Book Review

Liu Xiaobo, June Fourth Elegies (trans. Jeffrey Young), Graywolf Press, 2012

Frank X Walker, Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers, The University of Georgia Press, 2013

by Margaret Rozga

Liu Xiaobo and Frank X Walker might seem an unlikely pair of poets to be reviewed within the same essay.  They live on opposite sides of the globe under regimes that profess incompatible ideologies.  The work in these books was composed, on the one hand, over a period of twenty years, and, on the other hand, in a more concentrated time frame.  The poetic strategies of the Chinese poet and activist differ from those of his American peer.  Liu’s poems are blunt and expansive, Walker’s concise and understated .

What pulls these two books together is their subject matter and their themes.  These two poets write of love.  They write of resistance to injustices perpetrated by powerful regimes.  They write of remembering; to use Walker’s term, they write of “unghosting” those who lost their lives struggling for civil and human rights.  For both poets remembering is a means to honor the dead and moreover a means to continue their efforts toward justice. Both poets conclude their books in ways that show social issues unsettled and show love as a source of energy and strength.

Liu’s June Fourth Elegies bring together the anniversary poems he wrote, one each year over a span of twenty years, in memory of his friends and the ordinary citizens killed in the 1989 events surrounding Tiananmen Square.  These long poems, often in multiple parts, show an undiminished intensity of grief and determination to continue in the struggle Tiananmen Square has come to represent.  His work required translation into English.  His unpunctuated sentences and lines “that hinge between the line above and the line below” were honored in the translation by Jeffrey Yang, but they may slow the reading for English speakers unfamiliar with this “syntactical flexibility that seems especially inbred in the Chinese language itself” (325). 

2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was a leader at Tiananmen Square.  He writes in the book’s introduction, taken from an earlier essay, of being imprisoned a total of six years by the time of the turn into the twenty-first century.  Ten years later, at the time of the publication of the June Fourth Elegies Liu was again in prison, serving an eleven year sentence for “inciting subversion of the state power.” His prose introduction and the poems that follow burn, as translator Jeffrey Yang says, “with a gritty emotional intensity” (225) deepened by the harsh consequences Liu suffers for his insistence on the right to think and speak freely. 
Liu criticizes, for example, what he sees as a pleasure-driven younger generation, calling “their self-absorption and self-pity borderline pathological” (xvii).  In the poems Liu generally uses images rather than such abstract language to convey this sense of being at odds with the new marketplace of ephemera .  In the seventh anniversary series, he repeatedly identifies himself as a cripple in the post-Tiananmen world “that plunged headfirst into the vast sea of trade” (61).

I am a cripple
all alone
entering the crippled city
Evil’s akin to the fresh, decorative flowers of a celebration
Countless survivors gather strength once more
to beg for their daily bread scraps
Hand freedom over to the stock market
Greed and deception
like the exhaust from a car
pollute the air the sunlight and human expression (61)

For Liu, the marketplace has been poisoned by the “blood-soaked bodies” of those killed at Tiananmen Square and by subsequent attempts to ignore or deny those deaths.   In the elegy for the fourteenth anniversary, his anger has not cooled; his words remain fierce:

Illusion of prosperity
Foolish hope
The great promise is like
the veil that conceals the weeping bride
and the covered up barbarity of that spring day
Can those young university students killed in the tents
be seen beneath earth with the dead souls of 14 years ago (133)

What is as powerful as his similes like “the weeping bride” that render injustice in personal and familiar terms is his endurance in the face first of governmental force and then of general indifference.  Both are killers of poetry, and his belief in the necessity of humane virtues as the wellspring of poetry is especially striking:  “in the absence of compassion poetry perishes” (133).

Liu is strengthened by the love of his wife, Liu Xia.  She, too, remembers and honors those killed.   Liu thanks her “for bringing home a bouquet of white lilies/each year on the 4th day of the 6th month/this year she’s brought 17 flowering-stems home” (157).  Included at the end of this volume are five poems for her.  The last of them affirms the power of words and the transformative power of his relationship with his wife:  “One letter is enough / for me to transcend everything and face / you to speak”

He speaks of his wife in paradoxical and universal images:  “The ice in your body / melts into a myth of fire” (201).  Then as a moth flies toward lamplight, “an eternal gesture / traces your shadow” (201).  She becomes present to him in prison in commonplace natural events, the source of his strength.  Their love is the final chapter “in this dust-weary world of / so much depravity” (197). These poems reaffirm both his love and his compassion.  His poetry, called perhaps with understated affectionate “awkward and diligent” by this very beloved wife, rewards our attention and will not perish.

Kentucky Poet Laureate and University of Kentucky Professor Frank X Walker, unlike Liu Xiaobo, was not a participant in the events he writes about in Turn Me Loose:  The Unghosting of Medgar Evers.   Walker was only two years old in 1963 when Evers, Mississippi state field secretary for the National Association of Colored People, was shot and killed in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi . Walker is also too young to have personal memory of the national outrage at Evers’ death as it wove itself into the songs of well-known musicians, including Nina Simone, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan.  Walker’s short poems, then, emerge as he researches, reflects upon, and imagines the lives especially of four people, none of whom he knew personally. 

Walker came of age in a time when Evers’ name and story had faded into the background and were in danger of being forgotten.   He is well-acquainted with being written out of history.  He titled his first volume of poetry Afrilachia, thus coining the term by which we are reminded that Appalachia includes a strong African American tradition that must not be forgotten. 

This danger of being forgotten is the theme that opens Turn Me Loose.   “What Kills Me,” a poem in Myrlie Evers’ voice, objects to dating the start of the civil rights movement a year after her husband’s death. 

When people talk
About the movement as if it started in ‘64
It erases his entire life’s work.

It means he lived and died for nothing.
And that’s worse than killing him      again. (3)

The matter-of-fact tone of these assertions and the silence of the empty space before “again” quietly suggest a long and deep acquaintance with grief.  While the poem also recalls “the pile of recovered / bodies—some burnt, shot, dismembered, / some beaten just beyond recognition” Walker’s poetic strategy is understatement and indirection.  He does not detail the horrors but looks to their roots and their effects.  Though his title is taken from Medgar Evers dying words and his subtitle focuses on Evers himself, the speakers in most of these persona poems are Evers’ wife Myrlie, his killer Byron de la Beckwith, and de la Beckwith’s wife Willie.  The effect is to highlight the significance of Evers’ life in its context, the thinking and culture that led to Evers’ extraordinary life and to his assassination.

The divided experience of Whites and African Americans in Mississippi is given poetic form in “After Dinner in Money, Mississippi” and especially in “Ambiguity Over the Confederate  Flag, ” poems written in two columns.  In the latter poem, a White perspective is given voice in the left column, an African American view in italics in the right-hand column.  Readers can read through one column before turning to the other and/or read across the page to get the blending of the two opposing views.  Here are lines from the middle of the poem describing, or not seeing, child labor:

                        the young         children
who happily played behind        tried to pick their own weight

          while their mothers        by age 13 filled 500 lb sacks
     sang rapturous spirituals        and lived the blues

Walker’s persona poems present well-drawn moments where the words of the speaker incisively reveal character.  Myrlie’s words show not only her grief but also how thoroughly she loves and identifies with her husband.  The poems in her voice are notable for their use of first person plural.  The pun in the title of “Believing in Hymn” sets this pattern: “Whenever we needed more confidence / than we woke up with in the morning / God would come in a song” (31). 
Even in the intensely personal moment described in “Arlington” when soldiers fold and hand her the American flag from Medgar’s coffin at his Arlington Cemetery grave site, she concludes with first person plural, powerful in its prophetic understatement:.  “I was holding his future/and what we were burying/was only his past” (48). 

Her ability to imagine a “we” extends beyond her immediate family and friends.  In “Sorority Meeting,” she speaks to Willie, formally Mary Louise Williams, De La Beckwith’s first wife, and Thelma, his second wife, about how Evers’ assassination has linked them “in this unholy sorority of misery”.

We are sorority sisters now
with a gut-wrenching country ballad
for a sweetheart song, tired funeral
and courtroom clothes for colors
and secrets we will take to our graves. (45)

Willie’s bond with De La Beckwith, as portrayed by Walker, is ambiguous.  Rather than identifying with her husband’s actions, Willie says, “I just pretended I didn’t know // what gunpowder smelled like / or why he kept his rifles so clean” (15).  She identifies with Mississippian Tammy Wynette’s song “Stand By Your Man” and with women who stay in, even take pride in, unhappy marriages:  “Like any smart woman / I’ve stormed out” but still “I’m so proud to be / Mrs. Byron De La Beckwith” (21).

De La Beckwith identifies himself in terms of the pleasure he takes in the pain of others and in his status as one in a position to inflict that pain.  “Southern Sports” offers the clearest assertion of his sadism as a community event:

Sometimes it starts with a bonfire
or begins with taunting and spitting

quickly graduating to cursing
and punching and kicking

some body      as hard as you can
for the sheer joy of causing them pain

as entertainment for the crowd now
celebrating the crack or pop of broken bodies

What is Walker’s most remarkable achievement in this impressive and compelling book is the way these two views of personal love and cultural identity are brought effectively into sharp contrast.  Not only does De La Beckwith enjoy ganging up on an anonymous victim, he brings this pleasure in pain into his marriage, presented indirectly through Willie’s terse account in “Swamp Thing” of what she experienced at first as a nightmare.  

My ears were field with cotton.
My throat had been lynched shut.

I was chained to something as big
And long and dark as Mississippi herself.

As the dream experience unfolds into a situation even more threatening, Willie awakens “screaming and chasing my breath, // only to find my husband / grinning and tickling my feet” (20).  In “Fire Proof,” Willie describes their love-making in violent terms:  “But if you ain’t never set a man on fire, / felt him explode inside you then die in your arms, / honey, you got no idea what I’m talking about.” (15)
“Listening to Music,” a poem from Myrlie’s perspective immediately follows “Fire Proof” and presents the relationship between the Evers in terms of romantic love songs.

we melted together in the dark, beneath the covers

and the crackle of the radio.  The sound of my guys
singing backup and Medgar’s jack hammer heart

finally slowing to match our leaky faucet, as he fell asleep
In my arms, completing the soundtrack for a perfect night.

The contrast between the quality of the marriages could not be more stark.  Nor could the positive correlation between the character of personal relationships and the attitudes toward others in the community be more effectively and more memorably represented.  Walker achieves here the high standard of Gwendolyn Brooks in the much-anthologized poem, “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.”

Neither Liu Xiaobo’s China nor Frank X Walker’s United States have resolved the issues at the heart of the work of these two poets.  The books of these two poets are acts of remembering offered as necessary steps toward resolution of the issues that are their subject.  Their effectiveness as actions is indivisible from their quality as poetry.  They give us very high quality poetry.  I recommend these remarkable poems to you whole-heartedly.

Margaret Rozga served as managing editor of the chapbook anthology Turn Up the Volume: Poems About the States of Wisconsin.  Her books include Though I Haven’t Been to Baghdad. 200 Nights and One Day, and Justice   Freedom    Herbs (forthcoming).