Ai is a multiracial poet whose work has long explored the various strands of her heritage. No Surrender offers poems with a range of speakers in dramatic monologues about their lives and families. The speakers include an Irish woman immigrating to the United States, leaving and returning to the Catholic Church over the course of her life; young Irish men in Southie; a multiracial Irish American woman at the Great Brooklyn Irish Fair; women in the circuits of war between white men and Indian men; and a young college man raped on the night of his graduation. Some of the speakers' stories seem to echo or perhaps draw from Ai's own life or the lives of her family. As a whole, the stories draw out a vision of the United States as fundamentally composed of immigrant lives and interracial encounters.
Many of the monologues concern questions of familial belonging and blood relations, a topic that is understandably in light of the history of interracial sex between warring groups of people as well as in the context of more romantic relationships. Bastards and stepchildren appear frequently in the poems, signaling the complexities of family trees as influenced by the wars between whites and Indians as well as the history of slavery.
The poem I read as perhaps most autobiographical, though I do not know much about Ai's personal history, was "Baby Florence, a.k.a. Coming Through Fire," which takes as its central concern a reflection on the speaker's past via the figure of the Granddaddy who didn't always claim his children and grandchildren. The poem ends with the lines:
Ironic to think it wouldThis poem, like many of the others exploring relationships between white men and Indian women in the mid-1800s, ends with the idea that the history of war and extermination is something still present and unresolved.
Be me who rediscovered him among the trash and debris of my exhumation of family history which did not
Lead as I had thought it would to anything good, but to dark secrets better left buried upon the Plains,
Surrounded by the mutilated remains of the dead men, women and children, red, white and in-between
Along with the corpses of the horses he had shot down that November in 1868 when he found Black Kettle
And his people asleep in their lodges one minute and running through a foot of snow and bitter cold the
Next, while bullets and arrows, tomahawks and knives pierced their bodies as they tried to escape as I do
Now from Custer's luck and failed.