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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

Greed is a collection of poems about the identity of America in the late twentieth century. In dramatic monologues spoken by famous or obscure Americans, Ai exposes amorality in the institutions of society, business, and private life. For most of the speakers, America has not kept its promises. Truth and justice are illusions in a society made more vicious, because of greed, than the Darwinian struggle for survival among animals. Money, power, drugs, sex—these are the gods of late twentieth century America.

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To the African American speakers, slavery is still alive in the “big house” of white America. Violence is the result. In “Riot Act, April 29, 1992,” a black man, going to get something on the day the wealth “finally trickled down,” threatens to “set your world on fire.” In “Self Defense,” Marion Barry, mayor of Washington, D.C., trapped using crack cocaine by the FBI, warns: “The good ole days of slaves out pickin’ cotton/ ain’t coming back no more.” In “Endangered Species,” a black university professor, perceived as “a race instead of a man,” is stopped by police while driving through his own neighborhood.

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In “Hoover, Edgar J.,” Ai indicts the director of the FBI for abuse of power. Hoover admits he has “files on everybody who counts” and “the will to use them.” Deceptions by government are implicated in poems concerning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In “Jack Ruby on Ice,” Ruby is refused sanctuary, in exchange for his testimony, by the Chief Justice of the United States. In “Oswald Incognito and Astral Travels,” Oswald finds himself “trapped/ in the palace of lies,/ where I’m clothed in illusion/ and fed confusion with a spoon.”

Other poems explore domestic violence and sexual abuse of children. In “Finished,” a woman kills her husband after repeated episodes of physical abuse. In “Respect, 1967,” such a man expresses rage “against the paycheck that must be saved for diapers/ and milk.” The speaker in “Life Story” is a priest who sexually abuses young boys. As a child, he was abused by his uncle, also a priest. In “The Ice Cream Man,” the speaker lures a little girl inside his truck to sexually molest her. He tells of his own abuse by his stepfather and his mother.

Ai offers little hope for the promise of America in Greed. She closes the book with the title poem, about the savings and loan scandal of the 1980’s. The responsible working man in “Family Portrait, 1960” has little chance to succeed. Even so, he takes care of his sick wife, cooks dinner, oversees the baths of his young daughters, then dozes—“chaos kept at bay” for one more day.

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