|Don’t Go Back to Sleep
Poems by Timothy Liu
Robert Pinsky, in his essay “Responsibilities of the Poet” says we must answer for what we see. What about what we can’t see? How do we answer for such things? In Don’t Go Back to Sleep we see Timothy Liu grapple with lasting affects of the Nanking Massacre: a mass murder and mass rape by Japanese troops against the capital of the Republic of China, beginning in December, 1937. Since then, most documents detailing the massacre have been destroyed and many claim the events have been exaggerated or fabricated. Yet, Liu’s personal history, his family, and his Chinese heritage are intrinsically linked with this disaster. So we enter pages filled with historical questions, an obsessive and circular wondering of love, and a subtle despair for the death of his mother. Translation: the attempt to understand identity within a forgetful, uncertain world.
The collection opens with a poem that extends the length of the first section, a rough eighteen pages, titled “A Requiem For The Homeless Spirits.” It begins with the speaker looking at an image of a Chinese soldier’s head, and we quickly learn the decapitation is a result of a contest (the first to kill 100 Chinese), for which the winners received their picture on the front page of a newspaper. Liu documents the violence of the massacre, repeating the phrases “This is not how anyone would want to be remembered” and “Photos exist.” While the documentation is important, especially in spite of so many records being destroyed, Liu’s poem reads more like newspaper highlights and a fragmented narrative. As a reader, I’m searching for the language that takes these events beyond the page, that makes them transform from a research paper to an event I can feel sharp under my skin and mourn. Perhaps I’m not given that because, in a sense, the speaker has not been given that. Still, the moments I most connect to are when the speaker breaks into the stanzas and self-reflects on the magnitude of such as massacre:
Few of the survivors remain alive.
Few of the perpetrators remain alive.
Some of their stories have been recorded.
Many of their stories will never get told.
What should any of us do while they are still alive?
After the first section, we are thrust into a series of obsessive love poems, sexually charged, somehow both slow and frantic. Though at times the subject, whether the husband or the beloved or someone else entirely, is not consistently clear, Liu fills these poems with raw, physical images and a gritty vulnerability. I’m often surprised by such tenderness amidst the roughness, with lines like, “There are places in our bodies / no one has ever reached” or “not knowing if / I have a name, not unless / he calls.”
In one of my favorites, “Without You,” Liu experiences the absence of a romance, his own body now foreign and slow for “Without you I’m a tray of coffee mugs / the waitress spills in slow motion / on the night she got fired.” The poem is filled with these metaphors, repeating the title “without you” at the beginning of multiple stanzas. At the end, I find the most powerful moment among all the love poems:
Love whomever, then return
For without you, I’d have forgotten
the many doors through which
the world disappears
This disappearing world is the motivation behind Don’t Go Back to Sleep. The speaker in Liu’s collection is driven to find himself; his own family origin story under threat by those who wish to bury the Nanking Massacre. Liu does the work necessary to fight this erasure, navigating facts and molding them into an art form, of which he is able to share and memorialize with many.