Ravi Shankar reviews Empty Chairs by Liu Xia

Empty Chairs

by Liu Xia. Translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern; Introduction by Liao Yiwu; Foreword by Herta Müller

Graywolf Press, 2015

ISBN 978-1-5559772-5-2

Reviewed by RAVI SHANKAR

On April 1st, 2018—that rare conjunction of Easter Sunday with April Fool’s day in the West—Chinese painter, photographer and poet Liu Xia celebrated her 57th birthday as she has every single year since 2010: under house arrest. Better known as the wife of the late Liu Xiaobo, the dissident Chinese academic who was jailed for the last years of his life after co-authoring Charter 08 (that seminal manifesto meant to emulate Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 by making a public case for basic civil rights, democracy, and freedom in China, and written on the approach of the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy student protesters, of which he had once been one), Liu Xia is a formidable and too-little-known literary figure in her own right. All of that changes with the publication of Empty Chairs (Graywolf, 2015), a bilingual translation of her selected poems, translated muscularly from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern and with a foreword by German Nobel Prize Laureate, Herta Müller.

As a poet and activist, Liu Xia is someone whose courageous work in the face of overt repression makes her a kind of 21st century Anna Akhmatova. When her husband, sentenced to 11 years in jail for incitement to subvert state power, won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China,” he was barred from attending the awards ceremony and instead was represented on stage by an empty chair. Thorbjoern Jagland, chairman of the Nobel committee, placed that year’s medal and citation on a vacant blue upholstered seat, which then became such a powerful metaphor for the fight against despotism and suppression of freedom everywhere, that Chinese internet censors forbade the posting of photos or even drawings of empty chairs on its social media platforms. But there was never just one empty chair.

As Shayna Bauchner writes for Human Rights Watch, “in her remarks for a 2009 award ceremony honoring her husband, Liu Xia wrote, “I am not a vassal of Liu Xiaobo.” Yes, she has played an inextricable role in the chronicle of her husband’s imprisonment and his global prominence as a face of Chinese dissidence. She has been his artistic collaborator, one of his few visitors in prison, and, with his death, the bearer of his legacy. But no one should lose sight of her singular status as a fiercely independent advocate, an elegiac storyteller, and an enduring survivor of the seven-year isolation imposed on her by the Chinese government. Liu Xia has been held in unlawful house arrest since October 2010 “…detained without charge or trial, she has been stripped of communication with the outside world and denied adequate medical care.” Or as Ye Du, a writer and longstanding friend attested to more succinctly in an interview for The Guardian, “Liu Xia has been physically and mentally destroyed.”

So while her plight has become something of a cause célèbre among writers and intellectuals (recently in November 2017, over 50 international authors, including Chimamanda Adichie, Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Tom Stoppard, Louise Erdrich, Stephen Sondheim and George Saunders wrote a letter to Chinese president Xi Jinping appealing to his sense of conscience and compassion to release Liu Xia; unsurprisingly the letter went unanswered and unheeded), her poetry has not been widely read — nor indeed has it been widely available — in the English-speaking world. In part, this might be due to her growing reputation as a visual artist, a sensibility that helps illuminate the stark shape of her poems; but doubtlessly, in large part, it’s also due to the simple fact that she’s a woman. Earlier in her life, she was eclipsed in her marriage by Liu Xiaobo’s fame and persecution; then later in life, she was overtly censored by the State just for having chosen to be with him, even though she insists she is apolitical. In neither case was she given a choice; or a voice.

An early poem “June 2nd, 1989” attests to the nature of her relationship to her husband, who had just been jailed for the first time after the protests at Tiananmen Square. Dedicated to Xiaobo, the poem reads:

This isn’t good weather
I said to myself
standing under the lush sun.

Standing beside you
I patted your head
and your head pricked my palm
making it strange to me.

I didn’t have a chance
to say a word before you became a character
in the news, everyone looking up to you
as I was worn down
at the edge of a crowd.
just smoking
and watching the sky.

A new myth, maybe, was forming there,
but the sun’s sharp light
blinded me from seeing it.

If one of the techniques of the Chinese Misty Poets was the deployment of hermetic, obscurantist imagery as a response against the Maoist aesthetic of social realism, then one of the remarkable things about Liu Xia’s work is how she manages to reconnect with plain-spoken, vernacular language without losing any of the philosophical complexity or subversive power of her male counterparts. Ezra Pound that early exponent and translator (although, ‘transliterator’ or ‘re-creator’ might be the more apt designation, considering that Pound not only didn’t know the source language, but that his understanding of its very structure was misinformed by Ernest Fenollosa’s unpublished scholarly papers, which formed the basis of his 1915 collection, Cathay) defined an image as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” and it’s hard to conjure a better example than in that first stanza.

First, we are struck by the speaker’s interiority; though this is a poem dedicated to a beloved, the poem opens with an internal conversation (“I said to myself”). Next, we realize the oddity of the perspective; someone standing under a lush sun yet nonetheless laments the weather? There’s both emotion and intellect here and the image resonates on both the literal and the figurative plane, especially when we read the next stanza, which introduces the beloved “you”.  Unlike the sun, which the speaker stands under, she stands beside her beloved, a telling detail that gets at their love and mutuality. Yet the speaker still doesn’t like the weather from where she stands; she pats her husband’s head in that time-honored conciliatory gesture (far be it for him to comfort her) and feels pricked in return by his head, which suddenly feels foreign.

Ostranenie is the theory of estrangement or de-familiarization developed by the Russian literary theorist Victor Shklovsky. A neologism, it implies both the action of pushing aside and that of making strange; for art, the theory goes, to reach its maximal empathic level, it needs to shift the borders of ordinary perception until the quotidian becomes queer again. Liu Xia’s poem embodies this concept, for the speaker’s beloved’s head, that intimate, well-known corporeal organ, suddenly transforms itself into something that pricks the palm. The subsequent stanza further deepens the connotation of this alienation through a masterful metamorphosis.

I don’t read Mandarin, but I can only trust Ming Di and Jennifer Stern when they write in their translator’s note that they talked “through a way to remain true to impossibly collapsed dichotomies, to a person who we feel like we know but don’t. We have tried to remain true to what we value in the work, to what’s rooted in the gutted and stark political present in China, and in the loving, friendly, funny, insightful and engaged voice.” This book reaps the fruits of that dialogue and to that list of adjectives, I’d also add “dry” and “devastating” for her use of biting understatement. “I didn’t have a chance / to say a word before you became a character / in the news, everyone looking up to you / as I was worn down / at the edge of a crowd / just smoking / and watching the sky.”

This is an Ovidian transformation, for the beloved, whose head the speaker was just rubbing, has suddenly become, through exposure to public consciousness, a character (in all senses of that word), which moves him into proximity with the lush sun and far from her, worn down and receding in the face of the anonymous masses. It’s doubly heart-breaking in that though she’s the one who suffers, she’s nonetheless also the one who has to console him (and in time will have to care-take his memory). The last stanza, alludes to this possibility in brilliantly tying the poem together: “A new myth, maybe, was forming there, / but the sun’s sharp light / blinded me from seeing it.”

I love this provisional quality of Liu Xia’s work. The “maybe” in that moment is like the uncertainties in Marianne Moore. Her soulmate was turning into both newsprint and martyr before her very eyes, and his life (and her own life, though she might not have fully realized it then) had stopped belonging to him. It had become an instrument of the state or a tool for counter-propaganda, but that warm head she has cradled so many nights was changing into something else and she was powerless to stop it. That’s the fundamental heartbreak that infuses so many of these poems, and even though they are starkly quiet verbal artifacts, they nonetheless radiate such volumes of anguish and mortal heat.

Nearly ten years later, Liu Xiaobo was detained for writing an open letter advocating for human rights and then sentenced in 1996 to three more years in prison. During this time, Liu Xia would make routine camp visits, famously announcing to the guards that she wanted “to marry that enemy of the state!” Eventually they did get married, while Liu Xiaobo was still imprisoned, and held their banquet in the prison canteen.  Their love story is truly one of the great love stories of our time.

It was during this time that Liu Xia composed some of the poems that constitute the middle section of Empty Chairs and one in particular, “Nobody Sees Me,” expresses an austere existentialism. The poem begins, “Nobody sees me / helpless. / I’m not being cursed. I’m just easily / attracted to unattainable things — / things that reject me, / that are outside what’s real.” The baldness of that declaration, without blame, lacking remorse, is astonishing. It’s a matter-of-fact embrace of the human condition that even Beckett might have admired. The poem continues:

My life steals from me.
I believe in a life that is an absurd
fantasy and is also hyperreal,
a life that hides behind death masks
and looming shadows.

I see a shadow walking on death’s path–
slowly, rhythmically,
calmly. Nobody
speaks a word.
I wave–nobody
sees me.

My life steals from me. Just for that line, readers should be jostling for Liu Xia’s insight. Often in her work, she will bifurcate herself, disassociating mind from body, or spirit from stasis, and she does so again here, seeing in herself “a shadow walking on death’s path.” Her greeting, like her predicament, falls on blind eyes, as the world has turned her into a perpetual Persephone, doomed to be a shade in the underworld. It’s telling, therefore, that the other writers and artists she calls out to and finds kinship with in this book were equally misunderstood and driven to madness in their own time: Van Gogh, Kafka, Nijinsky and Marguerite Duras. “The words emerge from her body without her realizing it,” Marguerite Duras wrote in Summer Rain and she could have been describing Liu Xia, “as if she were being visited by the memory of a language long forsaken.”

Indeed, in Empty Chairs, certain tropes and images recur obsessively throughout the book. Cigarettes, dolls and birds populate poem after poem. As the late American poet Richard Hugo advises us in his book Triggering Town, “don’t be afraid to take emotional possession of words,” and Liu Xia takes that advice, which it’s unlikely she ever heard, straight to heart. Seemingly banal, when these motifs recur, something extraordinary starts to happen; the objects begin to take on a powerful symbolic weight that transcends their literal shape in the world. The dolls and cigarettes become totemic while the poems themselves grow more airless and claustrophobic, qualities that evoke the very conditions of living under house arrest. It’s amazing that these images so insistently thread through 30 years of her poetry.

The dolls tie back to Liu Xia’s photography of what she called “ugly babies.” During a period of domestic confinement with her husband, Liu Xia took hundreds of photos of expressive, disfigured dolls that have become representative of the suffering faced by the Chinese people in general. Discovered by French writer Guy Sorman when he was visiting Liu Xia in Beijing, the photographs, captured on a tiny Russian camera and developed by turning her kitchen into a darkroom, toured the world in an exhibit called “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia” (taken from the title of one of her poems). It was an exhibition that Liu Xia would never know about, as her contact with the outside world has been effectively cut off.

As Sorman writes about these extraordinary photos, “Nearly all of the photos are taken with this old camera, without lights, in their apartment. And she’s able to build all these dramatic stories and metaphors with [such] limited technical resources. I think it is this contradiction which makes the photos really impressive.” Although Sorman is discussing her photography here, he might as well be analyzing her poems, for the same principles hold true in both cases. I don’t know if Liu Xia has limited technical resources in poetry (I would seriously doubt it, given how well-crafted her work seems to be in translation), but I do know that she intentionally chooses a simplified vocabulary, without any of the lavish opacity or numinous lyricism of her contemporaries, like Xi Chuan or Ouyang Jianghe (whose own selected poems, Notes on the Mosquito and Doubled Shadows respectively, the first translated by Lucas Klein and the second by Austin Woerner, are both well worth reading). In a certain way, her spare, harrowing poems resemble Paul Celan’s love affair with silence, in that the less they say, the more substantial the unsaid becomes. This ultimately is Liu Xia’s masterstroke; condemned by the Chinese state to silence, she uses her silence against them.

The final poem in the collection “How it Stands” crystallizes this stance, practiced over the years into a way of being. In it, as in earlier poems, the speaker is split in half and like the metaphysical poets of the 17th century did, she engages in a dialogue with herself.

Is it a tree?
It’s me, alone.
Is it a winter tree?
It’s always like this, all year round.

Aren’t you tired of being a tree your whole life?
Even when exhausted, I want to stand.

The Surrealist anthropomorphism is tempered by Buddhist reconciliation in these lines; and the poem is just heart-breaking. Leafless, bird-less, rooted in one spot, the poet provides a vision of a life that no human being should endure. It’s the kind of human rights abuse that trumps any technological or economic progress a country might make. In this final poem in Liu Xia’s Empty Chairs, the barren tree becomes yet another empty chair, another reminder of all of those people around the world without basic freedoms and civil liberties, even when their only crime might be using language or making art. Though the Chinese government would rather crush her and erase her husband’s memories, this vital collection of poems is an indication of the resilience of our human spirit, which cannot be silenced. There’s great sorrow in her work, but also remarkable strength, and with Graywolf’s publication of Empty Chairs, we are given renewed hope that her and her husband’s love story and alarming martyrdom will never be forgotten.
RAVI SHANKAR is author/editor of a dozen books, including most recently The Golden Shovel: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks and Autobiography of a Goddess, translations of the 9th century Tamil poet/saint, Andal, and winner of the Muse India Translation Prize. He founded the online journal of arts Drunken Boat, has won a Pushcart Prize and a RISCA artist grant, has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, on NPR, the BBC and PBS, received fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony and been interviewed and translated into over 10 languages. His The Many Uses of Mint: New and Selected Poems 1997-2017 will be out in Australia with Recent Works Press in 2018.