Translated from the Chinese by Isabelle Li.
My understanding of iron began in a country hospital. Country is tender, pliable, like earth. Iron often cuts through country with its hardness and coldness, and country suffers pain. Sickness, like sharp iron, penetrates country’s fragile body, and more than once I’ve seen country weeping in its sickness. Whenever I passed by the country hospital’s entrance, the dark iron-gate made me shiver. It looked gloomy, peculiar, where floating matter deposits, like a body in sickness. When it was windy, you could feel the fragile country crying outside the hospital’s iron-gate. Sickness walks ghostly on the country roads, through open meadows and fields, bumps into someone, and the bright light burning in his family will gradually dim. The family will struggle with the iron-like sickness, their throats slit by its iron-hardness, their lives sinking into the pitch of silent pain. After working in the country hospital for six months, I could no long bear the helpless gloom, so I left for the South.
In the South, I went to work in a metalwork factory and dealt with iron every day: iron machinery, iron spare parts, iron drills, iron products, iron shelves. There I saw pieces of hard iron twist and turn, being cut, bifurcated, drilled, curled, ground, into products of required shapes, sizes, and thicknesses. My first job at the factory was lathing, to cut smooth, shiny iron bars into small sections of billets. A steel rod about twelve metres long was fastened in the automatic lathe, with the steel chuck clamped around it, left and right, up and down, front and back. Under digital programing control, the lathe moved backwards and forwards, its sharp cutters sectioning the steel rod, then shaving off spirals of fine iron. The iron shavings, thin as paper, glittered with beguiling lustre, fell into the cooling oil, their tenuous connections breaking, turning to shreds, before sinking into the plastic basin.
I’ve always been sensitive to the sound of cutting iron; the hissing fills me with horror, which has stemmed from the solid trust I placed in iron since childhood. In the village repair shop in my hometown in Sichuan, listening to the plasma arc, watching the sparks from the iron being cut, I had come to realise that the powerful iron was in fact fragile. I felt that the sound was coming from my bones, and the unwieldy machine was slicing my body, my soul, bit by bit, little by little. There was a sharp pain in that sound, like the scattered sparks stinging my eyes. For a long time I had firmly believed the cacophonous and chaotic sound was iron’s struggle and scream in breaking. But in the metalwork factory, moistened by the heavy cooling oil, the iron broke, split, and was ground into a conical shape, soundlessly. A twelve metre steel rod was cut into billets four or five centimetres long, which were then neatly packed in a box. Throughout the cutting and grinding process I could no longer hear iron’s shrill scream, nor see the spray of sparks.
Once, my finger accidentally touched the lathe cutter, and half of my nail disappeared soundlessly. Pain, sharp pain, shot up my finger, piercing the rest of my body, my bones. Blood dripped down into the cooling oil. My co-workers rushed me to the town hospital. At the hospital, I discovered so many injured workers, mostly like me, from elsewhere, stranded there. Some had injured half a finger, some the whole hand, the leg, the head. They were bandaged in white gauze stained with blood.
Inside the room for six I lay on the hospital bed that smelled of disinfectant. The man on my left, with a head injury, worked in the plastic factory; the one on my right, with three severed fingers, worked in the moulding factory. Their families surrounded the beds, anxiety written all over their faces. The one on the right moaned, his three left fingers completely severed. The doctor came over, hung up a fluid bag, inserted a catheter and gave medication orders, all done expressionlessly, then left the room. Looking at his gauze that had been steeped red in blood and then turned pale yellow, I suddenly remembered the iron that I touched every day. The gauze was covered in the same rust-like ochre. For his family, the man’s pain was so intense and bitter, like the iron under the oxy-fuel welding machine. Such pain was violent, cacophonous, penetrating their bones, their souls, and they were to live with this pain forever hanging over them. He had come from rural Xinyang in Henan province. I couldn’t imagine, back in the Henan countryside, how he was going to lead his life with three severed fingers. He was lying in bed, groaning and his groans reminded me of the village repair shop, where the harsh sound of oxy-fuel cutting had permeated the sky above the open, tranquil countryside, like voodoo mist floating over people’s heads. But inside the hospital of this small, southern, industrial age town, how insignificant his injury was. I stuck my head out of the window. Outside were the wide roads, teeming with vehicles and pedestrians, a dazzling array of billboards, factories with tightly shut iron gates, a world of song and dance. No one would care and no one did care that there was a person, or even a group, whose fingers had been gobbled up by machines. Their painful moans were not heard, and never would be, not by anyone. They were like the iron clamped by the automatic lathe, sliced, split, burnished, all soundlessly.
The wound scabbed on my finger, but the fingernail was never as smooth and shiny as before. Compared with the other nine, it was twisted, thickened, mottled, as if having been through the process of crude welding. When I was at peace, I looked at the nail grown out of the wound, like a foreign body having risen from an abyss, unexpectedly soaring from the depths of my heart. I knew it was the accumulation of sharp pain, and on its mottled, corrugated lines the aftershock still lingered. The pain had disappeared from my senses, but the feeling crouched deep inside my being, which would never vanish, nor even fade. In the quiet, desolate night, I beheld my wounded finger, turning over the relevant details in my mind. I heard the village blacksmith’s welding echoing in my ears, and the hissing sound rushing towards me. I could only hear part of it, but more had been buried in my body, buried in the scarified pain, even deeper. What had disappeared was now manifest in my thoughts, and condensed into my finger, into my poetry, ever stronger.
I wrote my first poem after coming to the South, and to be precise, after having my hand injury. Because of the injury, I couldn’t work, and the only thing I could do was to rest. But the injury was not severe enough to make me spend my days moaning like the patient in the next bed. Trapped in the hospital I gradually calmed down, and after a couple of days adapted to the gauze wrapped around my hand. I began to think. Never had I lived such slow days, or experienced such empty, idle time. I sat at the head of the bed hypothesizing about myself: what would happen had I, like my fellow patient in the next bed, lost a few fingers? What if next time the injury was not limited to my finger nail? The hypothesis filled me with fear, the kind that results from our total inability to control our own destiny, as too many contingencies had crushed any dreams or plans we ever had. I kept interrogating myself and listening to the response of my own heart, and wrote everything down on paper. In the process of narrating, I felt a quiver, as if the pain of the injury had awakened a power inside my body. A train that had been stalled for a long time had started to run on the twin tracks of pain and reflection. Dragging its steel body, it kept moving.
I have always wanted my poetry to be filled with the taste of iron, solid, sharp. Two years after joining the metalwork factory I was transferred from the operating platform to the warehouse. There I guarded the iron slabs, steel rods, iron plates, iron filings, all kinds of processed iron products. I was surrounded by piles of iron. In my mind, the smell of iron was pervasive, hard, gravitating. I felt that the air in the warehouse was weightier because of it. Two years of my life on the operating floor, I had worked as a lathe operator, a driller, and over time I developed a new awareness about iron. Iron was also soft, pliable. One could bend it, fold it, punch holes, cut grooves, and engrave words on it. It was soft as soil, lonely, silent. When the iron blocks for processing were placed in the heat processor, I often gazed at them, watching them change in the founding fire. What had previously been shiny and whitish gradually turned red, its cold brightness changing into searing transparency. Gazing as the heat turned red, a sheer red, translucent as tears, I would cry. Those tears that fell on the searing iron soon disappeared. To date I believe that they didn’t evaporate in the high temperature, but fell into the searing iron and became part of it. Tears are the strongest material in the world, with a soft yet unrelenting power. As the blaze turned more and more crimson, the scorching smell of iron became increasingly more concentrated. The iron pieces were reduced to slices of red light, burning logs. One by one, flowers bloomed in the furnace. As I was watching, they gradually lost their solid form, becoming liquid fire, vaporous light, vast, empty. The vastness and emptiness swallowed the iron before my eyes, then continued to glisten, swallowing more and more iron pieces that had yet to glow.
But in the founding flames of iron, the expressions of my co-workers always felt so indistinct, as if an indescribable force had distorted our once clear features. On our faces, fragments of reflected light burned for brief moments, and what remained were ashes, age, and confusion, the iron filings and broken materials abandoned at a waste dump.
Life had gradually made me sensitive and fragile, my heart a piece of iron softened by the founding fire. Meanwhile things around me had suddenly developed thorns, assailing my sensitivity, causing incessant pain. I saw, one by one, my co-workers come and go, and finally disappear into the throng without a trace. They left me with only their varied expressions: passionate, indifferent, helpless, furious, anxious, repressed. These expressions had come from Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan, Chongqing, Anhui, Guizhou, and in the end gone somewhere unknown. Our conversations, encounters, memories were the fine sparks of iron being cut, soon extinguished. The feelings of simplicity and continuity when we worked together faded away like a train moving into the distance that was soon forgotten. Only a vague impression, perhaps the whistle, would still be ringing in my head. They came and went, and for me who was also on the move, they took nothing away, yet left nothing behind. After getting to know them, talking, making friends, all my longing and imagination had time and again become pieces of iron on the verge of rusting, abandoned at some waste dump. The tick-tock of time dripped from clocks like rust stains, dot by dot, covering the entire iron piece, finally obscuring it. The murky, red-brown rust turned darker and darker until the iron could no longer be seen.
Blood rusted on my fingernail, a bloody scent permeating my mouth. When I worked in the country hospital, dealing with patients and wounds every day, I had never associated blood with iron rust. But in the metalwork factory, I constantly tasted iron rust, like hot flushes, lightly sweet, salty. Now sitting in the hospital sickbed, I stared at my scabbed fingernail as if it were the exposed steel bar outside the tin shed factory plant, mottled, eroded by rain. The life of a migrant worker is indeed an acid rain, assailing our bodies, souls, ideals, dreams, but it cannot erode a liquid heart, which possesses powers greater than steel. Whenever I took the red hot iron from the furnace and placed it into the coolant, the smell of quenching iron hit me, straight from my nostrils to my lungs. I thought it as wounded iron, stubborn and arrogant, scabbing in the coolant, and the permeating smell was the iron’s blood, hot and thick.
A friend of mine wrote in one of his poems that a migrant’s life in the South is itself a huge furnace. A couple of years later, when I started writing about the life of migrants, I wrote mostly about iron. Gradually I lost the sense of excitement and longing that I had once felt when I first arrived in the South. Neither did I feel the disappointments or frustrations many others had experienced. All that remained was a kind of calm. I wanted to use my words to create a truthful reflection of the rural migrants’ life, its searing poignancy burning the body and the soul. I knew that the reality of a migrant’s life was not just for the peasant workers like me, at the bottom of the ladder, but also for those at management level. However, I could not escape the reality that I lived in. This specific linguistic context determined that my writing was a one-dimensional agony.
Amid the giant furnace fires, a sharp pain often arose from my heart, writhing, convulsing from body to soul, running like a beast, mixing and combining with the various discontents of the migrant life. The pain was enormous, hard to shake off, like an iron bar stuck in the throat. It started to take over the space that had used to be occupied by lofty ideals, tearing a gap in the distant place where I had once longed to be. I stood at the edge of a mire of indecision, time falling away like the iron flakes on the machine platform, darkness left hovering over the depths of my heart. I wondered whether I were a failed iron piece in the founding fire of migrant life, or something that looked like iron but was actually a burned wreckage of sulphur. I could see that my youth would soon disappear, while I carried on living this itinerant life, moving from one industrial estate to another, not knowing where the next station might be. Time had impressed on my forehead lines and lines of trenches, which were right now in small sections, but would soon be neatly lined up, and before long, converge to form a wide river channel in my body. In my mind, time was blackened old colours, like the distant factory buildings in the industrial park, dull, damp, and sad. It told the stories of the rusting iron at the corner of the roof, the failed iron, a tiny voice trembling in me.
Pain is ten-horsepower iron knocking into the fate of a migrant worker. The injured, scabbed finger deposited immense power, which made me rethink my own fate. The howling of iron in this bustling southern industrial metropolis was not as startling as it had been in the country. Its voice was engulfed by the prosperous world. What was left was a sigh, as calm as steel. My wound was still swollen with blood, and the soundless, breathless malady was torturing my otherwise carefree thoughts. I tried to learn tolerance in life, to observe and examine reality from a different perspective. More than once I tried to change my point of view of a lowly migrant worker. But I couldn’t wipe out the original pain from my own heart. I’m now far away from the factory floor, far from the danger of having one’s fingers swallowed by a machine. Yet the shadow of danger often dawns on me in my dreams, and I have dreamed at least ten times that my left index finger is devoured. Whenever I woke up from such a dream, I would open the windows and look at the starry sky and trees under the curtain of the night, a layer of steely grey spread all around me. Iron is iron after all and it is hard, sharp, with a night-like shell. My body and soul are however fragile. Yes, in my poetry, I am unable to tolerate the oppression and anxiety iron has brought upon me. The scar on my nail has become a piece of iron taken root inside me. It has a strong permeating power, having entered my body and spread in my blood. It howls, and in the endless long years, imposes inner gravity upon my being. It forces me to bear the weight and walk on.