A Carefully Cultivated Loss: On Paisley Rekdal’s “West”
By Teow Lim GohJune 12, 2023
West: A Translation by Paisley Rekdal
West begins with a poem in Chinese that was anonymously carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station, the California detention center for Chinese immigrants to the United States. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned the entry of all Chinese people unless they could prove to immigration officers that they qualified for one of the exceptions, most commonly by being immediate family of Chinese merchants living in the US. This exclusion law, the first in the United States aimed at a specific race, was a direct result of the transcontinental: the Central Pacific brought in more than 10,000 Chinese workers, the largest influx of Chinese at that time, and after its completion, the Chinese became a surplus workforce. In 1873, reckless financial speculation in railroads prompted a bank crash and a years-long depression—and the rhetoric against the Chinese turned violent.
As Rekdal notes, the Angel Island poem she uses is one of a pair of dialogic poems that elegizes a suicide at the detention center. Between 1910 and 1940, Chinese who arrived in San Francisco were ferried to Angel Island, where they were held in decrepit barracks, slept in bunks stacked three beds high, and waited weeks or months for their entry interviews. A few people were imprisoned for almost two years as they appealed their deportation rulings. Some detainees wrote poems on the walls, often in the regulated verse of classical Chinese poetry, with eight lines of five or seven characters each. The guards painted over their words, but they continued to write, draping the walls in poetry. Many of these immigrants were the younger sons of families that had spent their savings or borrowed heavily to pay for their passage to the United States. Deportation meant failure, and some of them committed suicide at the prospect of returning home in shame.
Rekdal translates this poem character by character, a literal interpretation that does not account for the semantic differences between Chinese and English, and she uses these phrases as titles for poems that depict the multiplicity of histories connected to the transcontinental railroad. In her rendition, the first line yields the titles “Sorrowful News,” “Pass,” “Learn,” “Indeed,” and “Sad,” and the poems subsequently speak of the trains conveying Abraham Lincoln’s body from Washington, DC, to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, for burial; Brigham Young’s desire for trade and Congress’s hope to eradicate the Mormon practice of polygamy; a letter from a Chinese man, Norman Asing, to Governor John Bigler of California, protesting the statesman’s support of Chinese exclusion; a list of anti-Chinese laws and statements, including quotes from a letter by E. B. Crocker, legal counsel to the Central Pacific; and Donald Trump’s rhetoric of border walls and Chinese viruses.
The second half of the book is a series of lyric essays framed as notes to the poems, but they quickly segue into, among other things, meditations on the methods and techniques of Rekdal’s project; a memoir about her Chinese family, in particular her grandfather who came to the United States as a paper son and her US-born grandmother who grew up in Hong Kong; her visits to Promontory Point, Utah, where a portion of the original road had been abandoned in favor of a causeway that bisected the Great Salt Lake into different colors. In this way, Rekdal creates a new reading of the railroad, folding in stories of the Indigenous peoples who were forcibly removed from their homelands, the Black people hired as porters in the luxury cars in which they were not allowed to be passengers, the orphans who were sent from New York by train to the West to be adopted. Rekdal’s poems and essays translate not just the content of the Angel Island poem but also the railroad’s collisions of race and power.
A problem that every researcher of the transcontinental railroad faces is that no diary entries or letters written by the Chinese workers have been found, neither in the United States nor China. Their stories, it seems, were not worth recording; their emigration and exploitation reveal the underbelly of both cultures. Similarly, the Central Pacific did not record the names of the Chinese who built the line, and when it did, it was often inaccurate. There were also plenty of Ah Chees and Ah Says, “Ah” being a prefix that connotes a diminutive; it would be the equivalent of recording white workers as Little John or The Kid. And while the absence of records on the Chinese workers is a substantive loss, it is not the only omission, for the archive often reflects the values and needs of those in power. Along the same lines, Rekdal asked in a talk at the 2023 AWP conference: “But what, finally, is history except a series of silences placed against other silences, a question of relation if not a series of uncontested or unchallengeable facts?”
“For this reason, appropriation of the few voices we can find in the archive becomes necessary formal techniques,” Rekdal continued in her talk. In the book, she draws on a variety of sources and approaches to interpret the silences of history; in addition to the Angel Island poems, she also makes use of Chinese-English phrasebooks from the 1870s and 1880s, such as in the poem “Should Know”:
You are mistaken.
My store was robbed last night.
The house was set on fire by an incendiary.
He tried to obtain my baggage by false pretenses.
I lost all my clothes and two hundred dollars.
He claimed my mine.
He squatted on my lot.
He took it from me by violence.
I understand every word you say.
These are phrases that the Chinese believed they needed to be able to communicate; Rekdal collages them into a poem that depicts the violence and disregard they faced. Similarly, a few poems are based on oral-history interviews with Irish workers and Black porters, such as in the poem “You,” the last stanza of which begins: “And then, of course, you handle / everybody’s linen without / gloves at all, you strip the beds.”
Rekdal also uses official accounts to render the dominant white perspective and its overt and implicit biases, such as the newspaper correspondent in the poem “Tell”:
“Long tongue,” Indians call
the telegraph and I’m told
them cutting down the poles
or tearing up tracks whose irons
seem too warm to their unfamiliar
touch. All this I can report
to Pittsburgh’s reader, though
the darkest tales, our handlers
warn, we must suppress.
In this way, Rekdal mixes the documentary and the speculative to assemble a wide range of histories that originated in the transcontinental railroad.
Another way of saying this is that Rekdal deploys the formal techniques of appropriation, collage, and speculation to translate the silences of the archive. In the ordinary sense, translation is the act of rendering text from one language into another, making it accessible to speakers of the target language. Due to semantic differences between languages, loss is inherent in translation; word choice, rhythm, and syntactical structures can shift meanings in subtle ways. In a more fundamental sense, translation is about using language to make the inscrutable knowable. As Rekdal says, in a conversation with Julia H. Lee for The Georgia Review,
the “careful” cultivation of loss occurs around appropriating the voices of people like the Black porters, whose oral histories I radically compress to focus on particular stories that they reveal about the railroad. There, I had to think about how to stay true to other people’s rhythms of speech and experiences, while also making these testimonies work as poems.
Writing history involves selection: it is impossible to include every story, perspective, and detail in a project. This is especially true of poetry, with its distilled demands and heightened language; in selecting and juxtaposing phrases and images, a poet can, consciously or otherwise, radically change the meanings of the archival texts to suit their artistic and political purposes. In most of the poems in West, Rekdal employs a persona—that is, the speaker is a dramatic character who is distinct from the poet. The first-person narrative gives the impression of access to an interior world, such as in the poem “Heroic,” in the persona of Helen Holmes, a film actress and stuntwoman who played young women in the West: “Victim? Tie me up / to trestle or bridge, / I bristle, buck.” But this interior world is ultimately the poet’s speculation, filtered through the lens of her values and judgment, a translation of the source material of the old westerns into the language and exigencies of contemporary poetry.
Within each poem and across the project, Rekdal makes choices about what information to include and how to present it in her text. At the same time, she interrogates her process; in the essay “Indeed,” ostensibly a footnote to the above-mentioned poem that quotes Crocker’s anti-Chinese statements, she asks, “What is a quote but a fragment of history? What is a newspaper, a land grant act, but one community speaking to the other it wishes to convert?” This theoretical discourse is not about handwringing; it is integral to the text she produces, for in examining her own reconstruction of these histories, she also sheds light on what has already been lost and how the process of archiving and interpreting leads to this loss. In a sense, West is meant to be a correction, in that Rekdal aims to bridge the gaps of memory and remembrance and reshape our understanding of this pivotal event in US history, but she also reminds us that absence is inevitable and this work is never complete.
In 2018, as Utah’s poet laureate, Rekdal was commissioned to write a poem for the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad. What resulted was West, which, in addition to the book, includes a digital project of visual and textual poems. On the website, the characters of the Angel Island elegy link to the same poems in the book. Many of the poems are presented as videos, with archival images of railroad workers, labor camps, street scenes, official portraits, and historical and contemporary landscapes overlaid with Rekdal reading the text. While the book can be read in any order, most people, myself included, would tend to read it linearly, flipping to the essay notes as curiosity strikes. The essays, included only in the book, can also be read as a sequential and unified piece. The digital version further disrupts our concept of time, for the user can choose how they move through the site, creating their own experience of this history.
As I previously noted, Rekdal’s poem titles are a “bad,” literal translation of the characters in the Angel Island elegy. The meaning is incoherent; Rekdal, who does not speak Chinese, has said that they were intended to sound like how a reader with a tenuous grasp of the language might experience the poem. The poems, with their explorations of the dimensions and limitations of the archive, inhabit this inscrutability; individually, they feel like tentative gestures toward something yet to be seen. In both the book and the digital project, all the poems ultimately produce a fluent translation of the Angel Island poem. “Sorrowful news indeed has passed to me,” it begins, before the speaker questions whether their shared heroic passage to the United States was worth the tragic cost: “A thousand ages now hold the sorrow of a thousand regrets.” While this poem is an intimate address, it also mirrors the larger question of the transcontinental railroad: it might have been a national achievement, but at what cost?
An economic failure, the railroad was never profitable, and it did not help that the Suez Canal opened six months after its completion and cargo could be shipped between Europe and Asia without having to cross the American continent. Neither the Union Pacific nor the Central Pacific paid back the loans they took from the US Treasury to build the railroad, using legal technicalities to evade their debts. It made a few men very rich on the public dime, and those men are the face of our popular notions of the railroad, but its cultural impacts continue to reverberate today. It was a paradigm change: in economics, governance, labor, immigration, the environment, Indigenous rights, and much more.
“Is it poetry or history that finally becomes the archive’s most controversial translation?” Rekdal asks in the essays. This is a rhetorical question, but I would like to propose a response: it is not so much poetry nor history, but, rather, time. Time ravages the archive: documents are misplaced or lost, stories are forgotten or deformed into sentimental mythology or bloodless platitudes. Time also reshapes our understanding of the archive; in the current political climate of overt xenophobia and anti-Asian violence, it is hard to avoid contextualizing these histories in light of present needs. In the poem “Soil,” based on a letter from Brigham Young to the Union Pacific demanding reimbursement for the wages he covered for the Mormon workers, Rekdal writes, “You can hear them,” breaking the line to emphasize, “if you listen. The mountains reverberate / from base to summit, ringing back our volleys / with thunderous echoes, as if in anger.”
In a sense, West is a book of ghosts—not the white-sheeted apparitions of the popular imagination but specters of the past that flicker imperceptibly in the present, shaping our lives in ways we cannot grapple with until we recognize them.
Teow Lim Goh is the author of two poetry collections, Islanders (Conundrum Press, 2016) and Faraway Places (Diode Editions, 2021), and an essay collection, Western Journeys (2022).
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