Happy Birthday, Xu Lizhi

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 7 min.

Today, July 18, is the birthday of poet Xu Lizhi (许立志). Happy birthday, Xu!

Actually, that’s the date listed at Wikipedia. I couldn’t confirm the date, but do see that Xu’s poem, “A Kind of Prophecy” (《谶言一种》), ends with “This year I turn 23” (“我今年23岁”) and is dated June 18, 2013. Perhaps a Wikipedia contributor mistakenly took July 18th from there?

Whatever the case, to honor Xu’s memory, I’d like to share one of his poems. The translation is by “friends of the Nao project” (more precisely, Nào (闹)). I encourage you to read the full story at libcom.org: “The poetry and brief life of a Foxconn worker: Xu Lizhi (1990-2014).”

As that article’s title suggests, Xu was a Foxconn factory worker. He took his own life in 2014. He is, of course, not the only Foxconn worker to have done so. Wikipedia has an entry on that as well: “Foxconn suicides.”

I’m here especially to celebrate Xu’s poetry, but unfortunately his creative output was inextricably intertwined with his life as a migrant worker. This in mind, my heart goes out to anyone, poet or not, seeing their lives ground down by thankless, exhausting drudgery.

I admit, I have a soft spot for poets and artist types in general who find themselves in that predicament. Maybe this is ok in a certain sense. That is, Xu’s poetry evokes that circumstance vividly, giving, I hope, those of us who benefit from the toil of such laborers an empathic glimpse of what people in such circumstances experience.

On the other hand, I worry that celebrating Xu’s poetry under the wrong light will perpetuate the conscience-soothing myth that transcendent art requires suffering. Let’s try not to read it in that light.

But you know what? None of that is what’s really at the forefront of my thoughts right now. I’ll be honest, though I’m hesitant to say what I’m really thinking, which is: I can relate.

I’ve never found myself in a predicament as dire—with future prospects as dire—as Xu’s. But, since as far back as I can remember, a persistent theme in my life has been the following. I have a constant influx of creative ideas, and rarely have time to work on them; they crowd my brain, day and night, leading to insomnia and, more often than I’d like, misery.

I’ve written elsewhere about how this constant drive to create may amount to some sort of diagnosable disorder. I’m not implying that Xu’s poetic drives were symptomatic of a “disorder” (I couldn’t possibly know anything of the kind). But will note that it resonated strongly with me when I heard composer Dennacha Dennehy put it precisely in this way about himself in a Meet the Composer episode called “Composing with Frequency” (8/25/14).

One of my own worst stretches in this respect was in military basic training. It’s a long story. I’ll just say that, while there, my leg (fibula) broke early on. Or at least it sustained a hairline fracture that eventually snapped into a full-on break. But the doctor refused to X-ray me, calling me a malingerer.

Being seen as a malingerer made me an outcast who shamelessly “faked” a limp. This led to my being twice recycled (i.e., made to start basic training over again). It made me seen as deserving—an easy target for—all sorts of nastiness. I’ll skip over the nastiness and how I dealt with it (e.g., inventing a language with its own script) and will get to my point.

During that ordeal, not being able to write music was, at least as I remember it, the hardest part. (Memory is tough. Let’s say it was one of the hardest parts.) At some point I was—on the advice, I believe, of some mental health professionals—put into a room with some pen and paper and allowed to scribble down of some of the music that had been bouncing around in my head with increasing intensity.

[Too bad a similar recommendation wasn’t pushed through for X-raying my leg. That didn’t happen until a month into basic, when a beneficent drill instructor forced the matter by threatening to officially charge me with malingering. Luckily, just before getting X-rayed, I had pushed through the pain to fulfill my physical training requirements. When, after the X-ray, I showed up at the dorm with a cast on my leg, the attitudes of those around me immediately changed.]

I lasted seven months in the military. Since that time, nearly 30 years ago now, I’ve managed to do more than my fair share of creative work, mostly while working odd jobs that, to varying degrees, have allowed me to do creative work on the side. I’ve gone years without being able to really do any satisfying creative work, but have usually been lucky enough to do something with the influx of ideas.

And, in my 30s, I was lucky enough to start attending an excellent community college courses for free, and to then transfer at age 39 to an Ivy League university where I received my undergraduate degree in philosophy summa cum laude and with departmental honors, despite having failed the 10th grade and graduating in the bottom 15% of my high school class.

(If I ever strike it rich, one thing I plan to do is to fund a college scholarship for people who did horribly in high school. Some of us need third and fourth chances!)

What sustained me in the military was faith that my youth and (as I naively saw it at the time) talent would eventually afford me a better future. Though there were dark, nearly hopeless moments. Such as when I was told that I would be sentenced to prison for the rest of my life for malingering, or for some other crime that would surely surface soon enough from someone so lacking as I was in military bearing. To bolster such lies, they showed me (or perhaps they showed all of us) little movies about people who’d been condemned to decades of hard labor at Leavenworth for rather minor infractions.

Due to what I felt in such moments, I think I can imagine, though probably in reality cannot at all imagine, what Xu was facing, when he looked at his life and at his prospective future. And I’m certain I can’t imagine what has been felt by the many people who have faced such terrible realities throughout history, and are facing them this very moment.

Xu got paid something, if not much, for his toil. And he was able to apply for other jobs (a lover of books, he reportedly dreamt of being a librarian), though he did not get them. And, somehow, we now have some of his poetry. Xu even had a blog, according to the above-linked libcom.org article (which I’ll link again at the end of this post).

Even unluckier than that are those among the estimated (at least) 20 million slaves in the world today—people who are forced, on threat of violence, into unpaid servitude. See, for instance, this Wikipedia article: “Slavery in the 21st century.”

And see this website that claims to be able to tell you how many slaves work for you: slaveryfootprint.org.

The book that opened my eyes to the problem was Kevin Bales’s Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (3rd edition, 2012).

I won’t say that thinking about those worse off than I, poets or not, makes me feel better about my own situation. I consider that a further exploitation; one I try to avoid (though I don’t always succeed).

I know I’m lucky. I’ve lived in a trailer park in Mississippi and in the graduate dorms at Columbia University, and currently live in relative comfort with enough time to knock out this blog post. And I’ve been able to work from home during Covid 19 lockdown, due to my jobs being remote. As has my partner, whom I’m also exceedingly lucky to have in my life.

So I don’t, or shouldn’t, need the pain of others to feel better about my life (even when I find it depressing, as, I admit, I too often do; the crushing debt doesn’t help). If need be, I can think about where I might have ended up, and what my state of mind might be, had I not been so lucky. I can only imagine!

But I do very often find myself reflecting deeply on the plight of those 20-million-plus people. Such as when responding to the question of how it was that so many people were tolerant of slavery in the past with: “How are we ok with slavery now?”

I don’t understand why this isn’t a constant point of desperate concern.

Xu wasn’t a slave, not literally, but was among the even larger number of people in the world seeing their lives ground down by endless and exhausting drudgery for low wages.

Back to poetry.

Speaking of which, for a poem by a U.S. American that captures some facet of the sentiment I’m brushing against here, see Charles Bukowski’s “the meek have inherited.” But look at that later.

Right now, here’s a beautiful poem by Xu. I first read about you, Xu, in 2014, and continue today, in 2020, to be moved by your words and story.

“I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron”

I swallowed a moon made of iron

They refer to it as a nail

I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents

Youth stooped at machines die before their time

I swallowed the hustle and the destitution

Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust

I can’t swallow any more

All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat

Unfurling on the land of my ancestors

Into a disgraceful poem.

—19 December 2013

Read more of Xu Lizhi’s poems, and more about the man himself, at the aforementioned libcom.org article: “The poetry and brief life of a Foxconn worker: Xu Lizhi (1990-2014).”

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