November’s Rice-Gleaners

Eleanor Goodman, translated from the Chinese written by Wang Xiaoni

copyright ©Chinese Copyright © 2014 by Wang Xiaoni / English Translation and Foreword Copyright © 2014 by Eleanor Goodman

From Guangxi to Jiangxi
I glimpse rice-gleaners bent to the ground.

In province after province
the vegetation yellows
in province after province
this country was once willing to pave the ground with gold.

Still there are always people at dusk
looking like bent black nails.
Who will come to admire the ancient sorcery
of rice-gleaners turning a bit of gold into a grain of rice.

Don’t be like me hurrying along on the train
as though there’s urgent business
crossing three provinces in a single day
occasionally noting the earth is still adorned with rice-gleaners.

I want to call for them to stand up
to see the faces worth the least gold
to see the color of sweat they produce.

Notes on the Poem

We're delighted to be looking over the next seven weeks at Poems of the Week taken from the newly minted 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. We start with a quietly captivating selection from Something Crosses My Mind by Eleanor Goodman, translating from the original poems written in Chinese by Wang Xiaoni. In their tribute to Something Crosses My Mind, the Griffin Poetry Prize 2015 judges remark that “... while Xiaoni’s characters may not speak, they seem to have a real insight into our experience and lives.” The rice-gleaners are just such a silent but potent presence in this poem. The rice-gleaners are depicted as static figures, but also hauntingly constant: "Still there are always people at dusk looking like bent black nails." While the image of "bent black nails" seems humble, unremarkable, unappreciated and commonplace, in fact, nails can also convey strength and tenacity, even when bent. Contrast that to the hurried, peripatetic figure of the narrator, who is sufficiently and ruefully self aware to understand that she is rushing ... "as though there's urgent business" That she realizes the immense value of the quiet, uncomplaining dedication of the rice-gleaners shines through in her use of the word "adorned", as if those "bent black nails" are actually and truly jewels. That "gold" is referenced more than once drives this home with subtly, firmly, emphatically.

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