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All Ai's work is stark, harsh, and dramatic in style. But as her preoccupations move from personal violence to historic atrocity, her imagination opens out into the public arena; the domestic turns political. Throughout her poetry, a stripped-down diction conveys an underlying, almost biblical indignation--not, at times, without compassion--at human misuses of power and the corrupting energies of various human appetites.

Although virtually all the poems present themselves as spoken by a particular character, Ai makes little attempt to capture individual styles of diction, personal vocabularies; the result, if monotonous, is also striking. A Mexican revolutionary, an old woman with a young lover, the dead Robert Kennedy, a Vietnam veteran--all speak with a sullen, deadpan passion that galvanizes our attention through the voice's intensity rather than by the accumulation of realistic detail. The foreshortened, nearly parodic vividness of Ai's characters makes them closer to types than to historical portraits.


From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Copyright © 1994 by Oxford University Press.