Poems by Liu Xiaobo, translated by Jeffrey Yang, read by Paul Auster

I’ve mentioned Liu Xiaobo before. The renowned literary critic, writer, and political activist was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in 1989 when he decided to return to China to support the pro-democracy movement. He staged a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square and led calls for a broad-based, sustainable democratic movement. He helped prevent further bloodshed by supporting and advancing a call for non-violence.

He spent two years in prison for his troubles, and three years of “reeducation through labor” beginning in 1996 after he publicly questioned the role of the single-party system and called for dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama of Tibet.

More recently, he co-authored Charter 08, a declaration calling for political reform that has been signed by hundreds of individuals from all walks of life throughout China. He was detained in December of last year and formally arrested in June, charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison. Liu Xia, his wife, has only been permitted to visit him twice.

Friends of Liu gave some of his poems to Larry Siems and Sarah Hoffman, who have been spearheading PEN American Center’s China Campaign, last year, and for the most recent issue of PEN America, the excellent American poet Jeffrey Yang (who earlier this year won the PEN/Osterweil Award for Poetry) translated four of them. Liu dedicated each one to his wife, Xia. Judging from the dates, most (and perhaps all) of the poems appear to have been composed during his three years of “reeducation.” Paul Auster read the poems at our launch party, and later recorded his readings. Here is the first of the poems that he read:

One Letter Is Enough

for Xia

one letter is enough
for me to transcend and face
you to speak

as the wind blows past
the night
uses its own blood
to write a secret verse
that reminds me each
word is the last word

the ice in your body
melts into a myth of fire
in the eyes of the executioner
fury turns to stone

two sets of iron rails
unexpectedly overlap
moths flap toward lamp
light, an eternal sign
that traces your shadow

8. 1. 2000

You can both read and listen to all the poems here. The U.S. Congress, by the way, passed a resolution calling for Liu’s release just a few weeks ago. You can sign a petition calling for his release here, and you can hear, and watch, Liu himself talking about democracy and free expression here.

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