The Lonely Word: Three Poems by Liu Xia

Since 2010, Chinese security agents have kept artist and poet Liu Xia imprisoned in her Beijing home, isolating her from friends and allowing her only occasional, chaperoned forays into the outside world. In early 2014, agents accompanied her twice to a hospital, where she was admitted with heart attack-like symptoms and acute depression, international news reports say. She has not been charged with any crime. Her incarceration was triggered when her husband, Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an eleven-year jail term for antistate crimes related to his writing and political activism, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Words Without Borders has published three of her earlier poems this issue. It would be anachronistic to view them through the prism of Liu Xia’s current circumstances. Yet while she is a largely apolitical artist, imprisonment has been a persistent theme in her life with Liu Xiaobo, who spent several months behind bars in the 1990s for participating in pro-democracy demonstrations that led to the 1989 military crackdown in Tiananmen Square. The couple even married in a labor camp where he was serving time in 1996. In the context of these recurring experiences, the poems’ images of repetition and cyclical change convey an ominous sense of agitation and inevitability, rather than the hope and renewal they might otherwise evoke. In “A Grapefruit” (1999), for example, the poet peels grapefruits “one after another” throughout winter, but is nourished, not for spring, but for her own death.

Death and suffering infuse the poems, and they are not necessarily a source of fear. In “Word” (1995), the poet is envious of the titular word, which bears the characteristics (“pain and screaming”) of a terminal patient, but which is also “lethal.” In “A Grapefruit,” where pain is contrastingly “quiet,” Xia wants to embody the fruit, “cut/ by a knife or bitten by teeth.” In a poem which withholds the reward of consuming a ready-peeled citrus fruit, this longing to be subjected to pain is particularly poignant. In Chinese, “eating bitterness” is an idiom for long-endured suffering, and comes with a corollary, the eventual taste of sweetness. While Liu Xia’s grapefruit “smells bitter,” it is never actually eaten; both bitter and sweet are denied. In this way, she presents suffering as an ever-present threat, always impending but never undergone. It is anticipation, not experience itself, which leads the poet to “rot,” like an “unpicked fruit.” Written over a decade before Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel win, “A Grapefruit” nevertheless captures the stress of existence under a regime with the power to place lives arbitrarily on hold.

“One Bird and Another” (1983) dates from another era entirely, when Xia and Xiaobo were just friends, and Tiananmen was six years in the future. It is longer and more descriptive than the later examples printed here, but showcases many of the same preoccupations. One is speech and writing, which, as in “Word,” can be both powerful and powerless. In the first stanza of “One Bird,” which opens with the storyteller’s classic “Once upon a time,” a couple summons a bird “from nowhere” by talking about it. But from then on, it becomes elusive. In the second stanza, the bird’s presence is marked only by a shadow “printed” on glass. After that, the couple falls silent, not daring to talk. Far from conjuring the absent bird, speech now threatens to drive it permanently away. The conundrum is finally expressed in the penultimate stanza. The couple, formerly “we” throughout, separate into “you” and “I.” The division between them is further stressed by their respective failures of expression. The man “cannot write a word,” while the woman cannot unbutton her shirt; her body—already dressed—resembles the piece of paper on the desk which is already “pre-written,” thwarting her attempt to try on the new blouse the couple purchased together earlier in the poem. Creativity, in these images, seems to have broken down, yet the poem concludes with a glimpse of its first product: That bird, or another bird, remains tantalizingly close.  

Writing earlier this year for the Independent Chinese PEN Center, the Chinese writer Liao Yiwu remembered his first impression of this poem, and of Liu Xia herself as a bird, chirping with laughter in her high, birdcagelike apartment in Beijing during a 1983 visit. The image is at once joyful and full of foreboding, presaging as it does her later captivity. The structure described in “One Bird and Another” is full of thresholds—a closed window, a porch, an open door. These offer the possibility of connection between the inside and outside spaces, but also ultimately separate them, like a wicker cage.    

Can words cross these thresholds, and offer a form of escape to those in confinement? In many ways, the very fact that we can read these words is testament to the power of literature, and of translation itself. Liu Xia’s Internet and phone connections are frequently severed, yet the world can hear her voice through her poems. Her supporters even managed to release a moving video of her reading some of her work aloud in January. But the communication remains one-sided. What can we say back?

The poet is left in the company of words themselves, and in these poems, that’s a mixed blessing. In the brief, enigmatic “Word,” she seems to find solace in a “lonely word” that “peeks” at her—but not playfully; rather like a shadowy “conspiracy.” It “takes” the poet, appearing to promise a kind of rescue or release. Perhaps, as it “flies up,” it carries her aloft too, or at least fills her with inspiration. But there is also the possibility that what the word has “taken” is the poet’s strength, while she remains enviously behind.

This apparent ambivalence about the act of expression is understandable in the context of her husband’s imprisonment. Charter 08, a political manifesto Liu Xiaobo helped to draft and which attracted hundreds of signatories, was the catalyst for his detention in 2008. But during his trial the following year, extracts from his online essays were produced as evidence against him, a tactic Chinese authorities have used for years to imprison critics. Ironically, thanks to Chinese censorship of political activism on the web, some of these essays reached just a few dozen readers. Liu Xia’s poems reflect a reality where writing can be punished as well as rewarded, leaving her readers to ask themselves: Will words ensnare us? Or set us free?

(c) 2014 Madeline Earp. All rights reserved.