“In the Roar of the Machine”, selected poems of Zheng Xiaoqiong, translated by Eleanor Goodman

Zheng Xiaoqiong Zheng Xiaoqiong

Zheng Xiaoqiong has come to be known as a “migrant worker poet”, accurate in the sense she is, or has been, both, and that a great deal of her work is informed by the life and hardships endured by Chinese migrant factory workers. “Overwhelmed by what she encountered in the hardware factory where she first found employment,” translator Eleanor Goodman writes in the introduction to In the Roar of the Machine, a recent collection of Zheng’s work, she “turned to writing as a release from emotional and psychological pressure, but also as a form of protest and witness.” But this moniker, Goodman suggests, is to pigeonhole her.

If one comes to these poems with few preconceptions, the “Chinese” label also seems misleadingly restricting, for many of them—at least, it must be noted, in translation—could have been written in the heyday of Western industrialization:


I remember this iron, iron that rusted over time
pale red or dark brown, tears in a furnace fire


or describe the current condition of underpaid assembly-line work anywhere in the world:


What you don’t know is that my name has been hidden by an employee ID
my hands become part of the assembly line, my body signed over
to a contract, my black hair is turning white, leaving noise and toil
overtime work and wages…


Zheng can also be explicitly internationalist as in this poem entitled “Industrial Age”:


At the US-owned factory Japanese machines run Brazilian mines
to produce iron pieces, Germany’s lathes shape France’s
coastline, South Korea’s shelves are filled with Italian parts
Belgium waits in a corner to make a sale, Spain and Singapore
perform inspections, Russia is loaded into a warehouse by porters …


When Zheng dives into the diverse nature of migrant labor, as does later in the poem, the terms are Chinese, but change the languages and the subject be a factory in middle-America.


 … my Sichuan dialect is a bit old-fashioned,
      the Xiangxi dialect
is even harder to understand, Fujian’s Hokkien can chat with Taiwanese
Hong Kong’s Cantonese is a mere stop along the way …


In the Roar of the Machine, Zheng Xiaoqiong, Eleanor Goodman (trans) (Giramondo, July 2022)
In the Roar of the Machine, Zheng Xiaoqiong, Eleanor Goodman (trans) (Giramondo, July 2022)

The collection includes poems that delve and extend into other subjects: poetry itself, language, emotion, life, people, nature:


No one will remember this bleak Rose Courtyard
its tranquil beauty hurts me, in this mortal afternoon
the past flows on like a river, and the five girls
who never met love are wretched in the wind


These poems are more specifically Chinese in imagery and reference, “replete,” writes Goodman, “with classical literary allusions and historical references, and often read like extended allegories or even fairytales,” not that knowledge of these allusions and references is necessary to appreciate the poems. Even here, though, the industrial world often enters.

Most of the poems in the collection are short, about a page in length, although a couple are extended works of ten pages or so. That the poetry seems entirely at home in English is a testament to Goodman’s skill not just as a translator but also as a poet. The question this raises as to what one is actually reading doesn’t seem terribly relevant when faced with the words on the page: the poetry stands by itself. It is without exception accessible: clear, powerful and to the point, making effective use of repetition


The fluorescent lights are lit, the buildings are lit, the machines are lit
exhaustion is lit, the blueprints are lit…


and rhythm:


Sawing, cutting
polishing, drilling
milling, lathing
weighing, rolling
cooling off, in a heating bath
biting, severing
carving characters, labelling …


In the Roar of the Machine is, for people who don’t read poetry on a regular basis, a reminder of why one perhaps should.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.