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...
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