeal of loving once again,/sane, whole, wise”). The man is associated more heavily with Orpheus: He turns back, losing the woman (“Yes. Yes, I meant goodbye when I said it.”)
The question Ai leaves readers to consider is, “Who or what is the ghost of this reunion?” There are many possible choices: the leaving woman, the fading man, the past trauma of both characters, their perceptions of one another, the mythic narratives that underscore the character’s actions, or the shadows of the separate lives to which they return.