Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451
Ai is more concerned with social class than with racial identity or gender in Cruelty. The book is a series of poetic dramatic monologues spoken by members of the underclass in America. It is a searing indictment of societies that permit the existence of poverty.
Life, itself, is cruel for the speakers in Cruelty. The speaker in “Tenant Farmer” has no crops. The couple in “Starvation” have no food. In “Abortion,” a man finds the fetus of his son wrapped in wax paper and thinks: “the poor have no children, just small people/ and there is room for only one man in this house.” Men and women become alienated from each other in these conditions. The speaker in “Young Farm Woman Alone” no longer wants a man. In “Recapture,” a man finds and beats a woman who has run off from him. In “Prostitute,” a woman kills her husband, then goes out to get revenge on the men who use her.
Out of the agony of their lives, some of Ai’s characters achieve transcendence through love. The couple in “Anniversary” has managed to stay together, providing a home for their son for many years, in spite of never having “anything but hard times.” In “The Country Midwife: A Day,” the midwife delivers a woman’s child for “the third time between abortions.” Beneath the mother “a stain . . . spreads over the sheet.” Crying out to the Lord, the midwife lets her bleed. Ending the cycles of pregnancy for the woman, in an act of mercy, the midwife takes upon herself the cross of guilt and suffering.
Ai extends her study of the causes and consequences of poverty to other times and places in the second half of Cruelty. The figure in “The Hangman” smells “the whole Lebanese coast/ in the upraised arms of Kansas.” In “Cuba, 1962” a farmer cuts off his dead wife’s feet, allowing her blood to mix with the sugar cane he will sell in the village, so everyone can taste his grief. Medieval peasants are evoked by “The Corpse Hauler’s Elegy,” although the plague victims he carries could also be contemporary.
Violence increases in the final poems of the book, a sign of the violence in societies that perpetuate social injustice. In “The Deserter,” a soldier kills the woman who gave him shelter in order to leave everything of himself behind. In “The Hitchhiker,” a woman is raped and killed by a psychopath in Arizona. In “The Child Beater,” a mother beats her seven-year-old daughter with a belt, then gets out her “dog’s chain leash.” Ai has compassion for all of these people—including the killers—and she demands compassion for them from her readers.