Iron Moon is the first anthology of poetry written by Chinese migrant laborers that has been translated into English. Edited by Qin Xiaoyu and translated by Eleanor Goodman, these poems tell the story of a vast underclass of workers whose labor runs the world’s factory. The book is inspired by a documentary film of the same name.
It’s difficult, beautiful, and bleak reading. Some poems are consuming and visceral, others echoing with isolation and detachment. Iron Moon should be required reading for anyone interested in poetry written from beyond safe or elite literary spaces, from places “closed off because the owners of these mines and factories have every incentive to conceal the conditions their workers deal with day and night,” as Goodman writes in her afterword.
I’m getting ahead of myself. First things first: In her introduction, Goodman provides a quick history of migrant labor in China, which is essential context for the work that follows. As Goodman writes it, oppressive bureaucratic control, loss of identity and the denial of basic rights and protections have defined the migrant worker experience in China for decades.
I’m going to keep this short and hit the essential points here: In the mid-eighties, the national government drew up “Document 1,” which allowed residents of rural areas to leave those areas to look for work. This was a marked change from restrictive “Republic of China Household Registration Act,” which, after going into effect in 1958, had effectively barred rural residents from moving to cities without proof of acceptance into a university, proof of employment issued from a city’s labor department, or permission from a city’s household registration department.
The floodgates opened, and rural workers headed into the cities to feed their rapidly industrializing country’s appetite for cheap labor.
This is not a book that romanticizes the circumstances of migrant laborers. Though some of the poets play with concepts like the experiences the moon might have if employed in a factory or expressing one's experiences through the behaviors of birds, none of them shy away from the truth of their experience. As Goodman writes, "The romanticization of migrant worker poetry has come from a kind of exploitation and encroachment of the image of the laborer; ...It also presents a fantasy that is easily exploited, and too readily turned into a story of social harmony and achieving one's dreams."
The poets showcased in this book are not writing about dreams achieved or social harmony. They are writing about longing, physical and mental pain, exhaustion, regret, occupational diseases, relatives they’ve lost or left behind, the young children back home who have forgotten them, the wearing-thin of love between couples living hand to mouth. Many of them take a sardonic or outright hostile stance toward the systems, both private and civic, that they struggle within: in his poem “Purging the Landlords” Alu writes “Those who catch mice are good cats/Those who catch kings can be landlords".
A few metaphors crop up repeatedly throughout the anthology. The poets often refer to themselves and other workers as "screws," tiny, anonymous pieces of metal that fall from the line and disappear on the crowded floor of a factory unnoticed. One of the most haunting poems in the book, Xu Lizhi's "A Screw Plunges to the Ground," describes just such an anonymous fall:
A screw plunges to the ground
working overtime at night
it drops straight down, with a faint sound
that draws no one's attention
just like before
on the same kind of night
a person plunged to the ground
Xu Lizhi, a young Foxconn employee, committed suicide by jumping from a building in 2014. His death, and the poems he'd written about his experiences as a migrant worker, drew international attention.
Iron is another resource frequently mined for metaphor. Zheng Xiaoqing’s poem “Iron” deals with the all-consuming experience of working with iron day in and day out by giving it multiple functions. Iron is a proxy for the human being at the heart of the poem, but also functions as a descriptor and, in the end, is a simple physical fact – “the iron-grated window beside me” – of an existence measured and bound in the processing of raw materials.
Small iron, soft iron, blown by the wind
Pounded by the rain, iron reveals its rusty cowardice and timidity.
The conclusion of last year…was like time dripping through a pinhole
How much iron is there in the night, in the open warehouse, on the work stations…where
Does it want to go, and where will it be taken?
Urban detritus (paper, trash, cheap noodles and rice, employment ID numbers) drift up throughout the anthology, all trappings of a life uprooted and in flux. But the moon, the wind, rivers, birds, and quiet mountainsides also appear, sometimes in fits of nostalgia for better times, or home: “I’m still longing for ancient times as I/stand at this modern machine,” writes Zheng Xiaoqing in “In The Hardware Factory.”
“Longing to go back to the Tang,” the poem continues, “—to write poetry, to collect Chinese medicine/on the mountainsides, to go fishing in the wind and fine rain”.
Iron Moon is available this month from White Pine Press.