To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Saturday, January 23, 2016

From Technicians of the Sacred (expanded): Six Poems of Desperation by Worker Poet Xu Lizhi

[Originally published in China Labour Bulletin January 6, 2016]

I Swallowed an Iron Moon

I swallowed an iron moon
they called it a screw

I swallowed industrial wastewater and unemployment forms
bent over machines, our youth died young

I swallowed labor, I swallowed poverty
swallowed pedestrian bridges, swallowed this rusted-out life

I can’t swallow any more
everything I’ve swallowed roils up in my throat

I spread across my country
a poem of shame

I Know a Day Will Come

I know a day will come
when those I know and don’t know
will enter my room
to collect my remains
and wash away the darkened blood stains I’ve shed across 
    the floor
rearrange the upturned table and chairs
toss out the moldering garbage
take in the clothing from the balcony
someone will help me write the poem I didn’t have time 
    to finish
someone will help me read the book I didn’t have time 
    to finish
someone will help me light the candle I didn’t have 
    time to light
last will be the curtains that haven’t been opened for 
someone will help me open them, and let the sunlight 
    in for a while
they will be closed again, and nailed there deathly 
the whole process will be orderly and solemn
when everything is tidy
they will all line up to leave
and help me quietly shut the door  

Waiting in Line

The packed crowds in this city
crawl up and down the streets
crawl up and down the pedestrian bridges, into 
    the subway
crawl up and down this earth
one lap around is one life
this fire-driven fire-singed species
busy from birth to death
only at the moment of death do they not cut in 
they lower their heads, follow in order
and burrow back into their mothers’ wombs

Single-Dish Menu: Twice-Cooked Meat

Garlic scape twice-cooked meat
Bitter melon twice-cooked meat
Green pepper twice-cooked meat
Dried tofu twice-cooked meat
Potato twice-cooked meat
Cabbage twice-cooked meat
Bamboo shoot twice-cooked meat
Lotus root twice-cooked meat
Onion twice-cooked meat
Smoked tofu twice-cooked meat
Celtuce twice-cooked meat
Celery twice-cooked meat
Carrot twice-cooked meat
Beansprout twice-cooked meat
Green bean twice-cooked meat
Pickled bean twice-cooked meat
Xu Lizhi twice-cooked meat

Obituary for a Peanut

Merchandise Name:  Peanut Butter
Ingredients: Peanuts, Maltose, Sugar, 
    Vegetable Oil, Salt, Food Additives 
    (Potassium sorbate)
Product Number: QB/T1733.4
Consumption Method: Ready to consume after 
    opening the package
Storage Method: Before opening keep in a 
    dry place away from sunlight, after opening 
    please refrigerate
Producer: Shantou City Bear-Note Foodstuff 
    Company, LLC
Factory Site: Factory Building B2, Far East 
    Industrial Park, Brooktown North Village
    Dragon Lake, Shantou City
Telephone: 0754-86203278    85769568
Fax: 0754-86203060
Consume Within: 18 Months          
Place of Production: Shantou, Guangdong 
Production Date: 8.10.2013

My Friend Fa

You’re always holding your lower back with your 
just a young guy
but to the other workers, you look
like a pregnant woman in her tenth month
now that you’ve tasted the migrant worker life
when you talk of the past, you always smile
but the smile doesn’t cover over hardship and misery
seven years ago you came alone
to this part of Shenzhen
high-spirited, full of faith
and what met you was ice,
black nights, temporary residence permits, temporary 
after false starts you came here to the world’s largest 
    equipment factory
and began standing, screwing in screws, doing 
    overtime, working overnight
painting, finishing, polishing, buffing,
packaging and packing, moving finished products
bending down and straightening up a thousand times 
    each day
dragging mountain-sized piles of merchandise across 
    the workshop floor
the seeds of illness were planted and you didn’t know 
until the pain dragged you to the hospital
and that was the first time you heard
the new words “slipped disc in the lumbar vertebra”
and each time you smile when you talk about the 
    pain and the past
we’re moved by your optimism
until at the annual New Years party, you drunkenly
grasped a liquor bottle in your right hand, and held up 
    three fingers with your left,
you sobbed and said:
“I’m not even thirty
I’ve never had a girlfriend
I’m not married, I don’t have a career—
and my whole life is already over.”

     Source: Eleanor Goodman, “Obituary for a Peanut: The creatively cynical world of worker poet Xu Lizhi,” in China Labour Bulletin, January 6, 2016.

     What emerges here is something beyond a state & party controlled “workers poetry” but the continuation & development of a popular literature written in the vernacular & confronting the fullest range of human thoughts & feelings, even the most skeptical, negative & self-destructive.  Of Xu Lixhi (1990-2014), Eleanor Goodman writes as translator: “Xu Lizhi is an excellent example of a modern incarnation of the century-old baihua, or vernacular, poetry tradition. His language comes out of the factory and life lived in the lower rungs of society, and revolves largely around nouns: words like screw and worksheet and twice-cooked meat. He tells the stories of workers, of his immediate world, and of his own psyche in plain but moving terms. The baihua movement began as a revolt against the rarified and largely inaccessible language of traditional Chinese literature. Today, there is no longer a strong division between the Chinese as formally written and as spoken, or between common speech and ‘literary’ speech. Nevertheless, a strong division remains in literature in terms of subject matter and approach. Rather than serving as a removed observer or a sympathizer of the plight of workers, farmers, and the poor in contemporary China, Xu experienced this all first hand. The fact that he could write about it with such eloquence and simplicity is a testament to his skill with the language of everyday life, as well as with poetic technique.”
     And further:  “I first came across Xu Lizhi’s poetry in the film Our Verses, a documentary that follows six different manual laborers who also write highly accomplished poetry. As I translated the poetry and then the subtitles for the film, I was immediately attracted to Xu’s straightforwardness, honesty, and darkness. Although his life was clearly unhappy—indeed, he committed suicide at the age of twenty-four by jumping out of a Foxconn factory dormitory window a little over a year ago—there is very little self-pity evident in his poetry. Rather, he casts a cold eye on the larger society, on the conditions in which he worked, and on himself. His reality was one that millions of other people face across China, but particularly in the south, which has become a center of production and exploitation. His ‘poem of shame’ is not a personal one, but a public and national one.”

[N.B. Eleanor Goodman’s book of translations, Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni (Zephyr Press, 2014) was the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Grant and winner of the 2015 Lucien Stryk Prize. A collection of her own poetry, Nine Dragon Island, which was shortlisted for the Drunken Boat First Book Prize, will be published early next year.]

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