“Ai is a truthteller picking her way through the burning rocks of racial and sexual lies.”—Joy Harjo
Before her untimely death in 2010, Ai, known for her searing dramatic monologues, was hailed as “one of the most singular voices of her generation” (New York Times Book Review). Now for the first time, all eight books by this essential and uniquely American poet have been gathered in one volume.
Rape, incest, serial killings, tabloid scandal, genocide in Rwanda and on the American High Plains, child sex abuse, corrupt Catholic priests, teen suicide, and ordinary poverty mixed with rural and inner-city violence: Ai’s subjects alone made her poems hard to forget, and her direct treatment of them in unadorned dramatic monologues—some by perpetrators, some by victims, though really in her world most people are both—made her poems hard to ignore, from Cruelty (1973) through seven subsequent volumes before her death in 2010. “The Psychic Detective” remembers “the cold, calculating killer” who left one corpse “with her pubis artistically exposed”; a pregnant teen opens another poem, “I wasn’t wearing anything but my underwear/ when the social worker opened the orphanage door.” Though the poems got longer, their narratives more detailed, as Ai (born Florence Anthony) aged, their core of trauma did not much change. Figures from the beginning and the end of her career reflect her Choctaw, Irish-, Japanese-, and African-American heritage, along with her Oklahoma residence, in raw, sanguinary, anguished stories and lines. If Ai repeated herself in the 1980s and 1990s, her final book, No Surrender (2010), tried hard to vary its tone and its lines, even using rhyme. Doubters can still call her lurid, cartoonish, unartful; fans—among them Yusef Komunyakaa, who contributes an introduction—will continue to find her not just scary but truthful, fierce, and proud. (Feb.)
Ai (1947-2010) is the author of eight books of poetry, including the National Book Award–winning Vice. In 2009 she was named a United States Artist Ford Fellow. She was a professor at Oklahoma State University.