“Killing Floor” by Ai

There is an uncanny silence surrounding Ai’s recent death from late-detected cancer on March 20.  So much so that I didn’t believe it to be true and looked to “reputable” sites for days for confirmation.  But turns out it’s true: she’s joined the ancestors.

When I first read Ai she scared me; or maybe it was an alarm.  Best known as a persona poet, writing in the first person is where she says she was taught and discovered the strength of her ideas; ironic for me who was being taught right then as I read her (but can’t say I discovered to be true) just the opposite; that to write in the third person lends relevance and credibility to ideas.

Clearly, an individual poem has to dictate its own individual voice.

Ai’s physical voice may be silent but she gave voice to characters from Death to Jimmy Hoffa, darkly humorous sometimes, always piercing, and credible.  Probably they’re her own voice, really; none of us are as monolithic as we are perceived or would even like to present ourselves to be.

Killing Floor
(1947 – 2010)

RUSSIA, 1927

On the day the sienna-skinned man
held my shoulders between his spade-shaped hands,
easing me down into the azure water of Jordan,
I woke ninety-three million miles from myself,
Lev Davidovich Bronstein,
shoulder-deep in the Volga,
while the cheap dye of my black silk shirt darkened the water.
My head wet, water caught in my lashes.
Am I blind?
I rub my eyes, then wade back to shore,
undress and lie down,
until Stalin comes from his place beneath the birch tree.
He folds my clothes
and I button myself in my marmot coat,
and together we start the long walk back to Moscow.
He doesn’t ask, what did you see in the river?,
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 air
on the thin ice of my last night in Russia.
Leon Trotsky. Bread.
I want to scream, but silence holds my tongue
with small spade-shaped hands
and only this comes, so quietly
Stalin has to press his ear to my mouth:
I have only myself. Put me on the train.
I won’t look back.

2. MEXICO, 1940

At noon today, I woke from a nightmare:
my friend Jacques ran toward me with an ax,
as I stepped from the train in Alma-Ata.
He was dressed in yellow satin pants and shirt.
A marigold in winter.
When I held out my arms to embrace him,
he raised the ax and struck me at the neck,
my head fell to one side, hanging only by skin.
A river of sighs poured from the cut.
3. MEXICO, August 20, 1940
The machine-gun bullets
hit my wife in the legs,
then zigzagged up her body.
I took the shears, cut open her gown
and lay on top of her for hours.
Blood soaked through my clothes
and when I tried to rise, I couldn’t.

I wake then. Another nightmare.
I rise from my desk, walk to the bedroom
and sit down at my wife’s mirrored vanity.
I rouge my cheeks and lips,
stare at my bone-white, speckled egg of a face:
lined and empty.
I lean forward and see Jacques’s reflection.
I half-turn, smile, then turn back to the mirror.
He moves from the doorway,
lifts the pickax
and strikes the top of my head.
My brain splits.
The pickax keeps going
and when it hits the tile floor,
it flies from his hands,
a black dove on whose back I ride,
two men, one cursing,
the other blessing all things:
Lev Davidovich Bronstein,

I step from Jordan without you.


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