Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Power of An Empty Chair, Part 2

In the last blog, I wrote about Liu Xiaopo, the Chinese dissident and writer who was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize in absentia because he is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence. Here is another perspective on what happens when those in power try to silence the voices of truth and reason.
"What He Thought"
by Heather McHugh

For Fabbio Doplicher
We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the Mayor, mulled a couple
matters over. The Italian literati seemed
bewildered by the language of America: they asked us
what does "flat drink" mean? and the mysterious
"cheap date" (no explanation lessened
this one's mystery). Among Italian writers we

could recognize our counterparts: the academic,
the apologist, the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib. And there was one
administrator (The Conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone
narrated sights and histories
the hired van hauled us past.
Of all he was most politic--
and least poetic-- so
it seemed. Our last
few days in Rome 
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he'd recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?) to whom
he had inscribed and dated it a month before. I couldn't
read Italian either, so I put the book
back in the wardrobe's dark. We last Americans

were due to leave
tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant,
and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, till,
sensible it was our last big chance to be Poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked

"What's poetry?
Is it the fruits and vegetables
and marketplace at Campo dei Fiori

or the statue there?" Because I was
the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn't have to think-- "The truth
is both, it's both!" I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest
to say. What followed taught me something
about difficulty, 

for our underestimated host spoke out
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statue represents
Giordano Bruno, brought
to be burned in the public square
because of his offence against authority, which was to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government
but rather is poured in waves, through
all things: all things
move. "If God is not the soul itself,
he is the soul OF THE SOUL of the world." Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die

they feared he might incite the crowd (the man
was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask
in which he could not speak.

That is how they burned him.
That is how he died, 
without a word,
in front of everyone. And poetry--

(we'd all put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on softly)-- poetry 
is what he thought, but did not say.
From Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993, from Wesleyan 
University Press, 1994. Copyright 1994 by Heather McHugh. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Power of An Empty Chair

Until this morning, I had never heard of Liu Xiaobo. He is a Chinese writer who has been imprisoned and held incommunicado by his government for the past year, charged with inciting to overthrow the regime. Today, however, he was thrust onto the world stage as the the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. For the first time in 75 years, nobody was there to accept this award - Liu's wife and relatives are either in jail or under house arrest - and so his award was draped over an empty chair during the ceremony.

When will the oppressive totalitarian regimes of the world learn that by trying to silence the voice of one person, you give more volume and credence to that person's message? I would never have given the story about the Nobel Prize a second glance, had it not been for the controversy of Liu's detainment. If the Chinese government had allowed him to speak freely before, there would be no reason for him to even be nominated.

The empty chair on the stage of the Oslo City Hall, with the picture of Liu Xiaobo gazing down in mute testimony, was more powerful and potentially damaging to the Chinese government than any words that one person could ever utter. 

Because he could not speak, today, I have excerpted a portion of "I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement To The Court" which was delivered by Liu on December 23, 2009, after he had been sentenced to 11 years on prison. It was read today by actress Liv Ullmann as part of the Nobel Prize ceremony.
I still want to tell the regime that deprives me of my freedom...I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. While I’m unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities.

For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love.

Freedom of expression is the basis of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth. To block freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, to strangle humanity and to suppress the truth.