Vice: New and Selected Poems


Winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Poetry.
Collected here are poems from Ai's previous five books—Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate, and Greed—along with seventeen new poems. Employing her trademark ferocity, these new dramatic monologues continue to mine this award-winning poet's "often brilliant" (Chicago Tribune) vision.

1999 National Book Award ...

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Vice: New and Selected Poems

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Winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Poetry.
Collected here are poems from Ai's previous five books—Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate, and Greed—along with seventeen new poems. Employing her trademark ferocity, these new dramatic monologues continue to mine this award-winning poet's "often brilliant" (Chicago Tribune) vision.

1999 National Book Award winner for Poetry.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Ais poems provide an absorbing, gritty anatomy of desire you cannot satisfy. In this selection of 18 new poems and 58 from five previous books published from 1973 to 1993, agents of emotional and mental abuse describe horrific journeys into malice and the old fear. Transfigured by desire, speakers (a heroin addict, a paparazzo, a racist) who take extreme measures try to unravel the strands of equivocal motivation. What I always wanted/ was release from my own pain/ but theres only the terrible surrender to it, confesses the police officer who committed suicide before he was to receive a medal for rescuing people after the Oklahoma City bombing. Ais willingness to explore moral values in collision shines into the hearts of those doomed to be crushed. In Ice and Rwanda, she highlights the dignity and suffering of ordinary women, victims of inexplicable violence. Redemptive empathy transforms these unadorned narratives into documents that reveal the intense disintegration of body and soul. Richly rewarding, but not for the squeamish.Frank Allen, Northampton Community Coll., Tannersville, PA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393320183
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/28/2000
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 779,952
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


You keep me waiting in a truck
with its one good wheel stuck in the ditch,
while you piss against the south side of a tree.
Hurry. I've got nothing on under my skirt tonight.
That still excites you, but this pickup has no windows
and the seat, one fake leather thigh,
pressed close to mine is cold.
I'm the same size, shape, make as twenty years ago,
but get inside me, start the engine;
you'll have the strength, the will to move.
I'll pull, you push, we'll tear each other in half.
Come on, baby, lay me down on my back.
Pretend you don't owe me a thing
and maybe we'll roll out of here,
leaving the past stacked up behind us;
old newspapers nobody's ever got to read again.


Coming home, I find you still in bed,
but when I pull back the blanket,
I see your stomach is flat as an iron.
You've done it, as you warned me you would
and left the fetus wrapped in wax paper
for me to look at. My son.
Woman, loving you no matter what you do,
what can I say, except that I've heard
the poor have no children, just small people
and there is room only for one man in this house.


I bend over the woman.
This is the third time between abortions.
I dip a towel into a bucket of hot water
and catch the first bit of blood,
as the blue-pink dome of a head breaks through.
A scraggy, redchild comes out of her into my hands
like warehouse ice sliding down the chute.

It's done, the stink of birth, Old Grizzly
rears up on his hind legs in front of me
and I want to go outside,
but the air smells the same there too.
The woman's left eye twitches
and beneath her, a stain as orange as sunrise
spreads over the sheet.
I lift my short, blunt fingers to my face
and I let her bleed, Lord, I let her bleed.


The hoof-marks on the dead wildcat
gleam in the dark.
You are naked, as you drag it up on the porch.
That won't work either.
Drinking ice water hasn't,
nor having the bedsprings snap fingers
to help us keep rhythm.
I've never once felt anything
that might get close. Can't you see?
The thing I want most is hard,
running toward my own teeth
and it bites back.


Hailstones puncture the ground,
as I sit at the table, rubbing a fork.
My woman slides a knife across her lips,
then lays it beside a cup of water.
Each day she bites another notch in her thumb
and I pretend relief is coming
as the smooth black tire, Earth,
wheels around the sun without its patch of topsoil
and my mouth speaks: wheat, barley, red cabbage,
roll on home to Jesus,
it's too late now you're dead


You stand behind the old black mare,
dressed as always in that red shirt,
stained from sweat, the crying of the armpits,
that will not stop for anything,
stroking her rump, while the barley goes unplanted.
I pick up my suitcase and set it down,
as I try to leave you again.
I smooth the hair back from your forehead.
I think with your laziness and the drought too,
you'll be needing my help more than ever.
You take my hands, I nod
and go to the house to unpack,
having found another reason to stay.

I undress, then put on my white lace slip
for you to take off, because you like that
and when you come in, you pull down the straps
and I unbutton your shirt.
I know we can't give each other any more
or any less than what we have.
There is safety in that, so much
that I can never get past the packing,
the begging you to please, if I can't make you happy,
come close between my thighs
and let me laugh for you from my second mouth.


His kidney floats in a bowl,
a beige, flat fish, around whom parasites, slices of lemon,
break through the surface of hot broth, then sink below,
as I bend, face down in the steam, breathing in.
I hear this will cure anything.

When I am finished, I walk up to him.
He hangs from a short wooden post,
tongue stuck out of his mouth,
tasting the hay-flavored air.
A bib of flies gather at his throat
and further down, where he is open
and bare of all his organs,
I put my hand in, stroke him once,
then taking it out, look at the sky.
The stormclouds there break open
and raindrops, yellow as black cats' eyes, come down
each a tiny river, hateful and alone.

Wishing I could get out of this alive, I hug myself.
It is hard to remember if he suffered much.
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Table of Contents

Twenty-Year Marriage 3
Abortion 4
The Country Midwife: A Day 5
Cruelty 6
The Tenant Farmer 7
Why Can't I Leave You? 8
I Have Got to Stop Loving You 9
Young Farm Woman Alone 10
One Man Down 11
Hangman 12
The Sweet 13
The Hitchhiker 14
Cuba, 1962 15
Child Beater 16
Everything: Eloy, Arizona, 1956 17
Killing Floor 21
Nothing but Color 24
Talking to His Reflection in a Shallow Pond 27
29 (A Dream in Two Parts) 29
She Didn't Even Wave 30
Ice 32
The Ravine 34
The Kid 36
I Can't Get Started 38
Pentecost 40
The Gilded Man 42
Two Brothers 47
Blue Suede Shoes 52
The Prisoner 58
Conversation 61
More 63
The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981 65
The Mother's Tale 67
The Priest's Confession 69
Elegy 74
The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer 77
The Detective 80
The Journalist 85
Go 93
Jimmy Hoffa's Odyssey 97
Boys and Girls, Lenny Bruce, or Back from the Dead 102
General George Armstrong Custer: My Life in the Theater 107
Interview with a Policeman 110
James Dean 113
Reunions with a Ghost 116
Capture 118
Evidence: From a Reporter's Notebook 122
The Cockfighter's Daughter 129
Riot Act, April 29, 1992 137
Hoover, Edgar J. 140
Hoover Trismegistus 145
Jack Ruby on Ice 149
Oswald Incognito & Astral Travels 156
Miracle in Manila 161
Finished 165
Life Story 168
Penis Envy 176
Greed 180
Rapture 189
False Witness 192
Sleeping Beauty 196
Charisma 199
The Antihero 201
Rwanda 206
Stalking Memory 210
The Paparazzi 213
Afterschool Lessons from a Hitman 215
Chance 218
Knock, Knock 220
Blood in the Water 223
Back in the World 226
Flashback 230
Momento Mori 237
Visitation 240
Star Vehicle (My Senior Year in High School) 242
Passing Through 247
Index 253
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2001

    winner of the 1999 national book award

    winning the national book award alone is good enough reason to pick this collection up. 'Child Beater' is another. Ai's early poems are without a doubt her best work. as she got older, her poems just lost most of the skill she exhibited in her earlier collection.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2000

    If you buy one book of poetry in 2000, make it 'Vice'!

    I've followed Ai's work for a few years and it just hasn't been given the attention she deserves (despite that whole national book award thing :). Her poetry is stark and hot and you won't soon forget it.

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