In the documentary film Iron Moon, quotes from this poem reoccur three times:
Rhapsody on the Advance of Heavy Snow
A snow factory in the sky. Mechanical
assembly line angels, stand day and night in the noise and fluorescent lights
numbly producing beautiful snowflakes
the work overload makes them vomit white froth
while the machines thunder all night. The overload
makes them lose control. The oozing snowflakes
crash down ton after ton. Suddenly my country is a swath of white
and the smiles of thirty provinces are pressed into tears,
the borders are crushed, day and night the army does repairs
and between the earth and sky, only the worker’s white heads
are revealed in the blowing snow,
torches and flashlight factories, overtime production
and the temples’ destruction. The backs of the gods are also broken
and their faithful followers have long since decamped.
The graves give away the game. The comfortable ghosts
have been forced back into the human world
hugging their gravestones and coffins, admiring the snow
while the threatened earth leans toward that snow-burdened edge
and slowly slowly slowly slowly starts to tilt
In a movie about manual laborers, one can see why this poem speaks directly to the issues at stake. Here, angels are overworked assembly line workers in the great factory of the sky. Snowflakes have enough weight to crush borders and bring ghosts back to earth. The temples are destroyed and only the workers are left out in the cold.
Such is the dark fantastical world of the poet Wu Niaoniao. In Iron Moon, we watch Wu in a seemingly endless and fruitless search for work at a job fair in the industrial zone in Shenzhen. The jobs on offer: forklift driver, coalminer, construction worker (skilled and unskilled), truck driver, assembly line worker, electronics assembler. The job Wu hopes to find: poet.
Here in the US, there aren’t very many jobs for poets: there are highly sought after university positions, editorial positions, and freelance writing gigs—all of those exist in China too, of course. But someone like Wu Niaoniao, who was born in rural Guangzhou and does not have a college degree, those jobs are unavailable to him, irrespective of his talent and interests. No one at the job fair is the least bit interested in his writing.
This is one of the overlooked tragedies of these workers, in China and across the world: the indifference of the economy to their aspirations. Wherever poverty exists, there will be a part of the society that works for a pittance and whose basic desires are ignored or frustrated. Here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the cafeteria workers at Harvard have been on strike for the last several weeks. They earn approximately $22 an hour—a fortune to someone like Wu Niaoniao who might expect to earn the equivalent of a few dollars a day for backbreaking work. But a $22 an hour wage is not a fortune in Cambridge; subtracting out health care, basic food, and housing costs, and you’re looking at barely making ends meet. And at the same time, workers in the US and China alike are forced to abandon any pursuit that doesn’t help them make rent. That is a tremendous amount of talent being wasted.
I don’t have a solution. And I’m not sure poetry should be a vocation rather than a passion and an artistic pursuit. But watching poets like Wu Niaoniao struggle with the most basic requirements of survival, barely able to muster the time and energy to write despite their abilities, I think we as a global community can and should do better.
Tomorrow: The poet Wu Xia’s resistance via softness.