Online Feature: Liu Xia
Where is Liu Xia?
This is how you try to erase a person after he’s died: you delete all mentions of him. You ban the phrase R.I.P. on blogs. You arrest those who mourn him. You spread his ashes out in the ocean where no memorial can be built. You take his wife, the woman who now stands for him, and make her disappear.
This woman is the poet and artist Liu Xia.
The past few weeks have been devastating for her and for all of us who care about human rights in China. Liu Xia's husband, Liu Xiaobo, died on July 13th from cancer he was diagnosed with in prison. He was an activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, poet, deeply human in his writing, and deeply symbolic of the fight for democracy in China. He died of what many are calling “political murder” under guard, and unable to leave the hospital chosen for him, far from all of his friends and family, save Liu Xia. There in the hospital, it is believed, Liu Xia was allowed to touch her husband for the first time in seven years.
Liu Xia did not choose to be a political figure. She is an artist who fell in love with a poet she hung out with at salons she often hosted. She writes about Kafka and strange dreams and birds and smoking and her mother-in-law and Nijinsky and her brother and language and watching her beloved transform from man to figure and back again.
Liu Xia was placed under house arrest when Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then she’s been trapped in her home, barely allowed visitors or phone calls or guarded trips to the store. She hasn't been able to sit with a friend and hear her own voice in response to another’s. Under house arrest, her health has deteriorated, and those few friends who’ve spoken with her say that the vibrant, specific woman they knew has become fragile, and is on the verge of breaking apart. Liu Xia was never accused of a crime. She was punished to punish her husband and as a lesson to a nation. And now no one knows where she is. No one knows where the Chinese government is hiding her.
Many of us here read and write poems to know that we exist and that we are entwined with others through an art form that exists all over the world. Liu Xia is one of us, a poet. I wish there was one way to stop the erasure of a human, but I don’t think there is. Yet we can do this: read Liu Xia’s poems. They exist. We can enjoy them, or not. We can argue with them. We can pass them on to a friend and say, “Read this, this poet exists.” We can teach her poems or keep them for ourselves. We exist. And because of that, Liu Xia's poems can speak even when her voice can't be heard. I want to believe that it’s harder to erase this person, specific in her words and life, when we’re in the middle of a conversation.
—Jennifer Stern, co-translator of Liu Xia’s poems
You’re always disappointed in me.
I too, can do nothing about myself.
Poems with my name
on them pile up,
but you don’t know it’s a scam.
A lonely soul, a guest,
comes now and then and moves my pen.
He likes my writing
and the way I smoke.
When I’m alone with him,
my words are tidy and beautiful.
When he’s distracted,
I try to get him drunk
so he’ll stay,
but he won’t be fooled.
I want to give up my name as a poet.
It makes others expect things from me
and makes me face the blank page
with despair, and even madness.
I want to tell the world the truth,
but when I try, he appears
and seizes me.
Before I can revel
and before you can love me again
he is gone, instantly.
His world is too far—
farther than I can reach
in this life.
I can only live in this room,
be your mediocre wife,
shop, cook, and do laundry,
or light a cigarette
and stare out the window for a long time.
at his mercy.
Murder under the Moon
some people are driving to temples on the outskirts
of the city, some are drinking on roofs.
Some, gnawing on sweet, greasy mooncakes,
look up at the sky and laugh.
Babies are howling.
Some people are saying “hello” politely
on the phone. Everyone thinks tonight
is not a regular night.
The moon is big and round up there.
I’m reading a murder story
under a light.
in two days,
his wife, son, and daughter; his father and mother;
and a cat.
people discovered he’d never been
the one they knew,
kind and friendly.
lie and another.
He’s still alive and will
get out of prison when he’s sixty-one.
In prison he joined
a group named “Uninterrupted.”
Two mornings for two hours each month
he prays in the name of God
and feels a great serenity,
as if bathed in light.
I must finish as quickly as I can.
My blood is about to freeze.
Morning has come.
In a spoken prayer,
I become a dead child’s eyes.
The moon grows smaller
and smaller in my gaze.
My heart has been placed in a glass bottle
and now it doesn’t jump or beat, not even a bit.
Bat City Review is featuring Liu Xia’s poems and this introduction alongside Four Way Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poetry Northwest, Scoundrel Time, Tupelo Quarterly, and other publications in an effort to draw attention to the life and work of the poet Liu Xia at this critical moment. The poems, translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, are reprinted from Empty Chairs: Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2015) with the permission of the translators and Graywolf Press.