The poet Zheng Xiaoqiong does not herself appear in the documentary film Iron Moon, a movie about worker-poets surviving in contemporary China, but her poetry does. Zheng has worked a die-mold factory, a magnetic tape factory, a toy factory, and as a hole-punch operator in a hardware factory. She is one of the rare cases of a manual worker escaping the factories for a literary job by dint of her talent and luck. Now a magazine editor in Guangzhou, she has become known for her long, sinewy lines—some of her work verges on a prose poetry—and for her blunt descriptions of what it’s like to work in the harsh factory environments of contemporary Shenzhen, especially as a young woman.
A Product’s Story
First, it starts with a warped piece of iron sheeting, setting off from a village, iron mine, truck,
steamer, or port, then losing one’s name, getting a serial number, and standing at a workstation;
second is springs and assembly lines, the whinny of nervous motion, pain close by, aluminum alloys,
blueprints, breadcrumbs, cutting machines, familiar sweat, plastic and cardboard boxes,
pleasures and sorrows; third is the pale faces under fluorescent lights, employee IDs, mechanical springs,
gears, card edge connectors, pressure coolants, anti-rust oil, silent overtime;
fourth is certificates, standardized forms, exterior polishing, the lashings of a 3000-degree furnace
the cooling heat treatment of overtime pay, of the raindrops, of being fired, your twisted-up
body appearing in an hourglass; fifth is temporary residence permits, physical exam cards, proof of single status,
migrant worker cards, work permits….they wait in line, silently, leaning on
plastic travel bags with exhausted faces; sixth is young pinned-down arms, back pay
and fines, missed periods, a medical history of flus, listlessness, homesickness
as wide as the sea, noise from the overhead lights, drifting in a far city and paystubs floating on a river;
seventh is the dialects of machines and dorms, Hunanese dreams on the berth above Sichuanese,
Hubeinese is neighbors with Anhuinese, the Gansunese machine bit off half
of the Jiangxinese’s finger, Guangxinese’s nightshift, Guizhounese’s gloominess, Yunanese’s rainsoaked
sleep-talk and Henanese’s dress. Eighth is sticks of fried dough, lumps
of instant noodles, the shape of the city in vegetable soup, masks made of copper, coupling links, certificates of conformity,
a buck and half of fried rice noodles, chili sauce, artificially flavored and colored cola;
ninth is love hidden in stories and fairy tales, shared rented rooms, doors
without keys, iron ladders to upper berths, antiseptic fluids in hospitals, birth control pills, the tears of breaking up,
corroded flesh, baseless promises of love; tenth is train tickets to go home, a door
or a pit, a quick-selling ticket or a possible fake, squeezed in the aisles,
in the toilet, standing on tiptoe, crushed, you just want to find a place on the train or in the world
to live, to love, to slowly grow old
What strikes me first about this poem is the form: the long lines, the lists, the blocky shape. Then the specificity of the nouns and the physicality of the descriptions. Finally, the unapologetically female (though not necessarily traditionally feminine) voice. The majority of publishing poets in China are male, and that is all the more true for worker-poets. Many explanations have been offered to for why this is, and I’m sure there is some truth to the idea that girls, and especially girls from rural areas, are taught traditional values, among them the virtues of silence and modesty. I’m sure some women may be more sensitive to the oppressions of the factory environment, including prohibitions against speech, and internalize rules that then make it more difficult for them to write. But it is also the case that women poets are less likely to be accepted into poetry circles. Their writing is taken less seriously, published less frequently, and overall given less attention and support than work by their male contemporaries.
And what a shame. For in the work of a skillful poet like Zheng, we discover things that are absent from the work of male poets. The question of “missed periods,” a serious and common health issue in these dangerous, high-pressure work environments, is something I have seen addressed only in women poets’ writing, and for obvious reasons. Similarly, birth control pills are an omnipresent element in women’s lives, especially in the only recently loosened age of the one-child policy. Then there is the attention paid to food that is clearly not homemade, the “baseless promises of love,” the “proof of single status” required by some factories for their female employees. Perhaps surprisingly, there are more women working in factories making goods for export than there are men. Yet their words are still being overlooked and suppressed, both deliberately and as an effect of neglect. I hope the selection of work by women poets such as Zheng Xiaoqiong, Lizi, Shu Zhishui, and Wu Xia (whose work I will discuss on Friday) which I’ve translated in the anthology Iron Moon will bring more of these vital voices to the fore.
Tomorrow: the whimsical and the painful in the poetry of Wu Niaoniao.