Killing Floor

by Florence Anthony

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The Poem

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“Killing Floor” is a free-verse monologue that dramatizes three moments in the life of Leon Trotsky. Born Lev Davidovich Bronstein, Trotsky—one of the most important figures of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917—was assassinated in Mexico in 1940 after being exiled from the Soviet Union. Using violent imagery to establish a context of spiritual and political crisis, Ai constructs a poetic autobiography of Trotsky that exposes the spiritual and psychological dimensions underlying historical fact. Related by Ai’s imagined version of Trotsky, the poem’s series of nightmares and awakenings leads gradually to the scene of Trotsky’s assassination with an ax. Within this context of nightmare, politics, and butchery, “Killing Floor” explores the effects that political and personal sacrifices have on the human soul.

Section 1, entitled “Russia, 1927,” introduces the atmosphere of anxiety and violence that gradually permeates the poem. Trotsky, the speaker of the poem, is both Bronstein the private individual and Trotsky the political figure. He awakens “ninety-three million miles” (the distance from the Earth to the Sun) from himself to a swim not in the “azure water of Jordan” but in the “darkened” waters of the Volga. Just as the river Jordan is displaced upon waking by the Volga, the deathlike man with the “spade-shaped hands” is replaced upon waking by Joseph Stalin, the man who exiled Trotsky. Ten years after the revolution, with Communist leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin dead, the Soviet Union is at a crossroads, a choice between the totalitarian road Stalin proposed or the more democratic path advocated by Trotsky. The depredation and violence Stalin would bring to the Soviet Union is foreshadowed in Trotsky’s vision:

but I hear the hosts of a man drowning in water and holiness,the castrati voices I can’t recognize,skating on knives, from trees, from airon the thin ice of my last night in Russia.

Stalin whispers in Trotsky’s ear the conditions of his exile. The section ends with Trotsky’s answer: “I have only myself. Put me on the train./ I won’t look back.

In the poem’s second section, “Mexico, 1940,” the submerged violence of section 1 erupts into Trotsky’s dreams. Trotsky awakens from a nightmare vision; this awakening amplifies rather than dispels the reader’s sense of impending disaster. Ai heightens the dramatic tension of this section by breaking it into two halves. The first half relates the fact that Trotsky has had a dream of murder; the second half depicts in striking imagery the details of this dream. Between the two halves of the section, Ai wedges an expression of calm and serenity: “A marigold in winter.” She then closes the section by obliterating this sense of calm removal, returning to the nightmare: “my head fell to one side, hanging only by skin.”

“Mexico, August 20, 1940,” the third section of the poem, opens with another nightmare but quickly moves the violence into Trotsky’s reality. In his nightmare, bullets zigzag up the body of his wife. Trotsky cuts open her gown and attempts to stop the bleeding with his own body. This final nightmare emerges into the reality of the poem. As Trotsky rouges his cheeks and lips at his wife’s vanity, he feels “lined and empty.” The toll of exile and of continual threat has exhausted him. As he looks into the mirror, he is attacked—not in dream, but in fact:

He moves from the doorway,lifts the pickaxand strikes the top of my head.My brain splits.The pickax keeps goingand when it hits the tile floor,it flies from his hands,a black dove on whose back I ride


(This entire section contains 736 words.)

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killing floor of the poem’s title resounds with the violence of the fatal blow and the exhilaration of Trotsky’s release from the myriad uncertainties of his existence. In the closing lines, the oppositions of identity and perspective that haunt Ai’s version of Trotsky are not so much resolved as recognized: “a black dove on whose back I ride,/ two men, one cursing,/ the other blessing all things.” In an ambiguous ending, the personal figure (Bronstein) separates from the political one (Trotsky). Ironically, this killing becomes a liberation from duality that frees Trotsky from the burden of nightmarish anxiety. The split between the two halves of himself resolves in a unifying act of purification in the holy river of Trotsky’s Jewish ancestors: “Lev Davidovich Bronstein,/ I step from Jordan without you.

Forms and Devices

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Ai adopts Trotsky as a poetic persona through which she narrates this first-person, three-act drama about the human costs of revolutionary commitment. Emphasizing oppositions between the political and the personal, the public and the private, and dream and reality, this poem portrays the personal crises behind the historical facts of Trotsky’s life. The three sections of the poem lead the reader through three stages in Trotsky’s journey from exile to assassination. Imparting to history a surrealistic, cinematic context, the poem provides the reader with a narrative of striking images and compelling oppositions. These images and contrasting oppositions, in turn, offer the reader a means to evaluate and appreciate the personal implications of political action.

“Killing Floor” is dominated by the power of Ai’s startling images of violence. Recognized and reviled by critics for the visceral power of its imagery, Ai’s poetry depicts suffering and survival in sometimes lurid, bloody detail. In very ordinary, very straightforward language, Ai constructs images of violence that capture the reader’s attention. Images such as “skating on knives,” a head hanging only by a sliver of skin, a bullet-riddled body, and a pickax splitting a brain reflect the unfortunately gruesome facts of life in a violent and cruel society. It would be a mistake, though, to read the violence of “Killing Floor” without also reading its images of beauty. In phrases such as “easing me down into the azure water of Jordan,” “water caught in my lashes,” and “A river of sighs poured from the cut,” Ai offers the reader a respite from the force of blood and violence. She juxtaposes these images of spirituality (baptism, Jordan, dove) and beauty with violent imagery in order to communicate the complex connection between violence and beauty. The alternating rhythm of violence and beauty, nightmare and wakefulness is crucial to the poem’s depiction of the divided and hounded life of Trotsky.

Restricted by the historical fact of Trotsky’s assassination, the poem’s oppositions of imagery and tone serve to enrich the reader’s appreciation of the psychological and personal costs Trotsky paid for his commitment to his political beliefs. Juxtapositions of violent and beautiful images—paired with the narration of dream and waking—create a surrealistic atmosphere in which Ai reimagines history. In this atmosphere, the sections of the poem describe the prelude, crisis, and culmination of Trotsky’s political and personal drama. By setting up oppositions within the poem (Jordan/Volga, Russia/Mexico, Bronstein/Trotsky, dream/waking, and marmot/dove), Ai renders history tangible and universal in its human implications.