A review of In The Roar of the Machine by Zheng Xiaoqiong

Reviewed by Beatriz Copello

In The Roar of the Machine
by Zheng Xiaoqiong
Translated by Eleanor Goodman
112 pages, Paperback, July 2022, ISBN 9781922725288

In The Roar of the Machine by Zheng Xiaoqiong is a powerful poetry book which highlights the painful life of factory workers in China. The writer herself, after migrating from Sichuan to Southern China, the site of the largest centre of manufacturing goods, worked in various factories having first-hand experience of what this involves. Zheng’s previous poetry books are: Huangma Mountains, Collected Poems of   Zheng Xiaoqiong, Pedestrian Bridge and Poems Falling on Machines. Translator Eleanor Goodman is also an award-winning poet and a Research Associate at the Harvard University Fairbank Centre.

In The Roar of the Machine is divided into five sections, it appears that these have been written at different times as there is a year at the end of each section, the first section “Huangmaling” signals the content of the book were Zheng Xiaoqiong gives a strong voice to feminism, exploitation, discrimination, and abuse. The poet present the reality a reality populated by pain and misery.

The seconds section titled “Poems Scattered on Machines” contains very vivid descriptions about the impact of industrialization, the life in factories, changes and modernization of villages and the destruction of the environment.

The Third section titled “Woman Worker” the life of various women are described with words that have a strong sense of truth. Each story will grab the reader’s interest, stories of survival and abuse, of women trying to make sense of life and women dealing with exploitation.

“The Rose Courtyard” is the fourth section and contains beautiful memories of a real place or perhaps imaginary together with fond words about her ancestors.

The final section titled “In the Hardware Factory” is a long narrative poem with vivid descriptions of the poet’s reality, things that she sees and the ones she doesn’t, reality real or imagined that will take the reader into a different world.

In The Roar of the Machine is a book impregnated with suffering punctuated by moments of solace and pleasure from the memories of village life and the comfort of ancestors.

The translator Eleanor Goodman explains in the introduction that Zheng turned to writing in order to put on paper her emotions as well as her protestation against exploitative capitalism.

Most of Zheng’s poems are narrative and detailing the pain and toil of becoming a human machine, she says in a poem titled “Machine”:

That hungry machine, everyday eating iron, blueprints
stars, dew, salty sweat, it picks it teeth
and spits out profit, bank notes, nightclubs…it see lopped-off-fingers
unpaid wages, shadowy occupational diseases, and the memories
  are bitter
and the nights are endless, how many people living on an iron sheet
owe the debts of the poor, stand on the cool damp iron
moving about miserably, how much love balances between iron sheets
this life’s heart, is iron-hard, a strait forward bitter life of a
temporary labourer

The poet skilfully describes how youth and dreams are lost quickly as the result of hard work, becoming part of the machine: “I see myself resembling this cast iron.”  Iron is in her hands, in her mind, in her verses, iron controls her life.  Anonymity, monotony, boredom, pain and exploitation are observed with poetic care; politics into poetry.    

In The Roar of the Machine is a fascinating book, culturally very illustrative. The poet’s strong voice illuminates the suffering that comes from working in factories and sweat shops, but also is full of great courage.

About the reviewer: Dr Beatriz Copello is a well-known reviewer, writer and poet, she is also known for her sense of humour. “Her poems are sensuous, evocative and imaginative. Beatriz Copello is one of Australia’s foremost poets,” wrote Julia Hancock, ex-editor of Allan & Unwin and Freelance editor and journalist. Copello’s poetry books are Women Souls and Shadows, Meditations at the Edge of a Dream, Flowering Roots, Under the Gums Long Shade, Lo Irrevocable del Halcon (In Spanish) and her last book Witches Women and Wordspublished by Ginninderra Publishing. Her poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many other print and Electronic Publications. Fiction books by author are: A Call to the Stars, Forbidden Steps Under the Wisteria and Beyond the Moons of August (Her Doctoral Thesis).