GODDESS OF DEMOCRACY

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GODDESS OF DEMOCRACY, BY HENRY WEI LEUNG

Henry Wei Leung’s collection, Goddess of Democracy: an occupy lyric, explores the complications inherent in freedom and protest, focusing in particular on the 2014 Umbrella protests in Hong Kong. The collection, selected by Cathy Park Hong for the Omnidawn 1st/2nd Poetry Book Prize, begins with a startling encounter with a dead body in “Preamble: Room for Cadavers.” Here, it becomes clear that there are no easy answers; the body is person and object, erased person and everyone, facing the risk of dissolving at any moment. The Goddess of Democracy, a plaster replica of a statue, haunts these pages in various states of decay and neglect, acting as a symbol for a protest that had no headquarters but that moved around and was in some ways invisible—in the very air. The danger inherent in protest becomes even more palpable when the Goddess disappears or goes silent unexpectedly. And at the same time, we are asked to question the very ideals being fought for: “What if freedom just means shopping?”

The collection’s third section is made up of prose pieces that help explain, give context, and ruminate in a way that requires an outpouring of words: “It is possible that none of us have the right to live as we do . . . So thank you for standing alone. For your misunderstanding, for your pained cry. For this dust of words, for the longing to be at all, for we are all afraid in the end.” These words situate the Umbrella protests in a history of protest without simplifying, and broaden the reader’s view. Leung implicates readers and absolves them in the same poem; while the collection speaks about a particular protest, it also speaks to the individual. Indeed, the collection is dedicated: “for your freedom.”

Omnidawn.