Loneliness is palpable among the stark emotions of Beijing artist and poet Liu Xia’s Empty Chairs: Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 118 pages), The collection, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, spans from 1983 to 2013, and shudders under the weight of political and psychological violence: the 1989 Tiananmen massacre; the multiple (and current) imprisonments of Liu Xia’s husband, poet and activist Liu Xiaobo; the eleven-year sentence of her younger brother, Liu Hui. At the center of these circumstances sits Liu Xia, who has been living under strict house arrest since her husband received the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the state’s vast stronghold over the lives depicted in her poems, Liu Xia’s writing occupies a uniquely bitter, interior space—an investigation into madness and its characters rather than into political players. Empty Chairs is a book about the objects that remain when companionship is stripped away, about the fight to keep a body relevant when faced with “無”—without; lack.
Empty Chairs moves through three decades of poetry chronologically, with the month and year noted after each last stanza. The chronology allows us to experience Liu Xia’s obsessions in an ever-present past. In “Poison” she writes, “Van Gogh’s ear sends me an urgent message / that the earth is about to collapse…the weather forecast on TV / and Kafka’s crazy eyes.” We follow her repeated yearnings for “the bird” that always escapes her; there are skeletons, the dead eyes of children, and anthropomorphic dolls. These allusions and images confuse our sense of the real as we watch them focus into almost tangible characters within the walls of Liu Xia’s home. They become her company, offering her quietude in their humor, crudeness, and believability. “You have a strange pet,” she writes in “Transformed Creature,” “…When you’re alone, / it will lie in your lap, / preoccupied.” But the images often become nauseating in their darkness when we realize the picture of madness the objects describe.