i spread across my country a poem of shame.
reading recent articles and such on chinese migrant-worker poets, the poets and their work have profoundly affected me.
one article references time magazine, who published a piece on Xu Lizhi, a twenty-four year old poet who took his own life in the mega-factory zones of southern china, ‘the poet who died for your phone’.
time ends their piece with another worker poet’s words of tribute to Xu;
Another screw comes loose
Another migrant worker brother jumps
You die in place of me
And I keep writing in place of you.
unable to (yet) find the documentary on Xu’s life, ‘iron moon’ (2015) online, i’ve instead pre-ordered the accompanying collection of 30 poets, released mid-may (2017).
the life these poets share, and how they express that life is sublime.
when something moves us, when we connect with a work such as this, we rarely feel the need to express it. we simply feel it, live its effects. but having worked in multiple factories and having written poetry to escape that work, my connective empathy for these poets has become exponential in its resonance.
having lived their lives under such intense levels of servitude, forced to move miles from their homes, work in the mega-factories, these migrant workers poems are (and rightly should be) a wake up call to a world so far removed from the means with which it has become itself.
and it is us who contribute to a world so far removed from the horrific cost of a feverish consumerism. something, i’m ashamed to admit, i only consider in moments such as this.
i will (and urge you to) connect with their poems online.
the sinister specter of Xu’s suicide has laid permanent punctuation at the feet of his young poems. his work is now sealed. but it resonates more and more as his poem, ‘terracotta army on the assembly line’ captures this message. it portrays life as a temporarily animated terracotta army foot soldier. awake one moment of servitude, only to return to clay the next;
these workers who can’t tell night from day
all at the ready
silently awaiting their orders
when the bell rings
they’re sent back to the Qin
reflective, to labour on the power of the work, of the consumers to. consumers who are mildly aware of what creates such a need as this suffering. this destruction. this trade off of young lives.
with tens of thousands of injuries each year, another poet describes her conditions in what is categorically, her exploited life;
a language like callouses fierce crying unlucky
hurting hungry language back pay of the machines’ roar occupational
language of severed fingers life’s foundational language in the dark place
between the damp steel bars these sad languages
a splintered language, physically, metaphysically, and in terms of the literary lock out the poet experiences.
with shame, i admit i only speak a handful of languages. can read, less. so in trusting our translator (for to translate a piece is to kill it, transfer its soul into the body of another), i understand this is to be an especially risky operation, especially in terms of poetry.
and however succinct, the poems chart a detailed map of my lack of awareness. i feel deeply cut that these are the conditions in which such profound poets die. that these are the conditions they suffer life-changing injury, that this is a world in which they are routinely passed over as being unworthy.
poems which can detail the life of a worker as an unnoticed, fallen screw on some vast factory floor; poems which present a poet praying to her, as yet, unmet end-consumer, hoping she will appreciate her labor; poems which show us a lost youth, misspent excreting plastic toy, are indeed of worth. of great worth.
My finest five years went into the input feeder of a machine, I watched those five youthful years come out of the machine’s
asshole—each formed into an elliptical plastic toy
i wrote poems when i worked in local factorys. as i fed polypropylene pellets, (plastics designed to have a half life of a thousand years) into large extruders, my early poems tried to capture the language of that.
it felt like i had achieved something. or at least i’d tried.
i found this from 2002, a year or so after it was scrawled on a provisions sheet from the factory;
Number, Number, Paper,
Bag, Knife, Slit, Sliittt,
K-Shhh, Close, Repeat:
Dirt, Fall, Stone,
Move, Brush, Replace,
Pile, Switch, Suck, Repeat:
Light, Look, Stick,
Beat, Look, Wait,
Stairs, Stick, Beat, Repeat:
Lost, Find, Cut, Flesh,
Tie, Gather, Tie,
Weigh, Throw, Release, Repeat:
it’s a poem by a younger poet, making sense of the absurd times he lived in. in that ireland. a strange exploration and certainly nothing close to the world of these poets, or their lives. but it is a connection i feel a compulsion share.
i lived at home then. no more than five miles from the small factories in which i struggled to stay awake on night shifts, wake for early shifts. however, it is the connection which will not let me drop my growing resonance.
i wasn’t writing poetry when i worked in the evisceration section of a factory that culled birds. their method was as ethically up-to-date as we have thus-far developed in terms of churning out mass produced meat. meat i found an impossibility to eat.
we didn’t slit the lips of calves in order that they no longer wish to take milk. we did not barb their mouths. practices which (still in use today by ethnic farmers) are to my mind simply stuck some distance back along a long line of discovering.
a continual discovering of means which has itself become stuck. which may provide and answer to the need for ethical meat, which there may be no answer.
no. instead, we ethically employed electric shocks to put these battery birds to sleep; then bled them out, into urinal-like gulleys. i can still feel hot organs momentarily in my hand. innards we had to pull down and out manually each time the line failed. feel the rivers of blood flow underfoot. green crates of necks and feet. perfect parcels out the other end.
each night i left that factory, i left it covered in blood. in white aprons, in white boots, in long white coats with white hats hiding white hair nets, i went home coated with that worrying wound.
how very hughes.
ethical? culling animals for mass consumption can never be ethical. i went off poultry for a very long time, always retaining the thought ‘this is the shame of our time!’ if this is how we treat our animals, our livestock surely this is the future trans-generational trauma we’re imparting.
but having connected with these poets, breathed the life of their experience through their poetry, known the finality of death foretold in Xu’s work, ethical has become much more of a capitalized word. these are men and women writing a battered world. on mobile phones they create.
i can’t help but appreciate the authors choice of quote;
In 1956 Erich Fromm warned that “the danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.
to reduce people (whilst setting aside the idea of subduing an entire nation), to make a person android, automated, trapped in this is nothing short of criminal. unethical. immoral. a wrong.
no more a wrong than our treatment of livestock. but perhaps a louder wrong.
reduced, and to such a neglected extent, these people are leading lives of such arresting, effected servitude; this farcical branch of consumerism has exhausted me. and this, is the power of their poetry.
this is the job of poetry. these poets have done their job. are doing their work. it is our job to hear them. it is our job to act.
fifteen years have passed since i wrote that odd poem.
i have changed and my poems have changed with me. but in that place, i couldn’t but help feel exploited. in that environment, the weight of intrinsic and sublime suffocation weighing down on you is never worth that coin.
at times humor was enough to open those walls, but our humor, our creativity was simply the byproduct of the lock we were in. the suppression was the driver for our escape.
with hindsight i find beauty, poetry in it. one night, i fell asleep. face in my palms on a plastic pallet of sacks of made of plastic, filled with plastic pouring ink from a plastic plastic pen from their factory.
once, i worked in a brick yard, bailing brick. the thick scent of the ovens, the comforting heat. the constant chatter between us, until there was no chatter between us. voices, tides between bails, ever moving.
the day a bail weighing a ton and a half crushed the foot of the high school athlete.
the game played with butcher knives in the cold store. giggling and cutting apron strings. how that knife was so sharp it sliced though four layers of clothing, and an inch-thick leather apron. her bare skin.
but the work itself was numbing. a numbing catalyst.
and it paid for a very free life. not a life bound by the depths Xu experienced. so when i moved away to begin my beginnings as a writer, they wished me luck. we were in it together. a small together. but i had that option. i still have that option.
i felt like the only elitism was to be found in places i wasn’t. in the quiet boardrooms, the grey offices. in the shadows. but it is now that guilt reveals itself to me, writing this freely and on a mass produced smart phone.
even now, and with all my naivety intact, i still believe it’s possible to side-step the egotistical (who, in my experience are usually only ever on their way out) and deliver solid works of creativity and expression. especially work which is so prophetic, so powerful, so important as Xu’s and his fellow poets.
yes, elitism should not exist; but it does. and it can never change the fact that time is our commodity. it’s the comodity any form of elitism abuses. suppresses. locked away in time? write your way out is their main sell.
no matter how foolish, i admire Xu actions in pursuing his dream. to expect a job in a whole new world of clerics, based on poetry from another world, is admirable. yet for those in the clerks office, nothing might crack the dangerous status-bubble.
perhaps Xu’s 17th floor suicide, (and all the others’) lends too much impact to his work, prophetically describing himself as a screw, falling. perhaps the prayer to a consumer she’ll never meet has resonance in only her marginal strata of servitude. perhaps the analogy of being a chess-piece symbol; some disposable clay image is insulting, terrifying to certain stratas of society. perhaps writing of a severed language, in severed language reflects an elitism, and that itself is too strong for some. perhaps.
perhaps the opposite is true. perhaps literary elitism is the major problem here. capitalist abuse producing the very voice it might uses to sell another incarnation of itself. another story of itself. if a poet walked up to you and offered you a poem for a job, how would you react?
i firmly believe, one line of poetry, one line of prose is all that’s needed to change a person. does change us. is changing us. perhaps a worse end is in sight. perhaps a more uncomfortable beginning.
*if you, or a loved one are affected by suicide, please call lifeline on 0808 808 800.