by Jennifer Stern
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
Four Way Review is featuring Liu Xia’s work and this introduction alongside Bat City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poetry Northwest, Scoundrel Time, Tupelo Quarterly, and other publications in an effort to draw attention to the life and writing 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.
—for Xiaobo’s mother
Suddenly, you’re gone.
Two hours after entering
the hospital you took
your last breath.
This is the way you longed to die.
You did it, mother,
leaving us choking on blood.
When the call came with the news
we were drinking with friends,
and I was reading a poem by Kevin Hart
called “Praying for the Dead.”
I saw you for the last time at the funeral home.
You seemed tiny in the new clothes,
your face caked with makeup.
I was afraid you would turn into a doll,
one of the dolls possessed by rage
in my photographs.
I wanted to run out
but Xiaobo took my hand firmly.
I couldn’t even move.
I know you never liked me.
All along you suspected I had planned
everything: your son imprisoned,
his refusal to live with you in Dalian,
and even your illnesses—
all my fault.
You couldn’t stand my laugh.
You asked me to leave.
The first time I went to your house
it was full of plastic sheets and bags.
The sofa, mattress, carpet, heater, the drawers,
and even the cutting board and kettle
were covered or filled with plastic.
I couldn’t breathe.
You looked lonely in your plastic house
as a queen.
Every month during the three years
when Xiaobo was in that Dalian prison,
I had to bite my tongue
to enter your territory.
Each time, with a sawtooth voice,
you said to me, “You don’t need to come again.
I’m his mother. I will take care of everything.”
As for the things I brought from Beijing—you
didn’t bother to take a look.
I couldn’t make you soft.
The ocean of Dalian wore me down.
For a year and half
I couldn’t see Xiaobo,
so I asked you humbly
“Mother, how is Xiaobo doing?”
You said he lost weight
so I tried to find nutritious foods.
You said his face was terribly swollen
so I sought medical advice from everywhere.
You said he was getting too fat
so I told him in a letter
not to add sugar when making powdered milk.
Under your magic wand
I moved around desperately.
You were always right,
and I had to tolerate you.
I tried to be a well-behaved daughter-in-law.
I gave you new clothes, cotton socks,
and gold bracelets, but you put them aside,
When I offered to take you out to eat, you said
the food was poisoned.
There was one thing you didn’t reject,
the medicine I brought you.
You liked taking medicine
more than any food in the world.
Your pickled veggie pot
was full of worms.
so many plastic sheets separated us.
Love for the same man
split us apart.
We couldn’t get close to each other.
When we needed each other’s comfort
we became enemies.
One day you came back from the prison
and talked to yourself:
“Let Xiaobo die. Done with it.”
From that moment on I didn’t
need to hide my hate.
You are finally gone.
Those plastic bags are in the trash.
I don’t pray for reconciliation,
but you appear regularly
in the shadows.
Xiaobo was startled by you in his dreams—
you were moaning helplessly.
You’ve forgotten to take your dentures
which are biting me,
making me doubt
if this is the right ending.
please do not block the light
that illuminates my pen.
Let these words survive.
Let me finish reading
“Praying for the Dead.”