(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981” was inspired by the case of Wayne Williams, who made headlines by committing a series of murders of black children in and around Atlanta from 1979 to 1981. The poem begins with a graphic description of the murderer pushing a child’s body over an embankment. He identifies with the boy and imagines himself within the dead body: “I watch it roll/ and feel I’m rolling with it.” He speaks of “the little lamb/ I killed tonight,” and then he goes and has some hot cocoa. The murderer then describes washing out the blood that stains his bathroom. He cleans and cleans, then finishes his hot chocolate.

Once again, the reader can understand how this man is thinking. He is clearly pleased by his actions: He is “a good shepherd,” seducing little boys to their deaths. Yet there is more involved here; the killer opens a book on mythology and remarks,

Saturn, it says, devours his children.Yes, it’s true, I know it.An ordinary man, though, a man like meeats and is full.Only God is never satisfied.

This is a rather strange religious statement. Saturn, a god of Roman mythology, killed and ate all of his children except for Jupiter, who escaped and later killed his father, thus becoming king of the gods. It is clear that the murderer is identifying himself with divinity. As a god, he has the right to dispose of his subjects and feels no particular guilt in doing so. The poet’s basic idea is that, ultimately, God is responsible for everything and that humans are merely pawns in a great game. These sometimes destroy other pawns, but it really does not matter, because God is never quite satisfied.

Sin is full of such ideas, but this is an unusually powerful presentation. It is difficult to feel sympathy for a mass murderer, but it is also difficult not to see his way of looking at the situation. Even a man who kills young children has a point of view worth considering. Lastly, there is a sense of satisfaction once the children are murdered and the mess is cleaned up: “Only God is never satisfied,” the killer says. Does this mean that the murderer is somehow more merciful, or more just, than God? This is a question left open by the poem.

The Good Shepherd Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Cramer, Steven. Review of Fate, by Ai. Poetry 159 (November, 1991): 108-111.

Kilcup, Karen. “Dialogues of the Self: Toward a Theory of (Re)reading Ai.” Journal of Gender Studies 7, no. 1 (March, 1998): 5-20.

Monaghan, Pat. Review of Fate, by Ai. Booklist 87 (January 1, 1991): 902.

Ostriker, Alicia. Review of Sin, by Ai. Poetry 144 (January, 1987): 231-237.

Seidman, Hugh. Review of Killing Floor, by Ai. The New York Times Book Review, July 8, 1979, 14.

Seshadri, Vijay. Review of Dread, by Ai. The New York Times Book Review, May 4, 2003.