I have long admired these lines in Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Unnameable Heart”: “There are so many / lives of which I know nothing. / Even my own.” As a translator of Chinese literature, I frequently encounter the foreign in various guises, but over the past year I’ve had a chance to become unusually closely acquainted with five lives that bear little resemblance to my own.
The following is a poem by Chen Nianxi, a poet who appears in the independent documentary film Iron Moon, which explores the lives of workers in contemporary China:
Daybreak and my head feels like it’s exploding
this is the gift of a mechanized society
it isn’t the fault of steel
it’s that my nerves have grown old and feeble
I don’t often dare look at my life
it’s hard and metallic black
angled like a pickaxe
when the rocks are hit they will bleed
I spend my middle age five kilometers inside mountains
I explode the rocks layer by layer
to put my life back together
My humble family
is far away at the foot of Mt. Shang
they’re sick and their bodies are covered in dust
whatever is taken from my life
extends the tunnel of their old age
My body carries three tons of dynamite
and they are the fuse
I exploded like the rocks
“I spend my middle age five kilometers inside mountains”—that image alone conjures up a set of experiences that are largely alien to most of America, and especially to most American poets. The darkness, the danger, the arduous labor, the heavy machinery, the grime, the isolation. This is a man who does hard physical labor for little compensation, a person whose life is undervalued in the larger scheme of things. He works to support three generations of his family: his parents, his wife, and his child. Imagine the pressure—the explosive pressure—of doing dangerous work for low pay and with few protections, worried you won’t be paid when the job is done and knowing that even if you are the money won’t go very far, while the next job is always an uncertainty. Unlike in the United States, coalminers in China are piecemeal workers: they work one site, are paid (or stiffed by unscrupulous coalmine managers), and are set adrift again to look for more work. There is no health insurance, shamefully little recompense for injuries, and absolutely no security.
This is not unique to the coalmining industry. The same is true for hundreds of millions of people who have moved from the countryside into the cities to look for work, as China has proceeded down its path of economic development and rapid industrialization. This past year I’ve been translating the subtitles and poetry that appear in the documentary Iron Moon, directed by Wu Feiyue and Qin Xiaoyu. The film follows five workers at the very bottom of Chinese society who also happen to be accomplished poets, including Chen Nianxi. The project combines several things I consider vital: poetry, social awareness, an examination of globalism, and of course, contemporary China. I’ve also been translating the poetry of other Chinese worker-poets, and will publish an anthology of workers’ poetry with White Pine Press this coming spring.
This week I’ll be introducing five poets from the film, talking about their poetry, their lives, and what it means for all of us. If you’re interested in the film, more information can be found here, including screenings in NYC and LA this coming November: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/963482307/iron-moon-the-poetry-of-chinese-migrant-workers.
Tomorrow, a look at the most well-known poet in the film, the former Foxconn worker Xu Lizhi.