This Long Winding Line: A Poetry Retrospective

Ai’s Killing Floor (1979)

Edited by Shara Lessley

I first read Ai’s poetry as an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine—or, rather, it read me. Read into my conscience, its deepest recesses, accessing things I’d tried to repress or deny: shame, brutality, envy, desire, arrogance, sexual pleasure, prejudice—in other words, humanity. I remember the spring light of that afternoon, how it flooded the box-like room where I spread my papers and books across a twin bed, The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets turned to “Twenty-Year Marriage”:

You keep me waiting in a truck
with its one good wheel stuck in the ditch,
while you piss against the south side of a tree.
Hurry. I’ve got nothing on under my skirt tonight …

Now, more than two decades after first encountering the opening lines above, I still feel the charge of surprise as the monosyllabically-driven sentences turn with boldness and urgency, establishing the poem’s intimacy and combativeness. Before discovering “Twenty-Year Marriage,” I’d experienced (no doubt, by design) a very particular brand of lyric poetry, one whose authors (almost exclusively white, male, and long dead) modeled introspection, beauty, restraint. Rather than the tempered expression of private feeling, or some restructuring of inner thought, however, Ai’s speakers reached electrically across the page, as if in active conversation not only with their poems’ subjects—wives seducing or rebuking husbands, the abused addressing their abusers, a kid describing the family he’s killed, actors and musicians, politicians and cops spouting off—but also (shockingly!) in direct dialogue with me, a twenty-year-old Dance major from a dairy town in Central California. For reasons I couldn’t explain, I felt implicated by the writing. The all-too-familiar molestation in “29 (A Dream in Two Parts)” disturbed me, as did the rural poverty and gendered danger in “Almost Grown,” whose speaker knows “… it’s true, it’s got to be: you can’t tell a shotgun / or a man what to do.” How was it, I wondered, that some unacknowledged part of myself was simply waiting to be revealed via these verse monologues?

When I was an undergraduate, the cruelty of Ai’s writing felt familiar, though her worldliness was beyond my experience. Yet, while her poems were located far from the conservative college town where I studied, Ai’s was the first poetry that really seemed aware of my presence. It’s not that I wanted to project myself into the poems’ central dramas. On the contrary: reading Ai, I worried about taking pleasure in work that recounted profound pain that wasn’t my own. Even at twenty, the idea of voyeurism terrified me—it felt sinful. Ai’s poetry, however, isn’t interested in compartmentalization or neat morality. Because her signature personas frequently assert themselves via a direct address that also invokes the second person perspective, thereby forcing readers to assume an adversarial relationship with the speaker, Ai’s work consistently draws us into the minds of other selves. Reading her poetry compels readers to variously assume the position of oppressor, perpetuator, family member, love interest, foil; to more fully recognize and confront our shared capacity for corruption, tenderness, complicity, grief, and injury. As Amaud Jamaul Johnson deftly observes, “Reading [Ai], I never know where to direct my empathy. I’m at once a victim and a villain. I feel myself at both ends of the blade: the pressure point against my skin and the handle in my palm.”

The following essays by Johnson, Shivanee Ramlochan, and Danielle Cadena Deulen revisit Ai’s sophomore collection, Killing Floor, which won the Lamont Poetry Award from the Academy of American Poets in 1979. Reissued by Tavern Books in 2018, the latest edition includes an introduction by Major Jackson who praises Ai’s work for its ability to “contextualize American xenophobia and white supremacy within a larger, global framework of celebrity culture, genocide, violence, sex, and corruption, and, thus, implicitly [assert] racial oppression as symptomatic of something that was tainted at our human core.” As I type these paragraphs from my office in Dubai, it’s the destructive fact of America’s white supremacy and xenophobia (and its intersection with celebrity and celebrity culture) that the world is watching during these final unpredictable hours leading up to the inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden. I selected Ai’s Killing Floor for this installment of “This Long Winding Line” in October of 2019—well before the onset of the pandemic, murder of George Floyd, and the seditious attack on the U.S. capitol by domestic terrorists. It would be tempting to claim that Killing Floor echoes our current moment of sickness, oppression, political betrayal, racism, viciousness, and hurt. Yet, Ai’s poetic relevance isn’t only her underscoring of violence’s timelessness. Nor is it her portraiture of representative voices. Rather, it’s how the unflinching rendering of those voices reflects us—in all our myriad forms and contradictions—back to ourselves. Although there are certainly poems in her collected body of work that I resist, ones that seem to unnecessarily lyricize or exploit suffering, it’s in returning to Ai that I’m most reminded of the all-too-often unexamined well of feeling that exists within myself. Some of these feelings are ugly. Some, I’d like to minimize or forget. What the best of Ai’s poetry has done for me for more than twenty years is not only to push me toward accountability, but dare me to take a good hard look at the self’s most difficult and layered truths—to hold fast and, for as long as possible, to refrain from turning away.   

—Shara Lessley (January, 2021)   

“Nothing Touches Me”: Notes on Killing Floor

Amaud Jamaul Johnson

Maybe I’m trying to shield myself from further emotional harm, but I’ve never wanted to believe the worst of people. This makes me a sucker for redemption songs: Saul on the road to Damascus, Malcolm Little in a Charlestown jail cell, even former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace in his wheelchair. But what’s more American than the myth of resurrection? I’m aware that this brand of empathy makes me vulnerable. Yes, I know what people are capable of. I’ve had guns pulled on me. I’ve had people smile in my face and disparage my children. Greed, envy, lust, rage: regardless of our technological advances or access to information, we collapse back into an old story. We seem trapped in a singular conversation. Our successes and failures are equally startling. I think I want to believe that our character, for better or worse, is malleable. I wouldn’t call this hope. My heart falls somewhere in a Venn diagram between Afrofuturism and Afropessimism. Because of my personal history and what I understand about American history, I struggle with the ability to forgive and forget. I imagine the path forward for us as a nation, if any, depends on truth and reconciliation. For obvious reasons, I’m afraid of scorpions and snakes, and I would never willingly place myself or my family in danger. Of course, this creates a conundrum: intimacy, friendship, community, personal growth, all require risk. The same has been said about art-making.

I return to poetry when this feeling of isolation overwhelms me. This isn’t an act of escape. The best poems tether me closer to the world. Before my smartphone provided an easy exit from confined spaces, I was the kind of person who slipped into long conversations with strangers. Sitting on a park bench or next to someone on an airplane, we carved intimacy out of our anonymity. Now I find it difficult to maintain eye contact during face-to-face conversations, and phone calls have become obsolete. I’m shocked now thinking of things I disclosed then, what I might not confess to my wife or my closest friends. We’ve learned to burrow deeper into our black mirrors and our imagined selves. We are less a nation of individuals, as we have become an amalgam of strangers. I’ve always thought of a poem as one half of an imagined conversation. I’m not harboring secrets, but often I’m quiet, searching for an occasion to explain exactly who I am. 

Ai’s poetry is an invitation into another world, but she imagines a place full of trapdoors and trick mirrors, its roads are riddled with spikes and potholes. Next to Robert Hayden and Yusef Komunyakaa, she’s had the greatest influence on my work. Ai writes from the perspective of people you might try to avoid in everyday life. Ai is unflinching. She isn’t afraid to look the Devil directly in his bloodshot eyes and wink. These shadowy figures lurch out of the darker corners of our consciousness. While I admire the body of her work, Ai’s second poetry collection, Killing Floor, is extraordinary because of her unwillingness to look away during moments of absolute chaos or carnage. It might be easiest to say that she constructs a series of nightmares, but her gift was seeing beauty and tenderness within what we would consider dreadful things. She’s not writing for shock or producing cheap tricks; through these poems, she’s willing to pull back the layers of our strange American psyche, offering a kiss.

I give you the ebony box
With the baby’s skull inside
And you set it on your work table,
Comb your pale blond hair with one hand,
Then nail it shut.

Ai’s speakers are both exacting and bizarre. The velocity of their mood swings makes my head spin. Reading these poems, I never know where to direct my empathy. I’m at once a victim and a villain. I feel myself at both ends of the blade: the pressure point against my skin and the handle in my palm. I can’t stop feeling that I’m being lured into an alley, or deeper into a swamp. Her speakers seduce, but each moment of beauty is followed by a pitchfork, a hatchet, or a hammer. A sweetness that quickly turns bitter. All tenderness fused to violence. As in “Sleep Like A Hammer”:

I rub the hammer I use to slaughter stock
with coconut oil,
while you sit, staring at your feet, clucking

Here, the speaker is on the verge of murdering his infirm, once abusive father. The senses are fused; touch, taste, smell, and sound collapse, creating a state of confusion. We are in the head of both the father and the son, and the oil serves as a sacrament. The son is anointing his weapon. As a reader, I know what’s coming, I’m waiting for the hammer to fall, and I feel complicit. The trauma unfolds in slow motion. Each poem in this collection is like an arthouse horror film. My screams are muffled. I often find myself looking up from the page slightly terrified and full of delight, which produces a second wave of guilt.

“She Didn’t Even Wave,” is written from the point of view of Marilyn Monroe recounting her mother’s death:

But I couldn’t do much about her face,
blue-black and swollen
so I covered it with a silk scarf.
I hike my dress up to my thighs
and rub them.
I touch the rhinestone heart pinned to my blouse.
Honey, let’s look at it again.
See. It’s bright like the lightning that struck her.

So much is startling. The lightning strike represents the general sense of wonder and danger coursing through her aesthetic. Throughout the book, I circle back to touch and the business of the hand as instrument of pleasure, comfort, and discomfort. The sensual is often misplaced; as in “I Can’t Get Started,” “The bullets never touched me. / Nothing touches me,” or “The Expectant Father”:

The skin of my mouth, chewed raw, tastes good.
I get up, cursing, and find the bottle of scotch.
My mouth burns as darkness, lifting her skirt,
Reveals daylight, a sleek left ankle.

These are what Wendell Berry calls the “little words that come / out of the silence, like prayers / prayed back to the one who prays,” but the intensity of this poetic voice pierces loneliness. Ai’s speakers often at a precipice, staring out from the edge of their souls.

Ai’s dramatic monologues are masterful. She’s a ventriloquist, a puppeteer. She’s both at the surface of these poems and completely invisible. You can’t see her hand or hear her voice, but she hovers. Twenty years ago, one of my mentors, Tim Seibles, introduced me to her work. Ai had just won the National Book Award in 1999 for the selected volume, Vice. Her work was in conversation with so many prominent writers, but then she seemed mysterious. From Rita Dove and Elizabeth Alexander to A. Van Jordan, Tyehimba Jess, and Airea D. Matthews, Black poets have employed persona poetry to make flesh the bond between the historical and the personal, the individual and the collective. This impulse is old. It’s a survival instinct. While a poem stands as a singular consciousness, writers of color draw from a vast well of experience across generations. The body of a poem is a collective body of knowledge. “Born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight,” at the close of the twentieth century, Ai’s mathematics of identity, 1/2 Japanese, 1/8 Choctaw-Chickasaw, 1/4 Black, and 1/16 Irish, bookend W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1903 question of Americanness. Considering her “unreconciled strivings,” the “warring ideals in one dark body,” Ai suggests that our strangeness, our fragmentation, and our estrangement connect us.


We Must Shapeshift in Our Dark Industry

Shivanee Ramlochan

The second time the poet casts her net, she has an idea of the depth of the water.

Killing Floor necessitates that we spend time in the bodies and minds of both named and unnamed speakers. We open with Leon Trotsky, who hears “the hosts of a man drowning in water and loneliness”; we move to Kawabata, the Japanese Nobel Laureate who is haunted by water in “Talking to His Reflection in a Shallow Pond.”

“Brother, you deserve to suffer,” Kawabata addresses himself, suspended in the mirror surface of the pond. It is but one of several searing and severe confrontations Ai enforces in her second collection of poems, and whether we know the speakers through the lens of history, or find them roaming in our imaginations as anonymous hauntings, the effects are galvanic: the self, even surrounded by the most fluid of borders, must witness herself or be doomed to certain pain. Even with the most searing self-awareness, these poems suggest, pain may be the perfect inescapable due.

Ai’s poetic net is threaded with an intimacy of brutality that moves through each speaker like a body-jumping haint. Nor are you immune to the possession of such violence in death, as poems such as “The Mortician’s Twelve Year Old Son” remind us. In this morally tangled landscape of postulated necrophilia, the deepest gift of the poem feels to be curiosity, shorn of judgment. “I lift the sheet, rub the mole on your cheek / and it comes off black and oily on my hand,” says the young speaker poised on the threshold of a discovery both tender and appalling. Yet what we readers may comment upon in revulsion or awe is a net of our own making: Ai has brought us to these bodies of water, but not told us what to think about the leviathans within. This redoubtable agency never promises that the inhabitants of the poems will be good, or will lead us to goodness. That is not their work. Less easily allegorical, they are flintily transformative.

To live in the urgency of Killing Floor, we would do well to consider the conventional framing of “darkness” as opposite to “light”—and then kill that. Ai wants our dark industry: why else would it be the pivot point, the bruise irradiating the throat, of so many of these poems? In “The Kid,” the murderous son Jack identifies himself as Hogarth’s son, after he has killed both parents and sister, claiming his place in a nuclear family tree he has felled with immediate, bloody violence. After dressing himself in his dead father’s clothes, packing his dead mother’s nightgown in a suitcase alongside his dead sister’s doll, Jack tells us “Then I go outside and cross the fields to the highway. / I’m fourteen. I’m a wind from nowhere. / I can break your heart.” No gesture of the poem tilts towards pity. We are not called upon to make character analyses of Jack, to consider how we might defend him in a court of law: the vehicle of Ai’s dark clarity does not need to summon a plausible backstory for Jack’s vengeance for us to keenly witness the ambit of his actions. This is not a stage for goodness, for darkness, for light: it is the field that Jack escapes into, carrying the domestic tokens of his slaughter. It is for us to populate that field with our convictions, as uneasy and troubled as they might be. Through harnessing the dramatic monologue, Ai razes the landscape of the cloyingly expected, to reveal that what you’ve most feared or run from might have been there all along, waiting for you to regard it.

We would do poorly to mistake the malleability of morality in Ai’s poems as indifference or apathy. The investment in figures we know do not know is paramount to the success of Killing Floor, driving one stark and uncompromising address after the other into us, till we are trepanned by so much certainty. Surgical in her technique, Ai opens a space for us to either despise or tremble before the poem’s speakers, but to do so honestly. In another fraught father-child offering, “Sleep Like a Hammer,” the offspring lavishes a diligent if passionless tenderness on the stock-killing hammer, using coconut oil to wipe it free from livestock blood before bludgeoning his father in what we can call furious aspiration, judging by the upward ascent of the blows:

Your lips pull back
and your tongue drifts over your teeth
and I’m moving up to your hands, shoulders, neck, face.
Lord, moving up.

The speaker’s wife, witnessing the assault, rushes towards the pair, “But she’s in another country. / There’s only you. Me.” What might Ai be conducting towards us, what missives from the country of violence? That it is an entire world, and that not only the distant or the famous live there: that we all do, close to our hammers and suitcases, our dolls and mortuaries, the everyday instruments of our living and our death.

The final poem of Killing Floor, its darkly glittering masterpiece, joins us to Lope de Aguirre in the unfurling forward momentum of his planned conquest of Peru. He speaks of, and to, his daughter, whom he will eventually kill to prevent her death at the hands of his enemies. For Aguirre, Peru and El Dorado are fixed, gleaming ideals which not even divine intervention can sway:

Does God think that because it rains in torrents
I am not to go to Peru and destroy the world?
God. The boot heel an inch above your head is mine.

Even if history has judged Lope de Aguirre, Ai will not, instead presenting the Basque conquistador’s ruthlessness as fact, as immutable a part of his dark destiny as the heavy rains engulfing him at Barquisimeto, where he makes his final stand. In this last poem, the net of Ai’s reach attains its fullness, dragging the inevitable reckoning resident in each poem to the surface of the entire book. We are richer, stranger, and impossibly affected from the journey, existing within so many bodies, shapeshifters of these clear and lucid human appetites.

Which public and private figures might Ai pin to the butterfly board of scrutiny, opening their winged narratives like confessionals in 2021? The literary world lacks her darkness, apposite to curiosity and empathy, not judgment and ruin. To comprehend a being, as Ai does repeatedly and without mercy in the poems of Killing Floor, you must make room for the shape of their horror, the quotidian heft of their cruelty. You must acknowledge that though we may not wield hammers glinting with the jeweled drops of our fathers’ blood, that we are not immune to walking in that field. In the poetics of Ai, there are no monsters, only citizens.

What the Mask Reveals

Danielle Cadena Deulen

Ai’s poetry is shocking … and not at all shocking. This is a compressed version of the most common critique wielded at her work. Just consider this tepid review of Killing Floor in National Forum from 1979, the book’s publication year: “… at times one feels uncomfortably close to jadedness when reading Killing Floor. […] it leans heavily for emotional effect on the technique of shock. But a heavy and steady diet of shock is self-defeating; violence ceases to shock when it becomes the expected.” So, it shocks until it can’t shock no more.

This critique has always baffled me, as it suggests that the effect is accidental: an unintended consequence of Ai’s macabre imagination. It suggests that she hasn’t taken into account her audience’s delicate sensibilities and written toward them sensibly—silly girl—that she should assume her audience has never encountered abuse, violence, poverty, or the brutal everyday choices people must make to survive. It also entirely ignores her depth of engagement with history. I have never understood Ai’s work to be a mere attempt to shock, but, rather, conscious work toward disorganizing the moral and social boundaries that, in the name of propriety, isolate people through secrecy and shame. Shame, of course, is reliant on secrecy, since the only way to banish shame is through confession. Therein lies the power of Ai’s dramatic monologues, and why it is necessary that she employs a poetic form that is bound to the act of speaking.

Consider the first stanza of “Jericho” from Killing Floor, spoken from the perspective of a pregnant fifteen-year-old prostitute:

The question mark in my belly kicks me
as I push back the sheet, watching you undress.
You put on the black mask and lie on your side.
I open the small sack of peppermint sticks
you always bring and take one out.
I suck it as you rub my shoulders, breasts,
then with one hand, round the hollow beneath,
carved by seven months of pregnancy,
stopping when your palm covers my navel.
You groan as I slide the peppermint across my lips.

The scene is salacious, sure, but it is also confident, subversive, and allusively rich. Immediately, one might sense its seditious elements: allowing a teenage prostitute to speak for herself at all might be enough for a puritanical Western audience to feel the expected balance of power undermined. Further, the young woman reveals her body unabashedly as she “push[es] back the sheet,” watching while the addressed “you” undresses, yet remains partly hidden beneath a mask. Yet, the poem’s revision of social stratum is even more pronounced when one considers its biblical context. The title refers to the walled city of Jericho, named in the Book of Joshua as the first battle fought by the Israelites in their conquest of Canaan. As the narrative goes, when scouts from the Israelites crept into the city, they were nearly caught by the king’s soldiers, but hid in the house of Rehab, a prostitute. Without her help in hiding them, and her scarlet rope, which they used to climb back over the wall, they would not have lived. In exchange for Rehab’s kindness, the scouts promised that everyone in her household might be spared in the battle-to-come if she hung the same rope in her window: a symbol of protection. In this story, God fights on the side of the itinerant Israelites and their enemy-made-friend prostitute, to bring down the walls of Jericho with trumpets: toppling a kingdom. While the conquering described in Ai’s “Jericho” is more psychological than physical, it is no less significant.

The addressee of this poem brings the speaker an offering of peppermint sticks—mimicking Rehab’s long twirl of red rope—signifying their social exchange. He is the one with the money, has the ability to “treat” her. As the poem progresses, we understand this gift to be a prop in the erotic act, but one that is quite literally sweet and displays the addressee’s desire to be seen as generous, benevolent. Moreover, the shyness of the addressee, and the subsequent encouragement of the speaker in the second stanza, indicates her linguistic and psychological power over him despite her age and social position:

So I’m just fifteen, but I’ve seen others like you:
Afraid, apologizing because they need something
maybe nobody else does.
You candy man, handing out the money, the sweets,
ashamed to climb your ladder of trouble.
Don’t be. Make it to the top.
You’ll find a ram’s horn there.
Blow it seven times, yell goddamn
and watch the miniature hells below you
all fall down.

This ending is rife with reference and irreverence. In the erotic exchange of the poem, the speaker is naked, but as far as we know, the addressee never removes his mask. Why must he—seemingly the person in the exchange with the most power—be ashamed of his need for the speaker? Why must he hide his identity, even in—especially in—a moment of great vulnerability? We understand the addressee’s apex (his “ladder of trouble”) to mean his reach for orgasm, yet the speaker conflates this metaphorically with the biblical conquering of Jericho. So, the physical and psychological obliteration of the addressee in his moment of climax (the “little death”) is now linked to a righteous miracle from God. Moreover, in the Book of Joshua, it was God who instructed the soldiers to blow their trumpets (seven times, after seven days) in order to bring down the walls of Jericho, so by instructing her addressee in this way, she has analogously placed herself in the position of God. This reversal of power and blending of the sacred and profane is absolutely intended as a blow to hierarchical structures.
      Literature that displays “the grotesque body”—a concept coined by Mikhail Bakhtin in his study of François Rabelais’s work—is actively engaged in transgression. The author guides the reader into an uncomfortable physical display in order to challenge what is thought to be normal, universal, or stable, to degrade the spiritual or noble, to smash our socially-nurtured versions of Truth. Once that Truth is prone beneath the author’s mallet, we can see its contradictions, its hypocrisies, the entrails of our myths. This is because, unlike the absolutes presented by bloodless abstractions, the body displays a profound instability as the site of birth, sex, and death: renewal, blending, and decay. A grotesque display, as Bakhtin observes, was as much about the celebration of the body as it was about acknowledging moral class: perverting the “normal” stratification of the spiritual as superior.

While the grotesque in Ai’s poetry is, at times, wielded at institutionalized religion, it is aimed more broadly and fiercely as an intimate and sustained critique of another conception of purity: American exceptionalism. Even the root of American exceptionalism—Puritan settlers who regarded the North American continent as a new Canaan which they were entitled to mold—disregards the violence of such an ideology. The idea of America as a moral summit, both historically and in the present moment, can only exist in the denial, revision, and erasure of the lived experiences of millions of its citizens, as well as millions more internationally. Yet, Americans still claim this honor, still wear this mask. Ai’s poetry reveals what is beneath it: our perversions of truth. Whether or not you are shocked by that truth depends on your subject position. So, yes, Ai’s poetry is shocking…and not at all shocking.

That is its strength.

Amaud Jamaul Johnson is the author of three poetry collections, Red Summer, Darktown Follies, and Imperial Liquor. He is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford, MacDowell Colony Fellow, and Cave Canem Fellow.

Shivanee Ramlochan is a Trinidadian poet, literary critic and essayist. Her debut collection of poems, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press, 2017) was shortlisted for the 2018 Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

Danielle Cadena Deulen is the author of a memoir, The Riots; two poetry collections, Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us and Lovely Asunder; and a poetry chapbook, American Libretto. She is an assistant professor at Georgia State University.