cover image June Fourth Elegies

June Fourth Elegies

Liu Xiaobo, trans. from the Chinese by Jeffrey Yang. Foreword by the Dalai Lama. Graywolf, $26 (292p) ISBN 978-1-55597-610-1

Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, but could not visit Sweden to collect it: he was then, and remains, in prison in China for the human rights activism that began with his part in the demonstrations of 1989 at Tiananmen Square and continued, in and out of jails and labor camps, for the next 20 years. Each spring—whether incarcerated or “at home in Beijing”—Xiaobo wrote a poem to commemorate the Tiananmen victims. Those raw, yet reflective, sometimes nightmarish elegies make up the bulk of this bilingual edition, put into clear English by the poet Yang (Vanishing-Line), whose extraordinarily useful afterword puts Xiaobo’s sharp and sometimes allusive lines into both Chinese literary and historical context. Xiaobo rebukes his nation, “used to memorializing tombs as palaces,” and his “city of near perfect/ shamelessness.” He also casts a harsh eye on himself: “Self-consciousness is disaster’s survivor,” he reflects; “I’ll strive to feel astonishment or shame.” “Even if I have the courage/ to be jailed again,” Xiaobo writes, “it isn’t courage enough/ to excavate memories of the dead.” Yang also includes other works by Xiaobo: an outraged essay about “the road of resistance I’ve chosen” and the materialism of modern China, penned in 2000; at the back, five quiet love poems to Xiaobo’s wife, herself now under house arrest. (Apr.)