June Fourth Elegies: Poems

  • Liu Xiaobo
  • Greywolf Press
  • 208 pp.

From his confinement in a prison cell, a Nobel Prize-winning poet reflects on Tiananmen and the human-rights struggle in China.

Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

Liu Xiaobo is a Chinese poet. Liu (his family name) was a literary force in his country and now, at the age of 57, he’s a political prisoner currently sentenced to a fourth term in prison. His crime against the state is the nonviolent struggle for human rights in China. For this he was also awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010. Liu was denied representation to receive the prize. In the history of the Nobel, only two other “prisoners” were awarded the prize: Carl von Ossietsky (Germany, 1931) and Aung San Suu Kyi (Burma, 1991.)

Liu worked for political reforms and to end of the single party rule in his country. Those are the facts of his life. June Fourth Elegies is the heart of the man. The book is dedicated to “the Tiananmen Mothers and those who can remember.” The foreword is by the Dalai Lama, honoring Liu’s courage. There are 20 sections of poems; each section is an “offering” to the June Fourth uprisings. They represent consecutive years honoring the Tiananmen event, from the first-year anniversary in 1990 (“Experiencing Death, Qincheng Prison”) to 2009 (“June Fourth of My Body”). His wife, Liu Xia, believes there is some confusion in the order of the elegies, because Liu was writing in prison. Recently she was seen on video saying Liu now has neither pen nor paper, and cannot write. This is the only record we have. The book is translated from Chinese by Jeffrey Yang, who proves the adage that translation gives us another’s language and therefore gives us another’s soul.

While many poets wonder how they would fill their lives without poetry, Liu has no time for such thoughts. For him, poetry is the result of emotions so extreme that they shatter walls to reach us. He speaks of seismic events in the life of his people. His urgency is first heard in the Introduction, “From the Tremors of a Tomb, Beijing 5/14/2000”: “ … Let the dead souls teach the living what it means to live, what it means to die, what it means to be dead but still alive.” Some words of poets are lessened by their sufferings. Some are made better. Liu writes, “In the brain-mass there’s one shoe / That cannot find the road to memory.” Yet he does find the road in 20 sections of elegies and five beautiful poems to his wife. From the poem “Greed’s Prisoner,” to his wife Liu Xia, this: “… beloved / my wife / in this dust-weary world of / so much depravity / why do you / choose me alone to endure.”

We are stirred by words from confinement in a labor camp (“Re-education,” 1998) in his ninth anniversary “offering” of June 4: “ ... The dead flies in the pans of food / finely grind and chew then / spit at the withering-red dusk / A group of shaved-headed ones in the courtyard / follow repeated commands with the same synchronized / actions while awaiting the expected inspections … .”

Sometimes with political poetry the first poem says it all and the following poems say the same thing again. Not here. Liu’s technique changes the life on every page. From silence comes strong messages. The section title is “Memory,” with Liu under house arrest in 1955:

Life is but continuous indifference a day and a year are no different To fall in love and to plot a conspiracy are no different to smoke, gossip, barhop have sex, play mahjong, bathe in a sauna practice graft, scheme for office, traffic in people Skin peeled from body an awe-inspired task completed The ease with which money forgives bayonets and lies to justify the massacre with reasoned arguments like the metaphysics of Daoist-Confucius exchange that becomes the accepted ideology for one and everyone

The leitmotif in the book is of atrocities that relate not only to his own experience but also to indignities that happen to the average citizen. There are habitual patterns in these elegies, but each section has its own energy.

From the section “I Will Give My Soul Free Rein” (1966):

Often, beneath the purity of moonlight the cars pass here are stopped for random interrogation Men and women are handcuffed to the trunks of trees on both sides of the avenue They have no idea what each person has to do with the other Those with eyeshadow are suspected of being prostitutes Those with cell phones are determined to be their clients …

We all have ideals, and hopefully pursue them, but conscious physical acts of heroism create a kind of structure over time for others to hold to; and overt actions (writing not the least of them) create a continuity. Actions cause change and affect thought. Liu creates a dialectic that cannot promise a successful outcome but can show the world what it is to be a successful human. This is not poetry to tell a story but to expose the true nature of his world. From the section “Memories of a Wooden Plank” (2001), a three-page poem illuminates his state of mind: “ … I am merely / a discarded wooden plank / powerless to resist the crushing of steel  still, I want to save you no matter if you’re / dead or still barely breathing, breathing … .”

As I write this we are watching the patriots in Syria. I think back to Kim Chi Ha, the North Korean poet who years ago died in a cell where he scratched poems on the walls. I think of the thousands whose names we don’t know. And across this distance they call out, making sure their universe becomes ours. The emotions in June Fourth Elegies come from a truth that must be told. It tears at the curtain of oppression.

From “Remember the Departed Souls” (2005):

If my feet are chained, I’ll use my ten fingers to climb to you If my hands are tied, I’ll use my knees and chin to climb to you If my legs are smashed, I’ll use my broken bones to support you If my throat’s strangled, I’ll use my stifled breath to call you If my mouth’s muzzled, I’ll use the tip of my nose to kiss you If my teeth are knocked out, I’ll use my toothless mouth to nip you If my hair’s torn out, I’ll use my bald head to nudge you If my eyes are plucked out, I’ll use my eye sockets to stare at you If my body’s injured, I’ll use my scent to enfold you If my heart’s crushed, I’ll use my nerves to remember you

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. She produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio, now celebrating her 35th year on the air.

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