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Poems for Tiananmen by Liu Xia and Liao Yiwu

“Eyes will return tonight / with their ghosts / in the shape of tombstones.” On the 25th anniversary of June 4th, 1989.

Born in Beijing in 1961, the Chinese painter, photographer, and poet Liu Xia became a part the city’s vibrant arts scene in the 1980s. Much of her early work was experimental in nature, and she made it a point to stay away from politics. An editor and then a civil servant for a Beijing tax bureau, she met Liu Xiaobo at a literary gathering in the ’80s. They would later get married in 1996 at a labor reeducation camp in northeast China. In the early ’80s, Liu Xia became close friends with fellow poet Liao Yiwu, whose early writing was influenced by the translated work of Baudelaire, Whitman, and Ginsberg. Liao found his own voice in combining lyricism with narrative and folk songs. He eventually gave up his pastoral style and started writing dark, pessimistic, and surreal poetry.

On June 2, 1989, Liu Xia wrote her first poem for Liu Xiaobo, then a young professor and public intellectual in Beijing who was on hunger strike in Tiananmen Square, joining the hundreds of thousands of students demonstrating for democratic reform. “I didn’t even get a word in with you,” Liu Xia wrote. “You have become a news personality… I could only hide away from the crowd, have a smoke, and look at the sky.” Less than 48 hours later, the violent government crackdown on Tiananmen commenced.

On the morning of June 4, 1989, Liao Yiwu, at his home in the mountainous district of Fuling, heard of the violence and wrote an epic poem of his own, titled “Massacre,” to “commemorate the government’s brutality against its people.” For his poem, he was sentenced to four years in prison. Liu Xiaobo, too, was arrested and imprisoned for his involvement in the Tiananmen protests, and was incarcerated repeatedly in the mid-to-late 1990s.

On the night of June 3 and morning of June 4, 1997, Liu Xia wrote the poem “Dark Night,” published below, for the 8th anniversary of the June 4th Crackdown. By then, Liao Yiwu had been released from prison and in 1999 he published Love Songs from the Gulag, thirty prison poems written while he was incarcerated after June 4th. Two of them, “Reading Borges in Prison” and “To a Death Penalty Criminal,” appear here.

In December 2008, Liu Xiaobo was given an 11-year sentence under the charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” “Untitled” is a poem Liu Xia wrote for Liu Xiaobo several months into his sentence, in April 2009.

Liu Xia has been under house arrest at her home in Beijing since 2010, when Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That same year, Liao Yiwu fled China after his requests to leave the country to attend international literary events were denied 15 times.

“Dark Night” and “Untitled” were translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern and are from Empty Chairs: Selected Poems by Liu Xia, forthcoming from Graywolf Press, 2015.

“Reading Borges in Prison” and “To a Death Penalty Criminal” are translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Katie Farris.

—Jyothi Natarajan



Dark Night

by Liu Xia

Eyes will return tonight
with their ghosts
in the shape of tombstones.

One moment stays in my mind
even though my mind is filled with straw.

The empty tomb
has no drooping sunflower,
none of Van Gogh’s mad goodbyes.
Bones are grieving:
an icy riverbed deep in the earth.

All the ghosts with all those eyes
are gathering here by the candle
speaking to me in a silent dialogue.
The white white lilies
start to fall, unnoticed.

I can’t compare life with death,
truth with imagining,
my palms with the back of my hands.
Tonight, the night that never ends,
a tree grows out of tear, and from the tree
many desperate hands are hanging .

In your dark night
my words fail to form.

















— for Xiaobo
by Liu Xia

You speak and speak and speak the truth.
You speak day and night, as long as you’re awake
you speak and speak.
Your voice breaks out and disperses.
Death from twenty years ago returns—
it comes and goes like time.
You’ve lost many, but their dead souls are with you,
you give up the daily to join their crying out
but there is no answer. None.

You speak and speak and speak the truth.
You speak day and night, as long as you’re awake
you speak and speak.
Your voice breaks out and disperses.
The wound from twenty years ago still bleeds—
bright red, resembling life.
You like the daily but prefer to accompany souls,
you promise to seek the truth with them
but there is no light on the path. None.

You speak and speak and speak the truth.
You speak day and night, as long as you’re awake
you speak and speak.
Your voice breaks out and disperses.
The gunfire from twenty years ago still drives your life—
you live forever in death.
You love your wife, are proud she stays with you
in the dark, you let her do what she wants to, to write
for you in the aftermath of death,
but in her verses, there are no sounds. None










Reading Borges in Prison

by Liao Yiwu

This is the most lovely hour in prison
I’m reading Jorge Luis Borges
on death row
An Argentina moon rises like a good pal
from the left face
of a Chinese prison guard
as if a knife cutting my country into two parts
Then the mountains
are what?
Sharks swim leisurely up and down
up and up,
like our bald heads one after another,
two carnations, two gunshots.

parachutes with no ropes

The brains in the absence
of blood.
So what?
white and red doctor and God, two gloves
taking turns
to wipe the eye balls.

Your eyes are injured by the Moon
so what?
the prison is the asphalt under your eyebrow, your bones

blind man, blind man
you are
betrayed, blind man
by freedom.
but you are leading us, blind man
walk to
freedom, blind man.
the prostitute that everyone sleeps with, freedom
we abandon it, afterwards

the old body odor endures
on that girl.
As you have more sensitive nose,
blind man.
Your nose,
blind man
is better than anyone except
the police hunting dogs.

If handcuffed,
blind man
will you take your nose
as a dog, guiding you to the snow?



To a Death Penalty Criminal

by Liao Yiwu

We sleep on the bed
You hold my legs on the bed
I hold your foot chains on the bed
till the stubborn iron of the bed
warms my chest.

You cover your neck with blankets
more blankets, more
as if trying to escape from the executioner,
chopping your head with the wind.

They do it without knives nowadays!
Bullets go through
from the back
in the front chest
And pain? It will be left to your mother.
Your mother can pay the shooter
a bullet fee,
you mother can collect a corpse.

I have collected your corpse ten times by now.
Maybe you murdered
the wrong person
with your body so strong it can kill dogs.

In the name of law
this is the last inn between heaven and hell
occupied by some living dead for year long
and strangers
who are eager to get on the road
Your time is not too long, not too short.
Your body height is five feet, five inches.

You said after becoming a ghost you will go down
to the river
for a bath
and come to see me, clean.

Is that a joke? Or a will? Or the most touching
verse line
I’ve ever stolen from a book of poems?

My tears and my spit have drowned me in my sleep
seven or eight times
seven or eight times
but I wake up with a face as dry as asphalt
not one drop of water.
Am I a political prisoner? Why
do I always forget
my own record, why this faith
in the souls
of Tiananmen Square, and what is faith?

Faith outside the wall.
Souls outside the sky.
Year after year, old.

But this human body
is alive on earth, and
the ghost it will become is a true political prisoner.
New ghosts and old ghosts.
Political ghosts. Criminal ghosts.
Ghosts. Ghosts.

Hey you, peasant from the enormous
called China
have you ever seen tanks, boy? What is blood, boy? What is a boy, boy?

I have not seen anything other than air.
I’d rather see air. In that air
is my wife’s ass, beautiful like you.