AGAINST A LANDSCAPE of saltflats, fields, interstates and windblown clapboards, a truck squats low on four flat tires. A boy circles it with an iron rod and there is only the ringing of rod on metal and the disembodied voice of the boy's father as his family pauses for a tableau of terror. The boy kills his father first, then his mother and sister. He is "The Kid" who hits the road, dressed in his father's best clothes, carrying in a suitcase his mother's nightgown, his sister's doll. "The Kid" closes with: "I'm fourteen. I'm a wind from nowhere./I can break your heart."
In Killing Floor -- the 1978 Lamont Poetry Selection of the American Academy of Poets -- Ai's voice joins with that of a German soldier marching through Russia, who imagines eating the "terrible, luminous eyes" of Adolf Hitler. This chorus of personae also includes a woman who slaughters her own children, a boy who makes love to a corpse, a woman who sells herself, and another who commits hari-kari and then climbs the chords of her own entrails into heaven. There is Lope de Aguirre, who in 1561 attempted to conquer Peru "with his soul between his teeth," and who closes this book with a message to the deity: "God. The boot heel an inch above your head is mine./God, say your prayers."
From Russia, Mexico, Buchenwald and Minnesota, the voices speak of patricide, necrophilia, self-immolation, cannibalism and torture, converging in the single voice of an old soul, androgynous and driving, a ghost ranging space and time, drawn to moments in which the oppressed one is moved to act. Ai is concerned with that single moment, revelatory and disassociated, which is the hinge of human history, facilitating radical change, allowing the heart to open to a new order.
She discovers that it is possible to enter a psychological state of anarchy (symbolic always of social anarchy) without becoming hysterical. These poems are coldblooded, tender and defiant narratives, concerning themselves with the survival of the human will, and a deferential celebration of death as the magnifier of life.
In many of her poems, there are knives, axes, blades or pitchforks, splitting skulls, slicing off pieces of flesh, jabbing the sun. Their cutting edges become, in this poet's hands, instruments for penetrating a social order which has become anesthetized to human agony.
In counterpoint, there are images of women lifting their skirts, just as darkness lifts its own, revealing the feminine, revealing daylight. There is constant repetition of burning, of fire and light: the bullet holes in Zapata's body are "black, eight-pointed stars," that "gave off a luminous darkness." In a primitive act of exorcism, a coffin containing a doll is burned: "I laugh. The boy dances and I follow him,/'round and 'round, two black tops on fire,/spinning under a sky full of firecrackers and stars,/letting fall a few handkerchiefs of light."
The watermark of Killing Floor is a faith in eternal life, "as we slide forward, without bitterness, decade by decade,/becoming transparent. Everlasting." A young girl is seen "wearing a halo of flames," hands become "transparent," bones are "colorless light." In "Pentecost," the poet becomes Emiliano Zapata announcing "And if I'm killed, if we're all killed right now,/we'll go on, the true Annunciation."
So it is that because of the belief in both death and life, there are no senseless acts. In the human spirit's endurance, revolution is possible and transformation, inevitable.
Ai as Emiliano Zapata climbs a hill, and begins cutting "rows and rows of black corn." When the stalks touch the field, "they turn into men." The poet/Zapata shouts: "Dying doesn't end anything./Get up. Swing those machetes./You can't steal a man's glory/without a goddamned fight. Boys, take the land, take it; it's yours./If you suffer in the grave, you can kill from it."
There aren't many poets whose language so precisely resonates with the pervasive concerns of the contemporary human condition. Ai's award is well deserved.