The poet Xu Lizhi come to prominence in one of the worst possible ways: he jumped from a high-rise in Shenzhen, ending his life at the age of 24. Before his death, Xu was not well known as a poet; he published very few poems during his lifetime, and he concealed his writing even from his parents because, as he put it, his poetry was dark and he didn’t want them to worry. The documentary film Iron Moon includes amazing footage of the cramped, cheap room Xu was living in when he died; all of his possessions can fit into a few paper bags.
Like Hai Zi and Gu Cheng, both poets of tremendous talent who committed suicide at the ages of 25 and 37 respectively, Xu Lizhi vividly expressed his isolation and desperation in his poetry. What distinguishes Xu is the kind of life he led. Both Hai Zi and Gu Cheng were college-educated and made their livings as intellectuals within a university setting. In contrast, Xu began working in factories immediately after graduating from high school.
Xu Lizhi came to international attention because his death was part of a spate of suicides at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. Foxconn is the world’s largest manufacturer of Apple products, and working on the assembly line there, Xu would have handled devices that ended up here in the United States and across the globe. His descriptions of the life he and his fellow workers endured are remarkable not only for their painful realism, but also for their sheer poetic power.
I Speak of Blood
I speak of blood, since it can’t be avoided
I also want to speak of breezes, flowers, snow, the moon
speak of the past dynasty, poetry in wine
but reality makes me speak only of blood
blood comes from matchbox rented rooms
narrow, cramped, sunless year round
oppressing the working men and women
distant husbands and wives gone astray
guys from Sichuan hawking spicy soup
old people from Henan selling trinkets on blankets
and me, toiling all day just to live
and opening my eyes at night to write poems
I speak to you of these people, I speak of us
ants struggling one by one through the swamp of life
blood walking drop by drop along the worker’s road
blood driven off by the city guards or the choke of a machine
scattering insomnia, illness, unemployment, suicide along the way
the words explode one by one
in the Pearl Delta, in the belly of China
dissected by the seppuku blade of order forms
I speak of this to you
though my voice goes hoarse and my tongue cracks
in order to rip open the silence of this era
I speak of blood, and the sky smashes open
I speak of blood, and my whole mouth turns red
What surprises me again and again as I translate Xu’s work is the incredible technical virtuosity of his writing, a combination of raw talent and self-taught skill. The repetitions that underpin the poem, the powerful nouns, the contrasts between the beautiful (breezes, flowers, poetry, wine) and the dark reality (blood, machines, rented rooms), the use of the direct address (“I speak of this to you”)—it all builds into an undeniably moving and forceful work. The fact that he managed to write so impressively while working 11-hour nightshifts and living in what we would find destitute conditions is a great testament to his talent and strength of character. That in the end he found himself defeated in the face of it all is a tragedy for world literature. Xu Lizhi was potentially a great poet in the making.
If you’re interested in reading more of Xu’s poems, you can find a dozen or so in a feature I did here for the China Labour Bulletin: http://www.clb.org.hk/en/content/obituary-peanut-creatively-cynical-world-worker-poet-xu-lizhi.
Tomorrow: Factories, construction sites, and coalmines may be a man’s world, but there are a lot of women in it. I’ll talk about the poetry of Zheng Xiaoqiong, one of the most prominent female worker-poets writing today.