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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1812

Many selected poems of relatively young poets seem premature; this one does not. A collection of selected poems is appropriate once a poet has a group of anthologized, widely discussed, often- quoted and often-cited poems that span several books. Vice gives the essence of this unique and powerful poet’s work. Ai’s characteristic dramatic monologues have won for her wide acclaim. In this book, readers hear from silenced individuals who exist on the margins of American culture as well as from figures in the political and entertainment worlds. The imagined thoughts of American icons give new interpretations of their public words and acts, while the anonymous speakers show the pain, desires, and resourcefulness of the disadvantaged. This book received the highest recognition: It was honored with the National Book Award for Poetry in 1999.

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This award is only one of many received by Ai; her honors include the Lamont Poetry Award for Killing Floor (1979) and an American Book Award for Sin (1986). In addition, before this collection Ai had published three other books: Cruelty (1973), Fate (1991), and Greed (1993). Vice includes selections from all five previous books as well as her newest poems. Her titles indicate that the interior landscapes she describes are not picturesque. Dominated by violence, lust, rage, and exploitation, they display the darkness she finds at the center of the human personality.

A somewhat mysterious poet, Ai has been a speaker for the disenfranchised since her first book. She points out that her name means “love” in Japanese; it is appropriate that in French, “Ai!” is a cry of pain. Of mixed-race background, Ai speaks for all those who have been overlooked by the system, whatever their background or race. She commented that her father was Japanese and her mother, “a Black, Choctaw Indian, Irish and German woman from Texas.” However, she does not limit her subject matter to any group; her speakers come from all likely and unlikely places.

The cover of Vice is a good key to the contents—it shows two men in black uniforms being hauled away in what appears to be a police van; they are covering their faces with their black hats. The voices in the book, particularly in the last or “new poems” section, will emanate from behind the hats. It is most appropriate that Greed, Fate, Cruelty, and Sin—with Killing Floor thrown in for good measure—should combine into Vice, which suggests a habitual, aware violation of human decency and the social contract.

Ai’s poems have always been strikingly original, memorable for their clashes and dissonances, their violence, their startling and often unpalatable insights. The theme is the human capacity for destruction, but the poems are not nihilistic. With the drive to destroy comes the drive to love, and sometimes the two are indistinguishable. She once said something to the effect that if a new work did the same thing as a previous one, she would tear it up, even if it was good. Yet, although each work does something new, there is always an underlying voice of pain, outrage, and growth, and it would be easy to identify an Ai poem. Her poetry is shocking, but not gratuitously so—it aims to jolt the reader out of complacency, and its kicks are well placed.

Ai’s earliest work gave voice to suffering rural people, often women, who had to survive by any means possible. These tended to be shorter poems but still persona poems, casual dramatic monologues that give a good glimpse into life on the edge. Many of Ai’s characters are women with the odds stacked against them. In her first poems, these women are colorful outlaws or outcasts, filled with desire and need, victims and/or perpetrators of violence. The speaker of the frequently anthologized “Everything: Eloy, Arizona, 1956” has a jaunty vitality that makes her a survivor rather than a victim, even though nothing positive appears on her horizon:

Tin shack, where my baby sleeps on his back
the way the hound taught him;
highway, black zebra, with one white stripe;
nickel in my pocket for chewing gum;
you think you’re all I’ve got.

She also has the trucker she is expecting to come along, who will affirm her sensuality and sense of self even though the relationship has no future and she knows it.

He’s keys, tires, a fire lit in his belly
in the diner up the road.
I’m red toenails, tight blue halter, black slip.
He’s mine tonight. I don’t know him.
He can only hurt me a piece at a time.

Other women speak, briefly and forcefully, in “Twenty-Year Marriage,” “Why Can’t I Leave You?” “The Country Midwife: A Day,” and others. Desire, love, and violence mingle convincingly in the poems.

After her first work, the poems become longer, more complex. They also begin to explore social issues more fully. The speakers seem to step out of the pages of history, black-and-white grainy photographs suddenly turning three-dimensional, vivid with color. Some readers will find the pungent and sometimes bellicose poems distasteful, but true slice-of-life poetry does not present neatly carved vignettes. The power of Ai’s work is that it brings to life individuals for whom living is a struggle, and it forces one to identify with them—an identification readers are reluctant to accept.

Yet to be passive, to refuse life’s vital, violent élan in the world Ai describes, is to die. Indeed, what it takes to survive in this world is a zest for life as well as enough violence within to counter the violence without. Thus readers cheer for “The Cockfighter’s Daughter,” who, after an abusive home life and failed marriage, comes back home to the violent old man. When he dies, “face down, in his homemade chili,” the speaker looks at the fighting cock, her inheritance: his symbol and hers. The fighting cock had once torn a hunk out of her father’s flesh.

When the old man stopped the bleeding,
the rooster was waiting on top of the pickup,
his red eyes like Pentecostal flames.
That’s when Father named him Preacher.

The speaker drives her car down into the river, but then jumps out at the last minute, choosing to live as her father’s heir rather than to die. She drives off in his truck with Preacher the cock, intending to follow her father’s schedule of fights.

Also characteristic of Ai’s later work is her tendency to enter boldly the minds of people in high places, showing that the motives and desires are the same on top as on the bottom, but that the situations are complicated by issues of power and money. One of the most striking of her monologues does not involve the power figure but a victim—Mary Jo Kopechne, the woman who drowned at Chappaquiddick. This poem, entitled “Go,” tells of the incident in Kopechne’s voice and makes of Edward Kennedy, her companion who failed to save her, a symbol of the corruption of Camelot idealism. Kennedy, “grown fat and jowly/ at the table where no feast is ever served,” is contrasted with the mythic Kennedys who died young, their images unsullied. Part of the effectiveness of the poem is the way—as the waters did with their victim—it sucks the reader in with its fairy-tale beginning:

Once upon a Massachusetts midnight,
under a sky smoothed of light,
as if wiped by flannel,
a car sailed off a bridge
but did not float.
Then the water, the dark gray water,
opened its mouth
and I slid down its throat.

Many of the most recent, previously uncollected poems leap from news headlines, although many of them are carefully labeled “a fiction.” They give interior glimpses of adulterous presidents, paparazzi, other national figures. If some of them are not as compelling as the earlier ones, then it may be that the events are too current to be recast as poetry even by Ai—there is something about the Clinton scandal that cannot be separated from “yesterday’s news.” Moreover, her most persuasive, most intensely real characters tend to be women. The men she creates are interesting, too, but they are more likely to provide insights into a political or social situation than create a new friend or enemy for the reader that cannot be shaken loose easily.

The most striking poems in this last section are often about historical situations that Ai has personalized by giving it “a local habitation and a name.” Thus the speakers in “Chance” and “Rwanda” make the injustices described in the poems real to the reader by forcing him or her to participate. “Chance” tells the story of a young girl whose family vacation resulted in her father’s cancer, because of nuclear tests conducted on unsuspecting civilians in the 1950’s. “Chance” portrays the ordinary, innocent activities of the family, who have been selected by chance (and by an irresponsible agency) for tragedy. “Rwanda” is one of the handful of poems that does not reflect life in the United States. It has as its speaker a girl whose family is killed by a neighbor who is a part of the terrorists. This poem has a colorful and misleadingly hopeful beginning:

My neighbor used to come to our hut,
bringing melons so sweet
I thought I should not eat them,
because I would die
and haunt my family like a ghost
with hard, black seeds for eyes.
One day, he brought his uncle and two friends
and they asked my father to go outside with them.
I thought he had come to get permission to marry me
and I was glad because I loved him, . . .

But the intent is murder, not marriage, and the neighbor kills the father and mother and later rapes the speaker, who is left with a son she does not kill only because her mother’s bones tell her that killing is a sin. The poem moves toward closure with despair that reaches beyond the speaker’s own situation:

but in my heart I know
both his mother and father died long ago
and left this orphan to grow like a poisoned flower
beside the open grave that was my country.

The poems included here have been thoughtfully chosen; most of Ai’s most frequently anthologized poems are here, but this is a modest-sized book, containing seventy-six poems: eighteen new ones, and the rest from her five previous collections. Vice is a fierce, cutting, and insightful commentary on the times and places it records and reimagines. It clearly demonstrates that Ai is a skilled narrator and master monologuist as well as an adept spokesperson for the marginalized, especially the rural American poor, of the middle to late twentieth century.

Sources for Further Study

American Visions 14 (October, 1999): 35.

Booklist 95 (February 14, 1999): 1028.

Library Journal 124 (April 15, 1999): 100.

Publishers Weekly 246 (March 29, 1999): 97.

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