Friday, July 6, 2012


Liu Xiaobo


The most painful thing about translating this collection was not being able to consult with Liu Xiaobo or Liu Xia — the former serving hos eleven-year prison sentence, the latter under strict house arrest. It was an unnerving, unsettling experience to think of Liu Xiaobo's isolation while fiddling with his ruptured lines from the tomb. My study is a room with open doors and windows, my country a democracy of drone planes killing Pakistani and Afghani villagers, a democracy of more prisoners than any other nation, of privatized prisons, people directly used for private and public profit. And there the walls of Angel Island, there Guantanamo. China, meanwhile, holds around a trillion dollars in US bonds. Or elsewhere consider the artist Owen Maseko who was recently arrested in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, for organizing an art exhibition around the memory of the Gukurahundi Massacre. Or the circle of Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring. Where does the code of signals lead to and through? Toward what reckonings and reconciliations? There is no ground here for self-righteousness to root. The only conversation I could have with Liu was through his poems, through the verb of translation, thinking of what I thought he might say to a certain translation choice along the way.

Jeffrey Yang

from translator's afterword
June 2011


Experiencing Death

Qincheng Prison, June 1990
First anniversary offering for 6/4


Monument waves of weeping
marble grain fused with blood-stained veins
Belief and youth beaten beneath
a tank's rust-chained treads
Ancient story of the East
leaks out new hope unexpectedly

The glorious crowds have little by little disappeared
like a river that slowly, steadily dries away
landscape on both shores transformed to stone
Every throat has been strangled by fear, every
trembling has traced the dissipated niter smoke
Only the executioner's steel
helmet glints, luminous glints


I cannot recognize the flag anymore
The flag like an unknowing child
who's flung upon Mother's corpse
returns home weeping
I cannot tell day from night anymore
Time has been petrified by gunshots
like a paralytic without memory
Gun's muzzle presses into my back
I've lost my passport and identity card

Into the bayonet-inflamed dawn
that once familiar world
cannot find a handful of dirt
to bury itself in

Naked red heart
collides with iron and steel
Earth without water without greenness
ravaged by sunlight


They wait and wait
wait for time to invent an exquisite lie
wait for the transformation of the bestial hour
Indeed, wait until
fingers transform to sharpened claws
eyes transform to a gun's mouth
feet transform to chained treads
air transforms to a command
It arrives
at last it arrives
the five-thousand-year awaited command

Open fire—kill people
kill people—open fire
Peaceful petition, hands unarmed
as old man's cane, a child's torn jacket
The executioner will never be swayed
Eyes burnt to red
Gun-barrels shot to red
Hands dyed red
A bullet
A mud-thick secret spills out
A crime
A kind of heroic fast

How relaxing
death's arrival
How easy
bestial desires are satisfied
Young soldiers
recently clothed in uniform
still haven't felt
the intoxication of a girl's kiss
but now in an instant
experience the bloodthirsty pleasure
of murder, their youth's beginnings

They who
cannot see the blood-soaked dress
cannot hear the struggle's scream
through steel helmets cannot perceive life's fragility
They aren't aware
of the fatuous old man
transforming the ancient capital
into another zone of Auschwitz

Brutality, inquiry rise up from the earth
like the splendor of a pyramid
while life crumbles into the abyss
where even the faintest echo cannot be heard
The massacre has engraved a nation's tradition
years, months as remote as an abandoned language
that enacts a final farewell


I had imagined being there beneath sunlight
with the procession of martyrs
using just the one thin bone
to uphold a true conviction
And yet, the heavenly void
will not plate the sacrificed in gold
A pack of wolves well-fed full of corpses
celebrate in the warm noon air
a flood with joy

Faraway places
I've exiled my life to
this place without sun
to flee the era of Christ's birth
I cannot face the blinding vision of the cross
From a wisp of smoke to a little heap of ash
I've drained the drink of the martyrs, sense spring's
about to break into the brocade-brilliance of myriad flowers

Deep in the night, empty road
I'm biking home
I stop at a cigarette stand
A car follows me, crashes over my bicycle
some enormous brutes seize me
I'm handcuffed eyes covered mouth gagged
thrown into a prison van heading nowhere

A blink, a trembling instant passes
to a flash of awareness: I'm still alive
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
I'm listed up high by the self-invented lie
tell everyone how I've experienced death
so that "black hand" becomes a hero's medal of honor

Even if I know
death's a mysterious unknown
being alive, there's no way to experience death
and once dead
cannot experience death again
yet I'm still
hovering within death
a hovering in drowning
Countless nights behind iron-barred windows
and the graves beneath starlight
have exposed my nightmares

Beside a lie
I own nothing


Liu Xiaobo
translated from the Chinese by Jeffrey Yang
(Graywolf Press 2012)

Chinese poet, literary critic, writer, professor, and human rights activist who called for political reforms and the end of communist single-party rule in China — Liu Xiaobo (b. December 28 1955) is currently incarcerated as a political prisoner in China.

He has served from 2003 to 2007 as President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, an organization funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, which in turn is almost entirely funded by the US Congress. On 8 December 2008, Liu was detained because of his participation with the Charter 08 manifesto. He was formally arrested on 23 June 2009 on suspicion of "inciting subversion of state power." He was tried on the same charges on 23 December 2009, and sentenced to eleven years' imprisonment and two years' deprivation of political rights on 25 December 2009.

While in his fourth prison term, Liu was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for "his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China." He is the first Chinese citizen to be awarded a Nobel Prize of any kind while residing in China. Liu is the third person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison or detention, after Germany's Carl von Ossietzky (1935) and Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi (1991). Liu is also the second person (the first being Ossietzky) to be denied the right to have a representative collect the Nobel prize for him.

(wikipedia & other)