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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639

Ai focuses on a world of brutality and violence, and her style and language make this world real. Each poem creates a believable individual, while at the same time commenting on those forces in society that have produced the effects described: rape, racial and sex discrimination, poverty, child abuse, and...

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Ai focuses on a world of brutality and violence, and her style and language make this world real. Each poem creates a believable individual, while at the same time commenting on those forces in society that have produced the effects described: rape, racial and sex discrimination, poverty, child abuse, and other social evils. The vast gap between exploiters and those whom they violate is demonstrated graphically in this book. The multiple voices of the victims cry in chorus that American values are hollow and that American institutions serve only those who know how to manipulate them. The images that America has created of and for itself have no relation to the reality of life on its streets.

The series of monologues recalls various models, including those of Robert Browning and Edgar Lee Masters. Like Browning, Ai uses the voices of representative speakers to expose the evils of an age. Her work too flashes with irony, and she, like Browning, plays with the resources of language to underscore her message. Like many of the poems of Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915), many of Ai’s portraits serve as epitaphs for lives that were finished but incomplete. In Fate, however, the speakers themselves are finally incomparable with those of the models; they are Ai’s own creation, part of her own project of revising recent American history to focus on the silenced and the marginalized.

The poems are first-person, free-verse narratives, retelling history from the points of view of those who made it. Mary Jo Kopechne is the narrator of the first poem, “Go,” which describes her drowning at Chappaquiddick in the company of Edward Kennedy. The speaker evokes the drowning itself briefly and vividly: “the water, the dark gray water,/ opened its mouth/ and I slid down its throat.” She wonders why her story is always seen only as a subordinate part of Kennedy’s story: “why doesn’t somebody/ tear me from the bit player’s cold embrace/ and let me set the stage on fire,/ dressed up in revisionists’ flesh?” This is what Ai does, not only with Kopechne but also with many of her other characters—she rescues them from obscurity and makes their suffering real and immediate. For those historical characters who were never “bit players,” such as James Dean, she shows how the public image is a lie, a fiction based on what Americans wish to believe rather than on painful truth. When dealing with bit players or recognized major figures, she is revising American history and myth to show how these fictions fail their believers.

In this book, as in her earlier collections, often Ai’s most unforgettable portraits are of poor women, disempowered women who fight back at the system and win at least the moral victory of a more clearly defined sense of self. Such an individual is the Cockfighter’s daughter, who winds up following her dead father’s schedule of fights with her inherited truck and fighting cock; another is the woman of “Eve’s Story,” who thinks back over her experiences of struggle and exploitation and finally identifies both herself and her former sexual rival as sisters of Eve, born to be seduced by lies and empty promises.

As Rob Wilson and other critics have noted, Ai’s poetry has a quality of mysticism. As Wilson notes, “The violence which preoccupies Ai . . . has a sacred goal: she wants vision, self-transcendence, mystical insight.” This desire for transcendence fuels the passion of the poems and gives the work another dimension besides that of its social commentary. Organized religion does not fare well in these poems, sometimes appearing as another form of repression, but spiritual hunger is a driving force like sex and other basic needs. In their desperate desire to overcome limitations, her characters wish to overcome even the limits of self.

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