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from the November 2015 issue: Cambodia: Angkor to Year Zero and Beyond

Liu Xia’s “Empty Chairs”

Reviewed by Lizzie Tribone

Poet and photographer Liu Xia lives amongst dolls in her poetry collection, Empty Chairs. Under house arrest and panoptically watched by the People’s Republic of China in the wake of the incarceration of her husband, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, for “subversion of the state,” Liu’s collection resides in a place of isolation, a place brimming with shadows, specters, and half-issued words. It is from this interval of confinement­­––a purgatorial lull––that her poems, written from 1983 to 2003, arrive.

Liu deals primarily in the domestic sphere and also displays an intense interiority that results in moments of surrealism, even hallucination. For instance, dolls—a motif also present in many of her black-and-white photographs—come to represent aborted adulthood, overripe adolescence: they are domestic objects that have outlasted their stay and, as a result, become nodes onto which Liu projects her own muted delirium. In “Silent Strength,” Liu imagines a doll turning her head back to her “to stare out of the window for a while.” Such imaginings reoccur throughout many of her poems; her habituation to silence elicits fictive images, fragrances, and conspiracies.

In “Chaos,” Liu admits she wishes “to be tapped on the head and feel pain” because without such awakening pain, she becomes enveloped in chaos: “Strange shadows are everywhere / and everywhere there are traps. / I’m no longer the owner of this room, / I’ve been looted.” Later in her collection, she expresses the urge to meet death, so long as it can be felt. In “A Grapefruit,” this fruit provides a welcome surrogate demise: she wants “to be a grapefruit / cut by a knife or bitten apart” so much so that for the entirety of winter, she had “been doing one thing repeatedly–– / peeling grapefruits one after another / absorbing the nutrients of my own death.”

Many of Liu’s poems are episodic, beginning with lines such as “an aging woman is pushing / a baby stroller,” or “the ruddy man goes fishing and catches / your favorite fish.” Her reliance on sparse language tends toward a documentary style––the fact that many of her poems are dedicated to friends and family members—such as Xiaobo, his mother, and a friend named WB—confirms that Liu’s poetry approximates her lived experiences and, therefore, acts almost as an archive. While her experiences tend toward the imaginative, the content of her poems include the mundanities of dinner parties, familial memories, and waking in the morning with a dream on the tip of memory.

While her poems are deeply personal, they reveal an ever-present awareness of the perils of relentlessly pursuing art in the midst of an authoritarian government. In this way, she recalls––and carries on––the genesis of modern Chinese poetry, which is often regarded as beginning with the May Fourth Movement and the subsequent acceptance of vernacular Chinese as a literary medium. In “Game,” Liu describes herself as both “lucid as a god,” capable of transforming thought into verse, and yet “sees another [of herself] / playing a dangerous game / in the human world.” “The human world” can easily be transposed with the political world, in which every machination is subject to top-down scrutiny. Yet, she continues to coax danger in order to claim a voice of her own, which was largely elided, or at least overlooked, by Xiaobo’s act of presumed state subversion. She writes, “I didn’t have a chance / to say a word before you became a character in the news, … / I was worn down / at the edge of the crowd.” While the extent of Liu’s knowledge concerning the reception of her poetry is largely unclear––in the afterword, translators Ming Di and Jennifer Stern discuss the frustration they felt over the fact that they could never contact Liu herself during the process of translation––and a ban was placed on her work in China as of 1989, Liu continues to record her experiences with precision, and this act of merely remembering is vital in a nation bent on repressing its past.

While all nations involve both remembering and forgetting, the politics of amnesia operate particularly poignantly in the People’s Republic of China, as illustrated in Louisa Lim’s recent The People’s Republic of Amnesia. The Tiananmen Square incident involved the effacement of human rights and the brutal use of violence against civilians, yet because it also preluded China’s intense industrialization and modernization, the incident has collectively been forgiven by means of its erasure from memory. For instance, Lim describes a scene in which she finds herself in Tiananmen Square not amongst fellow intellectuals or protestors but­­, on the contrary, citizens dutifully witnessing the daily flag-raising ceremony. Yet for many such as Liu, the consequences of Tiananmen’s violence and suppression are still alive and well. Xiaobo sided with the wrong side, from the state’s point of view, during Tiananmen and hardly salvaged his repute when he subsequently co-authored Charter 08, which was no less than a call for the PRC to end one-party rule. Politics being personal, Liu Xia was unduly affected by Liu Xiaobo’s “subversive” acts, which she hopefully refers to as “a new myth”––possibly a counter-myth to the state’s––in “June 2nd, 1989.” In Empty Chairs, she claims a renewed stake in this newfound myth. Referring to the late Shang dynasty practice of oracle bone engraving––which served as a form of divination—in “Speechless,” Liu declares, “In silent recitation, / I carve lines on my bones.” Thus, deprived of full freedom and with her everyday life economized by the state, Liu subtly militates against forgetting with each poem.

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