THE LOVE NOT IN BOOKS: On TIMOTHY LIU’S DON’T GO BACK TO SLEEP, SATURNALIA BOOKS, 2014
REVIEW BY PETER LABERGE
The epigraph of Timothy Liu’s ninth collection is a statement from fifteenth-century Indian poet Kabir that reads: The love I talk of is not in the books. Fittingly, Don’t Go Back to Sleep presents an unconventional portrait of family primed by the extreme trauma of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Liu accesses the reader through rich sexual anecdotes to ultimately expose the raw pain and tension whittled in his ancestry. From the first poem to the last, the reader is on-board – yet not possibly ready – for the visceral experience.
Initially, Liu adopts the relatively distanced role of the observer. In “A Requiem for the Homeless Spirits”, Liu is dropped into the gruesome 1937 scene of the war, yet the names of the Japanese soldiers beheading Chinese men are “in a language I cannot read” (“A Requiem for the Homeless Spirits”, 21). This is not the only instance in which Liu cites the limits of language as catalysts of larger socio-cultural isolation and tension; the epigraph of the requiem, which opens the collection and spans twenty pages, is a quotation from survivor Ma Xiuyi that reads, There is no language to adequately describe the Japanese crimes (“A Requiem for the Homeless Spirits”, 1-2), while later on in the poem, copies of a Prince’s speech addressing the military atrocities suffered by the Chinese in Nanking are “suppressed, buried / by the military authorities—” (“A Requiem for the Homeless Spirits”, 49-50). Conventional language, it seems, is not adequate to the narrator or the reader, so throughout the requiem and the collection it is lost, buried, hidden, unknown, and forgotten.
Primed by this sense of disconnection and suppression that unmistakably shapes Liu’s Chinese ancestry, the collection ultimately builds to concentrate on the sexual and romantic geographies of Liu’s queer experience. In “Building Trust”, Liu acquaints the reader with the complex relationship between his family and his sexuality, writing:
[…] The body
of my mother being rolled
into the morgue’s gas jets
is what I picture whenever he
enters me, knowing I can’t
bring myself to visit her grave,
not once. (“Building Trust”, 10-16)
Liu continues to explore the limits of communication in the poem—this time from his end, as the narrator receives advice about his deceased mother from “my therapist … who knows / her only through stories / that I’ve told, most of them / lies” (“Building Trust”, 18-21). In this way, Liu presents himself as flawed in a way not unlike the central characters of his opening requiem—including his mother, who “gets / everything confused … in and out / of psych wards for the last decades / of her life” (“A Requiem for the Homeless Spirits”, 141-145). Through “Building Trust”, Liu comes to terms with his flaws—and, with them, a significant piece of his ancestry and identity—ultimately concluding, “I can’t / be trusted, not by anyone” (“Building Trust”, 34-35).
Throughout the collection, as Liu continues to solidify his and the reader’s understanding of the significant relationships that characterize his life, the ring he wears begins to symbolize the complex history of the narrator’s commitment and personal connection to his husband of ten years. At first, as in his poem “The Decision”, Liu addresses the omnipresent commitment, the relentless obligation that comes with marriage, as “when I removed / the ring … a ghost / ring remained / underneath…” (“The Decision”, 1-6). For the narrator, it seems, conventional marital commitment is something that can be run from, but never entirely avoided. This theme returns later on in “The Ring”, where the ring seems to represent life in and of itself: “How long before the grave / claims what is mine / and the ring is removed / from my hand…” (“The Ring”, 1-4). In the third and final poem explicitly addressing the ring, Liu returns to its constricting nature, writing:
[…] Some say
he’s never slept with
another man. Driving
home, my hand rests
on his when he’s done
shifting, as we listen
to someone croon:
It was the first time
& you knew you would.
everything I could want
right there—a man
I know I could leave
my husband for,
the ring on my finger
a shackle, a trifle,
no road long enough
for where we’re headed (“Romance”, 5-34).
Above all, what can and should be savored most from the experience of reading Don’t Go Back to Sleep is the intricate portrait of a man tugged in conflicting directions by his own identity. What must be savored is the simultaneous callousness with which Liu refers to his ancestors, and these very same ancestors’ profound and defined influence over the man he has become. When one looks at the narrator, and—thus—Liu, one does not see merely a married Asian man, nor does one merely see a married queer man. One sees a man scarred before he was even born, taught by necessity to live a life of disconnection that birthed an unconventional (yet equally authentic) sense of romantic devotion within his broader queer experience.
Why, then, does Liu remind us not to go back to sleep? Because we must resist the urge to embrace a conventional, overly simplistic sense of romantic intimacy. We must wake up, seek a form of love that inspires communication and mutual understanding between two human beings who are, by necessity, complex. As Liu himself says in “Unsleeping, 3:25 A.M.”: Don’t go back to sleep: / I’ve waited all my life to cross / your threshold and wake you / from your slumber.
Timothy Liu is the author of nine books of poems, including Of Thee I Sing (2004 Publishers Weekly Book-of-the-Year), Vox Angelica (1992 Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America) and Polytheogamy, an artistic collaboration. Translated into many languages, his works are archived in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. A professor of English at William Paterson University, Liu makes his home in Manhattan with his husband.
Don’t Go Back to Sleep
by Timothy Liu
Saturnalia Books, October 2014.
$15.00 paperback, ISBN-13: 978-0-9915454-0-7