Winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Poetry.
Collected here are poems from Ai's previous five books—Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate, and Greed—along with seventeen new poems. Employing her trademark ferocity, these new dramatic monologues continue to mine this award-winning poet's "often brilliant" (Chicago Tribune) vision.
It is impossible to reconstruct the explosive initial impact of this poet's early work, which toys with American stereotypes, myths and truths in dramatic monologues that make everyone uncomfortable: "I move off. I let her eat,/ while I get my dog's chain leash from the closet./ I whirl it around my head./ O daughter, so far, you've only had a taste of icing,/ are you ready now for some cake?" In books like Cruelty (1973) and Killing Floor (1979), a midwife describes how "a scraggy, red child comes out of her into my hands/ like warehouse ice sliding down the chute," and the poet recounts how the dead brother of her lover "slides from the black saddle/ like a bedroll of fine velvet" while she makes love on the porch. In her third book, Sin, Ai (pronounced "I") struck an equipoise between narrative force and lyrical grace, represented here in poems such as "The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981" and in several Chaucerian "Tales." The highly compressed lyric poems further evolve into extended narratives over the course of this selection, and by Fate (1991), they begin to turn more regularly toward cultural icons like Jimmy Hoffa and James Dean, while supplying enough of their own wattage to make it work. The newer poems, however, deteriorate into little more than lineated tabloid reportage of the likes of O.J., Monica Lewinsky and David Koresh (labeled "fictions"). While there seems to be an ambitious blurring of art and life attempted in these and other poems on lesser (!) figures, they don't quite yield fresh perspectives, or even the can't-take-your-eyes-from-the-screen force of the originals. Readers will nevertheless appreciate this summary of an impressive career as they await its next installment.