Scoundrel Time

Poems by Liu Xia, With An Introduction From Her Translator

Where is Liu Xia?

This is how you try to erase a person after he’s died: you delete all mentions of him. You ban the phrase R.I.P. on blogs. You arrest those who mourn him. You spread his ashes out in the ocean where no memorial can be built. You take his wife, the woman who now stands for him, and make her disappear.

This woman is the poet and artist Liu Xia.

The past few weeks have been devastating for her and for all of us who care about human rights in China. Liu Xia’s husband, Liu Xiaobo, died on July 13th from cancer he was diagnosed with in prison. He was an activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, poet, deeply human in his writing, and deeply symbolic of the fight for democracy in China. He died of what many are calling “political murder” under guard, and unable to leave the hospital chosen for him, far from all of his friends and family, save Liu Xia. There in the hospital, it is believed, Liu Xia was allowed to touch her husband for the first time in seven years.

Liu Xia did not choose to be a political figure. She is an artist who fell in love with a poet she hung out with at salons she often hosted. She writes about Kafka and strange dreams and birds and smoking and her mother-in-law and Nijinsky and her brother and language and watching her beloved transform from man to figure and back again.

Liu Xia was placed under house arrest when Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then she’s been trapped in her home, barely allowed visitors or phone calls or guarded trips to the store. She hasn’t been able to sit with a friend and hear her own voice in response to another’s. Under house arrest, her health has deteriorated, and those few friends who’ve spoken with her say that the vibrant, specific woman they knew has become fragile, and is on the verge of breaking apart. Liu Xia was never accused of a crime. She was punished to punish her husband and as a lesson to a nation. And now no one knows where she is. No one knows where the Chinese government is hiding her.

Many of us here read and write poems to know that we exist and that we are entwined with others through an art form that exists all over the world. Liu Xia is one of us, a poet. I wish there was one way to stop the erasure of a human, but I don’t think there is. Yet we can do this: read Liu Xia’s poems. They exist. We can enjoy them, or not. We can argue with them. We can pass them on to a friend and say, “Read this, this poet exists.” We can teach her poems or keep them for ourselves. We exist. And because of that, Liu Xia’s poems can speak even when her voice can’t be heard. I want to believe that it’s harder to erase this person, specific in her words and life, when we’re in the middle of a conversation.

Jennifer Stern, co-translator of Liu Xia’s poems

Scoundrel Time is featuring Liu Xia’s poems and this introduction alongside Bat City Review, Four Way Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poetry Northwest, Tupelo Quarterly, and other publications in an effort to draw attention to the life and work of the poet Liu Xia at this critical moment. The poems, translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, are reprinted from Empty Chairs: Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2015) with the permission of the translators and Graywolf Press.


One Night

A needle fell into the night.
Organs split.
During that soft, clear night,
unexpected pain
caused facial spasms.

A woman sat by the lamp
outside of her sleep desperately
waving her hands in the air.
Emptiness slipped between
her slender fingers.
All the words about darkness fled,
as her hands projected shadows on the wall
then deformed like cut paper.

Only the sleepless cat inside her
cried out in her blood, its eyes beaming
like snow.

The woman fighting nothing, in
the end, was engulfed with her words by
the nothing between her fingers.

A comet called Hale-Bopp
flew mystery across
the night sky.



Nothing to Say

The woman who lives next door sits
in the courtyard all day, staring straight
ahead. No one knows why.
At night or when it rains
a daughter might help her in.
If the daughter forgets or doesn’t exist,
the woman might stay in the yard
all night, motionless
regardless of weather.

Neighbors say
this woman loved a man,
had his child and,
after he went missing,
she went mad.
Now the war is over.
No one has seen her
in the yard for days.
The daughter, too, has disappeared.

In the dark
the woman holds her hands to her face
for a long time,
the daughter lies in bed
eyes closed tight.

In the end, the house catches on fire
finishing it all.
That’s the only ending she can tolerate.

Above the ruins
the sunlight is blaring.



Translated by Jennifer Stern and Ming Di


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