"Killing Floor," Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979
A man stabs himself to death and pulls out his own intestines. A farm boy shoots his parents, his sister, the two horses. A son smashes his father's skull with a hammer. Zapata is shot. Trotsky faces his own murder by pickax . . . .
Why all these images of cruelty and death, killing and blood? Even the title of Ai's new book of poems is "Killing Floor," evoking the abattoir.
"I'm not sure what its roots are," said the poet, whose name was Florence before she changed it to the Japanese word for love. "It's those two opposing forces . . . ." She was here yesterday to give a reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
In her undergraduate days, she went through a vampire period, a horror period, writing short stories when not working on her Oriental studies.
"When I saw the Mick Jagger picture 'Performance,' with all that gratuitous violence, all my hip friends were offended that I liked it. I decided that I'd transcended violence. But I hadn't really. I had learned to see it."
Once, in New York (where she makes her living selling antique clothes at the Annex Flea Market), she saw a drunk beating himself on the head and raving about Teddy Roosevelt.
She never knew her Japanese father but lived with a stepfather and her mother, who had 16 children, all born dead except herself and one sister. The stepfather left one night when she was 12, said "Goodbye, girls," and hitchiked to Los Angeles.
"We were broke most of the time," she said. "This was in Tucson. I wrote about dead children a lot in the first book, but I haven't written about one for almost two years."
In college, financed for one year by her grandmother and by her own work for the other five years, she got a degree in Japanese, then switched to the University of California at Irvine and took a Master of Fine Arts degree, writing stories and poems as she had been doing since she was 14. She still translates haiku poems ("and I do it well") but finds them lacking in human feeling, prefers the longer renga poems in Japanese.
But these stories, these narratives that range through time, these violent people who speak with her voice -- where does it all come from?
"Its all imagination. Its fansasy. I see movies, I read a lot of books, mainly fiction, all the time, I get these images. One night in Tucson when I had no job (again!), I saw this old World War I film on TV, it was something about a woman spy, and in one scene these horses came out of the trenches wearing gas masks. I saw it as a vision of Armageddon. Started a book about it but dropped it."
Another poem, "The Gilded Man," is about Aguirre, the mad conquistador, and though it was inspired by the Herzog film, "Aguirre, Wrath of God," it is no mere gloss but a powerful statement on love and despair.
I unsheathe my dagger. Your mouth Opens
I can't hear you. I want to. Tell me you love me.
You cover your mouth with your hands
I stab you, then fall beside your body . . .
It is his young daughter whom he is killing, as the enemy closes in.
"People often think my work is confessional, but it's not. I'm a persona-slash-narrative poet. I think it relates to Browning and Randall Jarrell: There's always an element of dramatic tension, and if it fails, it fails in that area. It's hard to let my poems go, my babies, but you have to, you know, if you hold onto them too long you can't do anything else."
Though her new book has won the 1978 Lamont poetry award, and though she read her work last night in the Ascension poetry reading series at the Folger, Ai seems, incredibly, to remain invisible.
She did teach writing at State University of New Yrok in Binghamton one year, and her husband, poet Lawrence Kearney, has a steady income, but aside from that it is a struggle.
She's been out of work for nine weeks, spends her time applying for jobs as "bank teller, shoe saleswoman, anything." The poetry she writes mostly at night. The first book was written in the lonely hours, 11:30 to 6 a.m., with Johnny Carson prattling in the background.
"Sometimes they come fast, sometimes you labor. I have a quartet of poems, and the first was easy, but the second was about my father. There's a lot of pain and working through."
Those four poems took her from September to January to write.
"I've thought of becoming a Jungian analyst," she smiled. "Self-knowledge is the most important thing. I think."
Some lines from "She Didn't Even Wave", about a woman killed by lightning. It is dedicated to Marilyn Monroe:
Let me wave goodby
Mama never got a chance to do it.
She was walking toward the barn when it struck her. I didn't move;
I just stood at the screen door.
Her whole body was light.
I'd never seen anything so beautiful.
I remember how she cried in the kitchen a few minutes before.
She said, "God. Married.
I don't believe it, Jean, I won't.
He takes and takes and you just give."
At the door, she held out her arms and I ran to her . . .
Then she walked outside.
And I kept saying, I've got to, Mama, hug me again. Please don't go. . . .