In the Roar of the Machine: Selected Poems

Zheng Xiaoqiong, Eleanor Goodman

In the Roar of the Machine: Selected Poems
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In the Roar of the Machine: Selected Poems

Zheng Xiaoqiong, Eleanor Goodman

This selection collects some of the most influential and moving work of the poet Zheng Xiaoqiong, who spent nearly a decade at the beginning of the century working in the newly created factories and warehouses in what has become one of the largest manufacturing centers in the world, southern China.

Her poetry is full of the dramatic details of days and nights spent in physical labor, the din of the workshops, the acute dangers associated with working with heavy machinery, and the exploitation, abuse, and indignity workers are subject to given the pressures of global capitalism and a lack of oversight and protection. But the poems also speak of pleasure and of love, memories of the ancestors, the natural environment of southern China and her native Huangma Mountains in central Sichuan.

Zheng writes moving portraits of her fellow workers, voices the rarely addressed issues facing women workers in particular, and paints a vivid picture of the vast population of migrant labourers, displaced from their homes and desperately seeking ways to express their experiences. She is a poet of this century, speaking to a community which consumes the products of this labour: from iPhones to Christmas decorations to the components of machinery used across the world.

Review

In the Roar of the Machine brings together more than 10 years of Zheng Xiaoqiong’s poetry in a lyrical and poignant collection. Zheng was born in Sichuan and trained as a nurse but, sick of the working conditions, she left her hospital job to move to Guangdong province to work in the factories there. Her poetry focuses on the experience of factory work, of factories that create parts for the seemingly history-less objects we use every day.

Zheng’s poetry protests the conditions the women workers live in – their dehumanisation, and the transformation of their bodies through pain, insomnia and occupational diseases. Eleanor Goodman, who translated the collection, writes that her goal as a translator was to bring Zheng’s literary activism to a Western audience. The first section, Huangmaling, has a particularly urgent intensity. The section Woman Worker goes further to capture the voices of individual women in fragments. The repetition of the rusting iron and moonlight emphasise this life as transient and ephemeral. Zheng’s poems are suffused in melancholy; they can be sad, documenting the suffering of the workers, yet they articulate life with startling clarity.

In the Roar of the Machine is some of the most stunning poetry I’ve read this year. Zheng’s poetry also draws strongly on the senses: the smell, the feeling, and especially the sound of industry that permeates all aspects of her life, accumulating in moments of gorgeous synaesthesia: ‘The sounds I hear when I turn are like pieces of cut iron circular, square, in strips’ (‘Sounds’). She connects language and machinery, paying attention to how language manufactures us: ‘Each tiny interior holds a silent soul / she writes poetry at the machine of the Chinese language, this ancient / but fictitious vehicle’ (‘Drama’). Her observations are keenly insightful. But the power of this collection lies in its poignancy. It communicates a sense of place and emotion that grips you. I’ll be thinking about this collection for a long time after putting it down.


Stephanie King is a bookseller at Readings Emporium.

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