Henry Wei Leung’s remarkable full-length debut is Goddess of Democracy: an occupy lyric (Oakland CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2017), a collection of lyric narratives stitched together around the nature of identity, exile, democracy and resistance. As he writes in the poem “Life Sentences Sonnet for the Goddess,” a poem subtitled “Tiananmen Square, June 1989”: “I fell in love with love’s treasons. Which of these remain forbidden / words: goddess, swallow, roam, freedom, I?” Published as part of the Omnidawn 1st/2nd Poetry Book Prize, Leung’s manuscript was selected by poet Cathy Park Hong. As she writes in her introduction to the collection:
Henry W. Leung’s Goddess of Democracy: an Occupy lyric is a powerful poetics on civil disobedience. The core subject in his debut is the titular Goddess of Democracy, the 33-foot paper-mache statue that was first built and then razed during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Leung directly addresses the Goddess and her replicas throughout the book while bearing witness to the 2014 Umbrella Revolution that paralyzed Hong Kong for 79 days. Although the narrator appears to have been there, documenting the uprising, he also acknowledges his unease as witness since he is not a “native” but one who returns to China after growing up in the States. I love this book because Leung doesn’t give us an accessible individualized account to pull at the American reader’s heartstrings but instead uses his first-hand insights to interrogate Western ideologies of democracy: “what is freedom when divorced from from?”
The poems in this collection are intimate and deeply moving, writing as both witness but inquisitor as well, articulating grief, horror and trauma, as well as an appreciation for the small mercies possible through and around the fragile question of democracy. His poems offer neither shortcut nor solution, but articulate a restlessness and deep attention; writing not to argue what to do through moving forward, but the possibility of moving forward at all, leaving nothing and no one behind. And through such poems, not even his own narrator is spared, as the poem “An Umbrella Revolution” opens:
I leaned against a sycamore and peeled it to paper when a dying person called me instead of an ambulance. Sobbing and listening to sobbing are separate skills. The dry voice at the end is like a dusk sky turning sick shades of green. “Who have I suffered for?” To delay another’s death, I told a lifetime’s worth of lies and promises. A passing dog bit my shin, the most foreign of my limbs. The wound was not deep, yet it remains. A deeper wound would be like absence. I have not mastered absence. I walk along rivers pocketing stones. I cannot bear myself in. I need a volcano, a swallowing like a door without a doorway.