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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1679

Ai’s collection Dread won the prestigious National Book Award for poetry. Like her earlier collections, it focuses on the immediacy of pain and death and gives the reader a view of these through those who suffer and inflict them.

These poems center on both personal and national disasters—from a bastard...

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Ai’s collection Dread won the prestigious National Book Award for poetry. Like her earlier collections, it focuses on the immediacy of pain and death and gives the reader a view of these through those who suffer and inflict them.

These poems center on both personal and national disasters—from a bastard child’s feeling of rejection to the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001—and include poems based on Ai’s early life as well as glimpses of deaths in distant environments, from terrorism or in situations of war. The book jacket states that some of the poems are from Ai’s life, but as she creates herself and her family in the same way she creates her other characters, one would have no way of knowing that without being told. Many of the stories concern child abuse or murder, and others describe the violation of women by men. A frequent theme in Ai’s earlier collections is death by drowning, and it appears here more than once.

Dread follows her other collections Cruelty (1973), Killing Floor (1979),Sin (1986), Fate (1991), Greed (1993), and Vice (1999). The titles clearly define her subject area: human cataclysm and its aftermath. Her characters are driven, and often destroyed, by forces inside and outside them. Those who survive are so marked by their experience that it sometimes does not seem as if they have indeed lived through it. At the end of their stories, Ai’s women tend either to be emptied of everything, their interior lives destroyed, or alone, finding in their personal élan vitala reason to go on living.

Ai found her early voice in providing words for the silenced. Her first work includes tales of life on the margins, often describing violent events in the lives of rural people who are bound by desperation, poverty, and ignorance. Some early Ai characters find escape from the hopelessness of their lives only sporadically in sex and have nothing to build on in their lives. They are both heroic and pathetic—heroic because they continually challenge the overwhelmingly destructive world in which they live and pathetic because they cannot change either their environments or themselves. Her early characters are each very distinctive, though they share lives of violence and abuse. They are usually women who are scrabbling to survive on the margin of society. Of Ai’s women protagonists, Alicia Ostriker said, “Woman, in Ai’s embodiment, wants sex. She knows about death and can kill animals and people. She is hard as dirt . . . She . . . lives the hard life below our myths.”

Ai’s later books have extended her coverage of the same basics of human nature to other social strata. Many of her strongest poems have been dramatic monologues, which allow her whatever space she needs to develop character and show a naturalistic dependency between action and environment which is characteristic of her work. Other poems describe the character in the third person, but the effect is the same: These are people who had no options other than to be what they were.

This book is a series of narratives about horrific events. It is not surprising that The New York Times review of the collection by Vijay Seshadri is titled “When Bad Things Happen to Everyone.” The review sums up the book neatly: “Ai . . . has a strong imagination made all the stronger by her sectarianism, her radical reductiveness and one-sidedness when it comes to her subject matter. As far as the poem is concerned, she seems to say, the world is what it is—and what it is is traumatic and terrifying.”

These narratives are Ai-like in all particulars except that the violence seems less local, more global. The book begins with narratives of the World Trade Center disaster and then proceeds through stories of child abuse, death by drowning, the Tulsa riots, and a series of murder investigations grouped under the heading “The Psychic Detective.” A few apparently personal poems are interwoven. The book is dedicated “to the survivors of childhood trauma,” and it is on one level about survival, but it also poses the question: When so much is destroyed, what is it that survives?

The collection gets off to an excellent start with the title poem, which traces the life of police officer Shirley Herlihy, “Officer Girlie,” who lost her brother at the World Trade Center and keeps sifting through the rubble at so-called Ground Zero trying to find some trace of his remains. The speaker narrates her life with her younger brother, who had shared a disastrous childhood with her, which ended suddenly when their father killed her mother and himself. The story has no closure, unlike most of these tales, but ends with Shirley still looking for some sign of her brother. She dreads to find him and dreads not to; as children the two were suffused with dread, fearing for their parents and themselves. The summary of the story in no way replicates its effect, which is to make the appalling seem normal and to create a persona of whom dread was a natural and logical characteristic. The life of the police officer among the pimps and drug dealers is a natural consequence of the experiences of her youth: She is still trying to save people, as she attempted to save her brother.

One of the most powerful poems in this collection is “Delusion.” The speaker is persuasive, and the story she tells is richly layered with implication. The speaker is a woman who goes to the site of the World Trade Center to look for her sister’s body. The sister, the favored child of the parents, had actually drowned when the two girls were swimming in childhood, and the survivor was at least partly responsible for the death. After the death her guilt has grown huge, and she mentally cuts herself in two, trying to live life as her sister would have lived, and has a mental breakdown. Finally she imagines that her sister was a victim of the September 11 disaster and joins the crowd of grief-stricken seekers at the site. She feels at home in the community of the bereaved, she says, because here were others with a grief “as overwhelming as my own.” Finally, after she cannot stand any longer the searching through the debris, she claims that her sister has called her with news of her escape and leaves. She is drawn, however, back to Ground Zero, where she is recognized. She must flee again and ends reunited in a fantasy with her sister. The interest is less in the Gothic story—Ai’s main characters usually have complicated and violent experiences—than in the character herself and in the philosophy of violence the story suggests. Suffering is not redemptive in Ai’s work—violence begets only more violence, and there is nothing to stop the cycle. When the cycle does end, for whatever reason, there seems only emptiness, a flatness of effect, as though once the destructive passions were played out, there was nothing left to take their place. Only in fantasy can any kind of happiness or closure be reached; in the real world there is only pain and more pain.

Another memorable poem is “The Saga of Charlie Smith,” which is one of the family poems; it is identified by the poet as being “for my great-great-grandfather.” It tells the story of a ninety-five-year-old man looking back on his life of violence and exploitation and reflecting on his inability to understand who he is or what he has done. The sense of predetermination is strong here, too; events seem to push him into action without choice being involved. Charlie Smith was a Scotch Irishman who had a lust for Choctaw women and a penchant for violence; he claims he only wanted to live what he considered a peaceful life: “In those days, you lived the Indian way . . . / You took a wife, raised a bunch of half-breeds./ Nobody made much of it.” He says he wants this kind of life but clearly that included the slavery of the wife, and his “second Choctaw wife” is rebellious and disobedient. He kills her father, thinking he was her lover. His story continues through more Choctaw wives and lovers until he finally has two sons, both of whom hate him, and he cannot see exactly what he has done wrong. Charlie is one of the more convincing male speakers, and his bafflement with his appalling life seems real. The original of Charlie Smith apparently provides the Choctaw element in the poet’s mixed heritage.

These poems tend to be long, providing as much detail of their protagonists’ lives as short stories. The question of motive always looms large in Ai’s poems—they are concerned with causes and effects. The “Psychic Detective” sequence is all about motive, what makes predators what they are and how the most depraved among human creatures think. What makes poems that are sometimes without other attractions interesting is this emphasis on the reasons underlying behavior and the persuasiveness of the causal links. Ai gives no quarter: She does not sentimentalize, and no one comes out untarnished. This bleak view of human nature is only offset by the belief in vitality. Although suffering does not ennoble, it may strengthen, and in the human capacity simply to endure there is a value.

In earlier books the characters seem more fully developed and complete; there is no one here to match the fierce independence of “The Cockfighter’s Daughter” or the puzzled reflection of the lost, drowned Mary Jo Kopechne in “Go.” Indeed, throughout her work, Ai produces more coherent and convincing female sufferers and survivors than male, and this particular collection seems to have a larger proportion of male speakers to female than most. The flattening of character may well be intentional—at the very extreme of pain, there is little differentiation among individuals, and the only voice is a scream.

Review Sources

The New York Times Book Review 152, no. 52473 (May 4, 2003): 7.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 13 (March 31, 2003): 57.

The Virginia Quarterly Review 79, no. 4 (Autumn, 2003): 138.

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