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.
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;
(The entire section is 1,812 words.)