The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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:

(The entire section is 736 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 429 words.)