The Collected Poems of Ai

Bringing together thirty years of poetry across eight books, this first complete edition of Ai's work reveals her mastery of the dramatic monologue and her fearlessness in inhabiting the personas of controversial figures in American history (Robert Oppenheimer, J. Edgar Hoover, General George Custer, among others) and victims of violence and their perpetrators. Ai aims her first person lens on human suffering on simultaneously intimate and global scales. In "Starvation" she writes, "There's a pot of air on the stove… / We'll paint the sun on it from the inside, / so if we die some night, a light will still be on." Her poems are sustained in their appropriation and disavowal of the racial, cultural, and gender injustices they perform and document. "The Twentieth Century is there," she writes in "The Detective," "wearing a necklace of grenades / that glitters against its black skin. / I stare, see the pins / have all been pulled." Published three years after Ai's untimely death in 2010, this compilation presents characters that "earn our attention," says Yusef Komunyakaa in his introduction to the book. "They are at home in the silence of the landscape but always have something to say about life-and-death matters." Ai writes in "More," "I'd hold on, I'd hold / till the weight / till the awful heaviness / tore from me / sank to the bottom and stayed. / Then I'd stand up / like Lazarus / and walk home across the water."

This book review was originally published in American Poets, Spring 2013, Volume 44.