Killing Floor

by Florence Anthony

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Themes and Meanings

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“Killing Floor” is the title poem of Ai’s second collection of poems and represents a departure from the poems of her first collection, Cruelty (1973). Published in 1978 and a winner of the Lamont Poetry Selection Award for the best second book by an American poet, Killing Floor moves the violent themes of Cruelty (monologues delivered by unnamed, ordinary people) into contexts of historical and cultural significance. Ai’s straightforward, unadorned language can lead readers to evaluate her poems as merely sensational documents of bloodshed without further meaning. With poems about Trotsky, Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, film star Marilyn Monroe, and Japanese author Yukio Mishima, Killing Floor establishes a larger social context through which readers can interpret Ai’s work. Violence in Ai’s poetry must be unadorned and direct in order to shock the reader with the bloody contexts of history and of society. “Killing Floor” places the details of Trotsky’s life among such imagery in order to situate his life into a more universal dilemma between personal and political choices.

In this process of emotional and psychological reinterpretation of Trotsky, some suggestions of the poet’s life arise. For example, the focus on the multiplicity and fluidity of identities of Bronstein/Trotsky connects to the multiplicity of identities Ai herself encompasses. Born Florence Anthony, Ai’s poetry reflects the multiple ethnicities of her heritage (Japanese, African American, Choctaw, and Irish) and the anxieties that the world’s demand for static identity creates. In this light, one can read the poem as an expression of anxiety over the stricture of social definitions. Identity is too multiple and too persistent to limit itself to rules, even self-imposed ones.

Ai’s use of historical and ordinary personas to give voice to her monologues invites comparisons with the monologues of Robert Browning, A. E. Housman, and Sterling Brown. The starkness of her violent imagery, however, is particular to her work. In “Killing Floor,” the political life of Trotsky emerges from the Volga and returns, transformed, to the Jordan. Arranged within the concentric boxes of dream and waking, history in “Killing Floor” is fraught with crisis, longing, and violence. Ai ironically humanizes history by her persistent attention to emotional and spiritual identity. By presenting to the reader a rich blend of violence, beauty, nightmare, spirituality, history, and poetry, Ai creates a unique vision of the struggle that rages in life to define and be oneself.

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