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Emily Luan

The Poison of a Long Imprisonment: Liu Xia’s ‘Empty Chairs’

9781555977252Loneliness 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.

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Upending What We Understand So as to Get to Wonder: ‘Erratic Facts’ by Kay Ryan

Erratic Facts“The things we know / cannot be applied,” begins a poem in Kay Ryan’s new poetry collection, Erratic Facts (Grove Press, 64 pages), the first release since her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. The former U.S. poet laureate returns with her signature narrow, rhyming poems to awaken and astonish us, to tilt us toward the underbelly of everyday observations.

In the epilogue of Erratic Facts, Ryan notes:

erratic: (n) Geol.  A boulder or the like
carried by glacial ice and deposited
some distance form its place of origin

This idea of displacement—a separation of boulder from its place of origin, of object from meaning—crops up again and again in her book, repeatedly overthrowing our expectations of conclusion and poetic movement. A poem titled “Shoot the Moon” ends with the shattering “bagged now and / heavy as a head,” and in “Erasure” she leaves us with the startlingly blunt statement: “this / whole area / may have been / a defactory.” The unabashed awkwardness of Ryan’s syntax also mimics the unstable nature of the erratic, as it seizes us from turn to turn: “Walls of shelves of / jars of dots equal / one dot”; “Even how / the crow / walks is / criss crosses.”

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The Denial of What We Can Least Deny: ‘My Feelings’ by Nick Flynn

My Feelings“Who / can tell me where I will fall next, where / the thorn will enter?” asks Nick Flynn in “Beads of Sweat,” a poem in his fourth poetry collection, My Feelings (Graywolf Press, 89 pages), which was released this summer. Placed early on in a six-part meditation on fatherhood, pain, and loss, the poem recalls the feeling of unknowability, the same feeling that even Moses encountered when he stared into the burning bush. “Up there he heard / a voice, When I speak you will know from where it comes / & you will turn into it.” Throughout My Feelings, Flynn seeks the root of this unspeakable void—the search is, all at once, a biblical, cyclical journey and an excruciating longing to turn into something beyond the human form. Flynn’s writing defies resolution but longs for communion. Each poem is asymptotic—always reaching and rising.

Flynn makes sense of pain and memory in terms of architecture—the internal and external house of the body, the buried coffin, the hierarchy of heaven and earth. Despite the maelstrom the title suggests, the collection is highly structured and orderly; Flynn turns over each stone with one finger, inspects what he finds with a keen eye. He steps from one association of memory to another, from “Polaroid” to “A Note on the Periodic Table” to “Philip Seymour Hoffman.”

Despite these careful investigations, the search for the tangible location of pain also demonstrates the disorientation caused by trauma. In “AK-47” he writes, “this house…when you go back, if you go back, / if you can find your way, it won’t, it cannot…be as you remember…this house you grew out of you grew up inside it.” Even as Flynn names his old house as a physical site of nostalgia and loss, the place dissolves into illusion, into the abstract. Architecture, then, represents an upward momentum—the building being built, the “building blocks” of the periodic table—but also a weighted structure that will collapse and bury. The question of the collection then is what kind of structure will Flynn choose: one that rises or buries? In “Cathedral of Salt,” he offers a possible answer: “Beneath all this I’m carving a cathedral / of salt,” he writes, “I keep / the entrance hidden, no one seems to notice / the hours I’m missing…”

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