Liu Xiaobo’s “June Fourth Elegies”

Reviewed by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Image of Liu Xiaobo’s “June Fourth Elegies”

Poetry charts a circular path to freedom for Chinese political activist and writer Liu Xiaobo. “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,” the poet writes in “Memories of a Wooden Plank,” on the twelfth anniversary of the 1989 Tian’anmen Massacre.  Powerless to narrate history as a public intellectual in his own country, Liu finds in poetry a force of resistance and an unlikely promise of solace.  “I’m still alive / with a name of some disrepute / I possess neither courage nor qualifications,” he confesses in the second elegy, “For 17.”  A year after writing those lines, Liu still believes poetry has a singular power to disarm.  As he concludes in the third elegy, “Suffocating City Square:”

This death-cast girl
has become a line of pure poetry
that surrenders all ideograms

While he was in jail, Liu Xiaobo corresponded with his wife, Liu Xia, by writing her poems.   Five of the poems he wrote her—“Daybreak,” “A Small Rat in Prison,” “Greed’s Prisoner,” “Longing to Escape,” and “One Letter Is Enough”—are published for the first time in the English-speaking world in this bilingual collection, June Fourth Elegies.  They appear in its final section, Five Poems for Liu Xia.  “From the Tremors of a Tomb” serves as an introduction, enabling us to situate his poetry within a historical context.  In this landmark essay, Liu Xiaobo revisits work from Li Sao (Departing in Sorrow), an ancient poem by Qu Yuan from the Warring States period to Lu Xun’s writings at the turn of the century during the May Fourth Movement.  He then addresses the social implications of Wang Shuo’s “hooligan literature,” a literary fashion that emerged in China during the 1980s.  In emblematic writings of “hooligan literature,” the rebellious “punk” is the hero in an exposé and satire of Beijing’s metropolitan underbelly.  Liu Xiaobo also traces the failed freedom in China since its Communist beginnings, and questions how he can work for the cause of democracy in his quotidian life without being merely concerned with “sublime abstractions” of “justice, human rights, freedom.”  Above all, he refuses to aestheticize or mythify the Tian’anmen Massacre— a resolve that characterizes the integrity of his poetry. 

What strikes me most about June Fourth Elegies is the longevity of the project, kept up over two decades: Liu Xiaobo’s ritualistic commitment to elegizing the Tian’anmen Massacre every year—to fighting against the collective amnesia of this historic tragedy.  The book’s dedication is telling: “To the activist group the Tiananmen Mothers and to those who can remember.”  However, the verb “remember” is not just an antidote for forgetting; it carries the burden of honesty in a culture where national consciousness is routinely thwarted by propaganda, Confucian asceticism, and a subdued inferiority complex.  This fight against amnesia—in word and in silence—endures over the span of years and against the formidable obstacles of prison life.  In the first elegy, “Experiencing Death,” written from the Qincheng Prison in June 1990, the poet grieves:

On Central Television News
my name’s changed to “arrested black-hand”
though those nameless white bones of the dead
still stand in the forgetting

Two years later, released from imprisonment, the poet wrote the fourth elegy, “From the Shattered Pieces of a Stone It Begins,” this time from his home in Beijing. Here he sounds a more introspective note to help ward off the forgetting:

Amazing how the forgetting
enables deathly ruins to be reborn
the fortunate nourished by the decomposed

(. . .)

In the brain-mass there’s one shoe
that cannot find the road to memory

In these elegies, intended as anniversary offerings, Liu Xiaobo creates a marginal space that defies but also transcends dissent and denunciation.  As a survivor, he lives in guilt and shame.  He speaks as a man, but writes as a ghost, hollowed out by what he’s had to endure.  Qui s’excuse, s’accuse: to the student victims of the tragedy, he mourns their sacrifice and the massacre of youth; to his kin and friends, he pledges his love and confesses his fears; to himself, he writes to engage in a difficult relationship with language, using self-examination to plumb the linguistic depths:

Bitter awakening
permeates each moment of desperation
suspended in the dark night
white-lily bloom an obscure haze
the fallen flowers of silent spring
lift me out of the abyss

Emotionally, June Fourth Elegies is a difficult read—not simply because the poems stir and disturb, but also because they remind us of our own damaged humanity.  In today’s political culture dominated by passive spectatorship, it would be a moral wrong to read these poems simply as “poems.”  In the lineage of Brecht, Neruda, and Akhmatova, Liu Xiaobo writes poetry from a place that knows the danger of poetry.  These lines have sprung from prison.  There is something more to their eloquence: the elegiac voice in his work brings alive feeling confessing to itself, to borrow the words of John Stuart Mill.  The possibility of catharsis hardly exists in Liu’s poems.  The departed souls whom he eulogizes year after year are forgotten, and he himself is in prison.  He cannot create freely, and often has to settle for a poetry that will go unheard.  As the title of his last elegy testifies, he fears—and at times, believes—that the June Fourth Massacre now exists, irremediably, in his own body and nowhere else:

The day
seems more and more distant
and yet for me it
remains a needle inside my body

(. . .)

This needle
that has stayed for so long round the heart’s periphery
is determined to plunge inside
and bring an end to all guilt
but then just before acting
it hesitates
not daring to move forward

Compared with the rough, coarse language of the original, the translation is somewhat embellished.  The result is a stylistic rendering of Liu Xiaobo’s plainspoken language, which at times can be physical—gnawing and piercing in its implications.  Liu Xiaobo is not a reticent poet; his language is biting even when his words do not bite.  In some places, the translation is literal; in instances that are more narrative-driven, it slides into ravines and gullies of interpretation.  Ultimately, it is subjective as to how far the translator interprets the spiritual weight of these verses.  Liu’s edgy literalness is displaced by small but inevitable measures.  The translator faces the particular challenge of locating Liu Xiaobo’s voice, and confronting its uncanny inner hold.  Determination and weathered experience—mottled by self-reproach, remorse, and questions of life and death—propel the original work, and make for a certain elegiac beauty in its English version.