English translation of speech given at NYU in 2017 follows.
My name is Chen Nianxi. I was born in a small town on the southern side of the Qinling mountains in northwest China. That area continues to be the most impoverished part of China today. My one-and-a-half-year-old son had just begun to babble as the sun set one winter evening in 2001. My neighbors, who had gone out to labor for the day, were returning one after another with the money they’d made. They mostly worked in the gold mines on this side of the peaks. On that day, as the sky washed over with black, a messenger arrived to deliver the words of a classmate. They needed someone to fill in for the mine cart operator. I packed up that night and rushed there as soon as it was daytime.
Unless you have personal experience, you will never in your life imagine what it’s like inside a mine. The shaft is no taller than 1.8 meters and no wider than 1.5 meters, but it can be tens of thousands of meters deep. It is pitted inside with holes, ventilation shafts, side tunnels, empty quarries. It’s like an enormous labyrinth. At first, without any skills or experience, my job was to pull the carts. Then, thanks to a few lucky breaks, I transferred to the demolition crew. That’s perhaps the most dangerous job on Earth, where the fuse and the Grim Reaper intertwine with explosives. The number of explosives I handled over those years would have to be measured in train loads. Last year, because of a spinal cord injury I sustained from repetitive demolition work, I received a donation to undergo surgery. I had to leave the mines because of the injury. By then, I had worked sixteen whole years there.
My wife’s younger brother also worked on a demolition crew. When he was 28, snow still blanketed everything in early spring. His pregnant wife sent him off on a pedicab to work. A few years ago, I had to make funeral arrangements for him. When the explosion went off, he ran in the wrong direction. He was pulverized. I had avoided the fate of my wife’s brother simply by chance. Over a sixteen-year career in the mines, I’ve seen more death than your average person. I’m grateful that I’m still safe and sound, even if I’m now partly deaf from the jackhammer drills and my spine is out of alignment. Although we take many precious things from the earth, we still have nothing at all.
During my time in the mines, I often thought, “We endure freezing cold, loneliness, hard labor, and suffering to carve wounds on the earth so we can excavate ore, but where does it all go?” Looking around now, I see aluminum windows, copper in air conditioners, steel inside buildings, and fine gold and silver jewelry. I don’t know anyone in the US, but I know those ores. The metal that my brothers in arms and I exchanged sweat and tears for built Beijing and Shanghai, Boston and New York.
I had three metal rods implanted in my C4, C5, and C6 vertebrae. Those parts were made in the United States, but I very well may have been the one who brought the ore to the surface myself. It was taken to the faraway land of America, turned into a medical device, then shipped back across the ocean to become part of my body. I’ve brought the rods here today. If metal could talk, what kinds of stories would it have to tell us?
The production team for The Verse of Us and I made it to the United States for its biggest spectacle of an election yet. What I’ve witnessed with my eyes and ears leaves my heart heavy and moved. The biggest impression I have is that politics does not come only from politicians, but also from individuals. What I don’t understand is why Trump’s disgraceful and discriminatory remarks on women and ethnic minorities didn’t cost him votes. He can still sing triumphantly down the path of controversy. He threatens to build a wall on the border with Mexico to prevent immigrants from entering the country. The situation of laborers in the United States is similar to that of migrant workers in China. Trump says China stole manufacturing opportunities from the United States. He’ll move factories back to the United States. I worry that, if that happens, many Chinese workers like myself will lose our livelihoods.
The night Trump won, I was in Times Square. All around me, people sank into silence and sorrow. No one was celebrating. Many grown adults were crying like children. Supposedly, it was the saddest night in New York City since 9/11. In the days following the announcement, there were protests everywhere. Trump’s election has contributed too many unknowns not only the US, but also to the rest of the world.
I began to write poetry in the ’90s, in bits and pieces. Almost thirty years now. Many people are curious: “There is such a big gap between your life and poetry. How can you persevere with something so useless and pretentious?” I want to say that life isn’t logical, even if there’s logic in it. The most humble of bones still flows with the Yangtze. I write because I have things to say.
I know that the people who make up the majority of the world are actually the friends, family, and wives of laborers. Their work, lives, and experiences are hazy like dreams. This is an era of boundless ignorance. There is indeed a big gap between generations, countries, destinies. I have trickled down from the immortal poetry of China’s Book of Songs. Behind those words, I see the society of three thousand years ago, the hearts and minds of the people back then, their misery and dreams. Real poetry is a record of truth and spirit. Those humble bones, in China, in Vietnam, in Turkey, in Brazil, each a pestle, silent as metal. In the end, there are seven billion people on Earth. Only one in a thousand voices is heard. When those silent souls finally speak, what will they say?
Only through constraints can feeling and art arise. My poetry is coarse, but it’s not superficial, hypocritical, or afraid of difficult questions. I hope it is a warm piece of metal for hard times, with a scratch of myself on it. Once our fleeting clouds are in the distance, later generations will see a few slivers of the unimpeded hallucination that is the globalization of the world. Thank you, everyone!