Obituary for a Peanut: The creatively cynical world of worker poet Xu Lizhi

In November 2013, China Labour Bulletin published five poems by the worker poet Xu Lizhi, translated by Lucas Klein. Since then, an anthology of Xu’s work entitled A New Day has been published in China, and his poems have steadily gained international recognition.

Xu Lizhi in Shenzhen. Photograph. Southern Weekend

The award-winning writer and translator, Eleanor Goodman has translated ten of Xu’s poems, published below, and describes here how she was drawn to Xu’s work:

I first came across Xu Lizhi’s poetry in the film Chinese Verses, a documentary that follows six different manual labourers who also write highly accomplished poetry. As I translated the poetry and then the subtitles for the film, I was immediately attracted to Xu’s straightforwardness, honesty, and darkness. Although his life was clearly unhappy - indeed, he committed suicide a little over a year ago at the age of 24 by jumping from the 17th floor of a building in Shenzhen not far from the Foxconn factory where he worked - there is very little self-pity evident in his poetry. Rather, he casts a cold eye on the larger society, on the conditions in which he worked, and on himself. His reality was one that millions of other people face across China, but particularly in the south, which has become a centre of production and exploitation. His “poem of shame” (I Swallowed an Iron Moon) is not a personal one, but a public and national one.   

The poems that I’ve chosen to translate here offer a glimpse into his life and also his creatively cynical view of the world. One of those poems, which is essentially the information given on the label of a jar of peanut butter, is cast into a completely new light by the title: “Obituary for a Peanut.” This off-kilter, startling humour (is it humour at all?), or elsewhere, a twist that sets the poem into a different relief, is typical of the best of Xu Lizhi’s work. He keeps the reader (and translator) on her toes, and given his rhetorical skill and highly topical subjects, he has become an important voice in Chinese poetry, one that was silenced much too soon.

 

I Swallowed an Iron Moon

 

I swallowed an iron moon

they called it a screw

 

I swallowed industrial wastewater and unemployment forms

bent over machines, our youth died young

 

I swallowed labor, I swallowed poverty

swallowed pedestrian bridges, swallowed this rusted-out life

 

I can’t swallow any more

everything I’ve swallowed roils up in my throat

 

I spread across my country

a poem of shame

 

A New Day

 

I want to look at the ocean again

to see the vastness of my half lifetime of tears

 

I want to climb a tall mountain again

to try to call back my lost soul

 

I want to lie in a prairie

and leaf through the bible my mother gave me

 

I want to touch the sky

and stroke that swath of pale blue

 

But I can’t do any of that

so I will leave this world

 

No one who knows me

should be surprised by my leaving

 

There’s no need to sigh, or feel sorrow

I came at the right time, and will go at the right time too

 

Photograph: CLB

I Know a Day Will Come

               

I know a day will come

when those I know and don’t know

will enter my room

to collect my remains

and wash away the darkened blood stains I’ve shed across the floor

rearrange the upturned table and chairs

toss out the moldering garbage

take in the clothing from the balcony

someone will help me write the poem I didn’t have time to finish

someone will help me read the book I didn’t have time to finish

someone will help me light the candle I didn’t have time to light

last will be the curtains that haven’t been opened for years

someone will help me open them, and let the sunlight in for a while

they will be closed again, and nailed there deathly tight

the whole process will be orderly and solemn

when everything is tidy

they will all line up to leave

and help me quietly shut the door  

 

Terracotta Army on the Assembly Line

 

On the line are:

Xia Qiu

Zhang Zifeng

Xiao Peng

Li Xiaoding

Tang Xiumeng

Lei Lanjiao

Xu Lizhi

Zhu Zhengwu

Pan Xia

Lian Xuemei

manual laborers who work night and day

wearing

antistatic clothing

antistatic hats

antistatic shoes

antistatic gloves

antistatic wristbands

all at the ready

awaiting their orders

and at the ring of a bell

they’re thrust back into the Qin dynasty

 

 

Meditation

 

After finishing this poem,

I will go to meditate in the willow grove

I will watch the sky above the mountains, as the setting sun

lets cicada chirps and lake water

wash the mortal world, and a visitor’s heart

and in the dusk I will whisper pardon, forgiveness,

absolution, compassion……

 

 

River / Bank

 

I stand on the roadside watching the road’s

constant flow of pedestrians and cars

I stand under a tree, under a bus sign

watching the constant flow of water

the constant flow of blood and desire

I stand on the roadside watching the constant flow of people

they’re on the road watching my constant flow

they’re in the river, I’m on the bank

they struggle to swim with bare arms

the scene infects me

I hesitate about whether I want to go into the river

and struggle with them, gnash my teeth with them

I hesitate, until the sun sets over the western mountains

 

Photograph: Peng Key

Waiting in Line

 

The packed crowds in this city

crawl up and down the streets

crawl up and down the pedestrian bridges, into the subway

crawl up and down this earth

one lap around is one life

this fire-driven fire-singed species

busy from birth to death

only at the moment of death do they not cut in line

they lower their heads, follow in order

and burrow back into their mothers’ wombs

 

 

Single-Dish Menu: Twice-Cooked Meat

 

Garlic scape twice-cooked meat

Bitter melon twice-cooked meat

Green pepper twice-cooked meat

Dried tofu twice-cooked meat

Potato twice-cooked meat

Cabbage twice-cooked meat

Bamboo shoot twice-cooked meat

Lotus root twice-cooked meat

Onion twice-cooked meat

Smoked tofu twice-cooked meat

Celtuce twice-cooked meat

Celery twice-cooked meat

Carrot twice-cooked meat

Beansprout twice-cooked meat

Green bean twice-cooked meat

Pickled bean twice-cooked meat

Xu Lizhi twice-cooked meat

 

Obituary for a Peanut

 

Merchandise Name:  Peanut Butter

Ingredients: Peanuts, Maltose, Sugar, Vegetable Oil, Salt, Food Additives (Potassium sorbate)

Product Number: QB/T1733.4

Consumption Method: Ready to consume after opening the package

Storage Method: Before opening keep in a dry place away from sunlight, after opening please refrigerate

Producer: Shantou City Bear-Note Foodstuff Company, LLC

Factory Site: Factory Building B2, Far East Industrial Park, Brooktown North Village, Dragon Lake, Shantou City

Telephone: 0754-86203278    85769568

Fax: 0754-86203060

Consume Within: 18 Months          

Place of Production: Shantou, Guangdong Province

Website: stxiongji.com

Production Date: 8.10.2013

 

Rented Room

 

About ten square meters of space

cramped, damp, never seeing the sun

in here I eat, sleep, shit, think,

cough, have headaches, get old, sick but not dying

again and again in the dusky lamplight I stare blankly, laugh stupidly

pace back and forth, sing softly, read, write poems

every time I open the window or the grated door

I’m like a dead man

slowly pushing open the lid of his coffin

 

 

My Friend Fa

 

You’re always holding your lower back with your hands

just a young guy

but to the other workers, you look

like a pregnant woman in her tenth month

now that you’ve tasted the migrant worker life

when you talk of the past, you always smile

but the smile doesn’t cover over hardship and misery

seven years ago you came alone

to this part of Shenzhen

high-spirited, full of faith

and what met you was ice,

black nights, temporary residence permits, temporary shelter….

after false starts you came here to the world’s largest equipment factory

and began standing, screwing in screws, doing overtime, working overnight

painting, finishing, polishing, buffing,

packaging and packing, moving finished products

bending down and straightening up a thousand times each day

dragging mountain-sized piles of merchandise across the workshop floor

the seeds of illness were planted and you didn’t know it

until the pain dragged you to the hospital

and that was the first time you heard

the new words “slipped disc in the lumbar vertebra”

and each time you smile when you talk about the pain and the past

we’re moved by your optimism

until at the annual New Years party, you drunkenly

grasped a liquor bottle in your right hand, and held up three fingers with your left,

you sobbed and said:

“I’m not even thirty

I’ve never had a girlfriend

I’m not married, I don’t have a career—

and my whole life is already over.”

 

Read the selected poems in the original Chinese here.

 

Eleanor Goodman’s book of translations, Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni (Zephyr Press, 2014) was the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Grant and winner of the 2015 Lucien Stryk Prize. A collection of her own poetry, Nine Dragon Island, which was shortlisted for the Drunken Boat First Book Prize, will be published early next year.

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