"I lay the belt on a chairAi's poems are powerful and disturbing, unique among contemporary poetry. She was often as alone as the personae of her poetry, facing down the dark side of humanity. Her contributions to U.S. letters will long be remembered, and she will be deeply missed.
and get her dinner bowl.
I hit the spoon against it, set it down,
and watch her crawl to it,
pausing after each forward thrust of her legs
and when she takes her first bite,
I grab the belt and beat her across the back
until her tears, beads of salt-filled glass, falling,
shatter on the floor." (from "Child Beater")
The first two of these photos were taken by LaVerne Harrell Clark in 1972. The others were taken by Lois Shelton in 1985.
Cruelty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.Ai is one of the great monologists of contemporary poets. She "does the police in different voices," as Eliot originally titled The Waste Land. The land that Ai gives us is indeed a wasteland, dry, hollow, and full of pain. Her characters are the denizens of this land, injured and nearly incoherent about their situation. Cruelty consists of 45 poems that look reality straight in the eye. Ai’s brilliant monologues include outsiders of all sorts, from the tenant farmer to the prostitute. It is as if these characters have a life of their own and are being channeled by the poet. Ai is especially clear about the dangers of love. For instance, one poem, "I Have Got to Stop Loving You," describes the composition of a ritual: "So I have killed my black goat. His kidney floats in a bowl." Yet there is still room in the poem for sympathy: "It is hard to remember if he suffered much."
Killing Floor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.Ai's second book, Killing Floor, finds the poet extending her subject matter to historical figures. Some of the new personae include Trotsky, Marilyn Monroe, and a follower of the Mexican rebel Emiliano Zapata, as well as a German soldier in the advance on Russia in 1943.
Sin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
"...and that's what it's likeContaining poems about historical figures such as the Kennedy brothers, Ai's third book, Sin, also delves into the lives of the religious, the hopeless, and even the murderous. She is at pains to label certain poems as "a fiction," and the scope of many poems is novelistic in their careful concern for narration and creation of character. She goes farther in this book than her first two in this way, but backs away from much of the horror of her first two books. It's there, but it is more domesticated, more measured. Importantly, power and its misuses is one of the themes in this book, especially in the poem "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer."
only ten times clearer,
ten times more horrible.
Could anyone alive survive it?" (from "Conversation")
Fate. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.With her fourth book, Fate, Ai continues to explore the limits of the narrative poem, including her emphasis on political figures, such as Teddy Kennedy (through the voice of Mary Jo Kopechne), Lyndon Johnson, and General George Custer. Also included are poems in the voices of Lenny Bruce, James Dean, and Elvis Presley. In addition, there are poems in voices somewhat more anonymous, such as "Interview with a Policeman." All the poems in this collection are long, allowing Ai to show her mastery of the form. The book is dedicated to the actor Willem Dafoe, "the muse this time."
Greed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.Greed is centered on poems about the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992, and poems in the voices of J. Edgar Hoover, Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Fidel Castro. There are also poems exploring incest, child abuse, pedophilia, and domestic battering. These last poems are extreme and powerful in their depictions, and are often difficult to read. Ai is singular and courageous, as poet Sandra McPherson said: "She passes through ages and characters under the skin. The deluge, the drama, the annihilations are for our nerves to survive."
Vice. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.Vice, a collection of new and selected poems, won the National Book Award for 1999. The new poems in this volume are for the most part in first person, revealing much of Ai's own life and background. The book is dedicated to the poet's mother.