Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Fate: New Poems is a collection of long poems that give voice to mythic American figures. Some of Ai’s characters are people from recent history, such as film director Alfred Hitchcock, actor James Dean, singer Elvis Presley, Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, and Mary Jo Kopechne, the woman who drowned when Senator Edward Kennedy’s car plunged into a river in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts. Others are nameless but memorable individuals who live at a subsistence level and who survive out of sheer will. The poems are monologues or soliloquies that prod sharply at the reader’s gut as they give the stark details of violated lives. As the bemused, confused, and abused characters articulate their experiences, a picture emerges of the underside of America, a terrifying jungle where one class preys relentlessly on another and where women are almost invariably on the bottom.

The author explains her intent in a brief author’s note that prefaces the book: “Fate is about eroticism, politics, religion, and show business as tragicomedy, performed by women and men banished to the bare stage of their obsessions.” Characters take center stage just long enough to introduce themselves and sum up their lives, reinterpreting history or the American social scene while doing so. The individual poems are free-verse, sometimes apparently rambling discussions of how the character met his or her fate or continues daily to meet it. The women in the...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ai has won numerous awards with her outspoken and inimitable poetry. These include the Lamont Prize, offered by the Academy of American Poets for the best second book of poetry, which was awarded to Killing Floor (1979), and the American Book Award, awarded to Sin (1986). Her first book, Cruelty (1973), revealed her empathy with the rural poor and her rage at their condition. Its unforgettable snapshots of people struggling with unbearable oppression and poverty quickly found their way into anthologies and classrooms. Ai became a popular figure on the U.S. poetry circuit, where her dramatic readings drew crowds many times larger than the usual attendance for such events: She is one of a handful of contemporary American poets who brings inn people from the university and from the community in almost equal force.

The poetry of Ai appeals to a varied audience. She is of mixed ancestry, with a Japanese father and a mother who is “a Black, Choctaw Indian, Irish and German woman from Texas.” Thus many can identify with her, especially as she limits her work to no single group. Her name means “love” in Japanese; one might add that in French “ai!” is a cry of pain. Pain and love in their various combinations and interdependencies are her subjects, and they are a powerful drug. It is easy to become addicted to these poems, with their unusual, arresting images that shock the reader into full awareness.

Ai’s work...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 32)

Booklist. LXXXVII, January 1, 1991, p. 902.

Cassells, Cyrus. “The Dream of Manhood.” Callaloo 9 (Winter, 1986): 243. An insightful analysis of the development of Ai’s style and theme, focusing on her male characters and her views of “our distorted concepts of manhood.”

Detroit News and Free Press. March 24, 1991, p. R7.

Flamm, Matthew. “Ai Came, Ai Saw, Ai Conquered.” The Village Voice 31 (July 22, 1986): 43. This essay presents Ai’s own analysis of her work, followed by commentary by Flamm. An introductory essay providing an overview of Ai’s life and work, this piece represents the color and flavor of her work well.

Ingram, Claudia. Review of Fate. Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women 6 (Spring, 1991): 58. Ingram relates the characters of Fate to the earlier work of Ai. This review is useful as a brief introduction to Fate and to Ai’s general outlook.

Library Journal. CXV, December, 1990, p. 129.

Poetry. CLIX, November, 1991, p. 108.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, December 21, 1990, p. 48.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXVII, Summer, 1991, p. 101.

Wilson, Rob. “The Will to Transcendence in Contemporary American Poet, Ai.” Canadian Review of American Studies 17, no. 4 (Winter, 1986): 437-448. This provocative essay looks at the violence in Ai’s poetry as leaning toward a contemporary kind of mysticism. Wilson provides some general background on Ai’s work and traces the strain of transcendence through several of her books.