Me reading my poem “That Absent Person” at The Bookworm

That Absent Person

I don’t keep track of the days anymore

For years I spoke
in the hours before sleep
and in dream awaited

— reply? spirit?
windows to open?
days turning to years

I think of ancient poets banished
to their frontiers
and know death is not final
but what a road to get there

Behind closed walls and closed doors
I listen to birds
I cannot see
I think on words
not said, and those moments,
leaving you, when I’d forget
the thinness of our remarks,
how I meant to say I was manic
the other morning
craving drink, which I know you hate,
and the skin of boiled milk, do you remember
how it tastes?

So much of what we are
has been defined by not
yet still
I am not your vassal
I am a meanderer seeking the world’s
soul, not its wounds, as you now are

Do not be sorry.
Folklore will know its history
dusk cede to sun
as I shout
Let us go somewhere in the light!

Sorrow, longing
obverse analog of joy,
madness, waiting

I once said you were the best
but the truth is you were
too political
even in the grace
you showed your captors,
too willing to give up
body as vessel and message,
waiting like Wei Sheng
who drowned under a bridge
waiting for his love

It is a great sadness to be loved
It is a great burden to choose love
I have carried your absence
across nights and vast distances,
set it in front of us
like a child
as we marveled across plastic dividers

I long because I long.
Can you understand?
I worry because I worry
I wait because
what they have taken
is not what I would give.
Flatten, confine my body
but this choice remains
mine: this life,
this tree, this bolt
lightening the black horizon,
they have not ceased to amaze
with fire and with the possible

And now that you are close again,
that our mugs touch,
the years have turned back into hours
as we await our ashes to embrace

We are living in the swidden of our love
my dear, in the cool fear of aftershock
expectant for tremors,
the skin of the other
until we are cold with a cold out of marrow,
the cold heat of fever
to burn, to salvage

I love you, I miss you


This was part of a poetry reading highlighted by U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at The Bookworm, Beijing, on October 9, 2017, hosted by Anthony Tao, also featuring Mario Bojorquez, Yi Lei, Ming Di, Simon Shieh and Kassy Lee.

The title of this poem comes from a line in a letter the Chinese poet Liu Xia, wife of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, wrote to an American friend in July 2013: “I can only wonder how or through what special power you manage to keep on writing when the protagonist for whom you are pleading is absent… I have faith that there will come a day when that absent person writes another part of his (her) story.”

The poem’s first line is from an interview Liu Xia gave the Associated Press in December 2012, two years after she was put under house arrest for no crime except being Liu Xiaobo’s wife.

The poem’s final line (“I love you, I miss you”) was spoken by Liu Xia on April 23, 2013, outside of a courthouse where her younger brother, Liu Hui, was fighting dubious charges of financial fraud. Now released on bail, Liu Hui had been sentenced to eleven years, the same prison term Liu Xiaobo received in 2009 for state subversion.

Liu Xiaobo died on July 13, 2017 with Liu Xia by his side. As reported by the New York Times, one of his final handwritten notes read: “Love as intense as ice, love as remote as blackness. My praise is perhaps an unforgivable poison.”

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