Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524
Ai (Pseudonym of Florence Anthony) 1947–
A Black American poet, Ai chose as her true—as opposed to given—name the sound of a cry.
Ai's "Cruelty" will be taken for kinky, black-leather stuff; it is not. The poet has been called (by Anne Sexton) "All woman—all human"; she is hardly that. She is more like a bad dream of Woody Allen's, or the inside story of some Swinburnean Dolorosa, or the vagina dentata itself starting to talk. Woman, in Ai's embodiment, wants sex. She knows about death and can kill animals and people. She is hard as dirt. Her realities—very small ones—are so intolerable that we fashion female myths to express our fear of her. She, however, lives the hard life far below our myths. And her man lives it with her…. Murder, suicide, sexual violence, simple lust, whoredom, child-beating occur with utmost flatness…. The speakers of these poems—most of whom are not the poet, and almost a third of whom are in fact men—are playing out the dramas of their lives in isolated small-town and small-farm settings, where their lives count for nothing more than that of a slaughtered goat, where desire is like the smell of fresh meat. Each is savage, each is victim. None blames another, none complains. Their voices form a chorus. The cruelty is theirs because it is nature's. Though she is just beginning, Ai has set herself in a league with Faulkner's novels, or with Ted Hughes's "Crow"; with those who will not take yes for an answer.
Alicia Ostricker, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 17, 1974, p. 7.
Not only has Ai approached new ground in exploring the human consciousness in poetry, but she is covering it in lucid style…. [She] is herself lost (transformed) among the people and events she witnesses and records. So totally does she identify with what she sees that all her poems become, successfully, the voices of men, 40-year-old whores, mad hitchhiker killers, starving tenant farmers, child-beaters, even corpse-haulers….
Ai has not spared herself or mistrusted the reality of her own perception of experience; she has chosen honesty over politics. Expressions of personal knowledge are always arguable; if you want nice poems to "like" [Cruelty] is not your book.
To read Cruelty is to wonder peculiar wonders: How is it, for example, that Woman—who is in her own life constantly and intimately conscious of blood—has written so little poetry with blood, bloodiness, as a recurring image? And how is it that women—the only people capable of knowing the truth of childbirth—have written so little that is graphic about that bloody truth? And how is it that women—who spend so much of their lives knowing that love and passion are a sometime thing—write so many poems in which those feelings alone exist? The answers to these questions have been so prolific in the past few years that the questions themselves must be posed almost rhetorically; yet Ai's poems raise them again….
Alice Walker, "'Like the Eye of a Horse'," in Ms., June, 1974, p. 41.