An Alphabet of Poets – X is for Xiaobo


Over the tall ashen wall, between
the sound of vegetables being chopped
daybreak is bound and severed
dissipated by a paralysis of spirit

What is the difference
between the light and the darkness
that seems to surface through my eyes’
apertures, from the seat of rust
I can’t tell if it’s the glint of chains
in the cell, or the god of nature
behind the wall
The day’s dissidence
makes the arrogant
sun stunned to no end

Daybreak a vast emptiness
you in a far place with nights of love stored away.

Liu Xiaobo (1955- ) from June Fourth Elegies, translated by Jeffrey Yang, Cape Poetry,London ( and Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota), 2012

A chair not quite empty. Yet over-filled. Full with a prize but not the winner – Liu Xiaobo, recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.  When that image flashed across the world from the Nobel ceremony the idea of Xiaobo as a jailed Chinese political dissident, if not as a man, became real to me for the first time. But even then I was unaware of the other Xiaobo, the poet.

This humanitarian, non-violent activist and writer; this poet, this man. A man jailed numerous times and since 2009, serving a 11 year term for “incitement to subversion”. But his voice walks free, not just the voice of the polemicist but the voice of  the heart of a man still remembering the dead of Tiananmen Square, still free inside the love of his wife Liu Xia, a love achingly present in the love poem, Daybreak, written to her in 1997, long before his present incarceration. How it echoes the poems of Turkish writer Nazim Hikmet (see H for Hikmet) written from inside prison.

Here is another love poem, one of five included in June Fourth Elegies  which also includes twenty memorial elegies to commemorate each anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

Longing to Escape

Abandoning the imagined martyrdom
I long to lie at your feet, besides
being tied to death this is
my one duty
when the heart’s mirror-
clear, an enduring happiness

Your toes will not break
a cat closes in behind
you, I want to shoo him away
as he turns his head, extends
a sharp claw toward me
Deep within his blue eyes
there seems to be a prison
if I blindly step out
of with even the slightest step
I’d turn into a fish.

Knowing that Liu Xiaobo is again imprisoned, away from his wife, who is under house arrest, this poem has heartbreaking intensity. What are the cat’s eyes that capture him? What are the eyes, if he steps out of them, that would turn him into a fish and make him a wonderful treat for a cat? Is there a fear of losing his wife? Does it echo some lines written by Nazim Hikmet (1902 -1963) from his poem, Some Advice To Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison:

And, who knows
the woman you love may stop loving you.
Don’t say its no big thing:
it’s like the snapping of a green branch
                                              to the man inside.

How voices connect through time and different geographies. How so much is the same. Listen to more words of  Hikmet translated by Randy Blasing and Muthu Konuk from Some Advice:… These words were addressed to someone just like Liu Xiaobo:

It might not be a pleasure exactly,
but it’s your solemn duty
            to live out one more day
                               to spite the enemy.
Part of you may live alone inside,
                  like a stone at a bottom of a well.
But the other part
            must be so caught up
            in the flurry of the world
            that you shiver there inside
     when outside, at forty day’s distance, a leaf moves.

And from the poem’s end:

I mean, it’s not that you can’t pass
       ten or fifteen years inside,
                                      and more –
            you can,
            as long as the jewel
            on the left side of your chest doesn’t lose its luster!

As Liu Xiaobo keeps remembering June Fourth and writes poems to his wife he spites the enemy and he stays connected to the world from a forty day’s distance. And his poems, however astringent, suggest his jewel on the left side of [his] chest hasn’t lost its luster. Here is an excerpt from his elegy Standing in the Curse of Time with its epigraph:

Before dawn at the re-education through labour camp
     in Dalian, 4/6/1999
Tenth anniversary offering for 4/6

Now Part One:

Standing in the curse of time
the day seems so unfamiliar

Ten years ago this day’s
dawn: a bloody garment
sun: calendar torn to shreds
All eyes stop
at this single page
the world becomes a sorrowful indignant gaze
Time cannot tolerate the blameless
dead who resist and shout
until their throats turn to a dirt-
filled hoarseness

Grasping the iron bars of the cell
this very moment
I must howl with tears
so afraid I am of the next
moment now grief without tears
To remember the innocent dead
calmly stick a bayonet
into the eye’s centre
and use the price of blindness
to restore the brain’s snowbrightness
That bone-crushing marrow-sucking
memory which only by means of refusal
can be perfectly expressed

from June Fourth Elegies

Here are the first two parts from the eleventh anniversary elegy written when Liu Xiaobo was back home in Beijing:

For Su Bingxian


The sudden news of your passing
arrived in winter with a rare heavy snowfall
the draped the foulness of Beijing
in a temporary disguise
At Tiananmen Square an armed policeman on
watch used his leather boot to kick and break
apart a child’s snowman piled up on high

11 years ago
your child your son
was just like that snowman
smashed by the pure wretchedness of bullets
After the echoes of gunfire
fear spread throughout everyone’s minds
Surveillance devices also recorded
the wails and the weeping


Forbidden to grieve
Forbidden to recollect
Forbidden for the mother who lost her son
to visit the wife who lost her husband
Forbidden for the young paraplegic
sitting in a wheelchair, to receive
an arm of support for him to walk
forbidden for the widow
to receive a bouquet of flowers
Forbidden for the orphan
to be given a new book bag
Forbidden for warm hands to help
the wronged ghost with no home to return to
with just a handful of dirt to plant a green patch
Strictly forbidden for the few forlorn eyes left
to seek the executioners in their lawful hiding places
Forbidden forbidden forbidden forbidden…
11 years ago
it was forbidden for a drop of rain
to fall on this cracked tortoise-shell earth
11 years later
it is forbidden for the snowman the child piled
up to live out its brief life

from June Fourth Elegies

Famously known for his hunger strike and leadership role in the non-violent Democracy movement especially in the Spring of 1989 with the tragic events in Tiananmen Square and more recently for his part in drafting the infamous Charter 8 manifesto in 2008, Xiaobo joins a long list of poets and writers whose words got them jailed. Oh, how easy it is to forget that the best poems want to topple the status quo. Not just the emotional status quo but the political status quo. Could any of us Canadian poets be that brave? In this Xiaobo joins a long line of poets that includes Vallejo, Hikmet, Mandelestam, and Brodsky, to name just a few.

In 2000 Xiaobo wrote an essay in memory of June Fourth, 1989. It serves as the introduction to June Fourth Elegies. Fearless words:

Suffering is a natural resource: an individual, or nation, who refuses to forget could transform this natural resource into soul-ascending wealth. But in China, suffering has always been only a fishing-for-medals-straw natural resource, and very rarely transforms into wealth. So let us recognize our shame and guilt; let us ache with self-reflection; let us eradicate the repetition of suffering and resist anger; let us learn to concretely tend to the suffering of an individual, of our common citizens, with equality; let us learn how to live life with honour and dignity and a wealth of humanity.

Since this is a tribute to Liu Xiaobo the poet, here, in closing, is an excerpt from the thirteenth anniversary elegy. It is a stark reminder to all poets that all we have of substance is our remembering. May we remember our own personal and political June Fourths with such avidity as does Liu Xiaobo!


June Fourth, a tomb
an eyes-never-to-close-in-peace tomb
Beneath the forgetting and the terror
this day’s been buried
to memory and bravery
this day lives forever
It is an immortal stone
and though stone, can cry out
It is the grave’s wild grass growing eternal green
and though wild grass, it can take flight
The blade-tip that pierces the heart’s centre drips
with the blood of snowbright memory

From June Fourth Elegies

One Comment

  1. Posted May 25, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this illuminating post on Liu Xiaobo’s poetry. I hadn’t known he was a poet—and what depth in his poems! Pain, loss, but the strength of finding words to convey this.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *