Last May, the LR Blog featured the Angel Island poems in our APIA Heritage Month “Poetry in History” series. In the post, Iris explains:
Often called the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island served as the site for processing as many as 175,000 Chinese immigrants from 1910-1940.
Detainees were separated by gender [and ethnicity!] and locked up in crowded barracks while they awaited questioning, for weeks or months — sometimes, for years — at a time. To pass the time, many immigrants wrote or carved poems into the soft wood of the barrack walls.
The poems vary in theme, form, and in level of polish, and serve as a testimony to the experience of detention, chronicling everything from hope to anger to loneliness, to a sense of adventure.
At the time, I had never visited Angel Island or read any of the poems inscribed on the walls of the immigration station, but last week I made the pilgrimage: flew to San Francisco, drove to Tiburon, took the ferry, made the hike, etc. It was an odd experience—I arrived at the dock at the same time as two groups of fifth grade history students, meaning that I toured the immigration station with them and heard all sorts of hilarious comments: “Who fought who during the Civil War? China and America?” as well as some not-so hilarious ones: “Chinese, Japanese, itchy knees, money please…” a sing-song chant I remember hearing about from the mid-twentieth century, around the time the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. Amazing, really, what little impact four decades of activism have had on prevailing attitudes about who is/n’t included in “America” and why.
It may be helpful to start by pointing readers to Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, the not entirely accurate but seminal work from 1920 that influenced Pound and Williams and stood among the beginnings of a poetic sinology in America. Of particular interest is the claim that Chinese writing is grammatically closer to “the thing itself,” each character inherently a transitive verb subsuming articles, prepositions, etc.—all those deadweight items in English grammar. Fenollosa writes that every Chinese word “is not exclusive of parts of speech, but comprehensive; not something which is neither a noun, verb, or adjective, but something which is all of them at once and at all times” (68).
During his career, Pound translated Chinese poetry into English, but not the other way around. The importing was meant to transform English only. I don’t suppose he gave much thought to bilingual writing, using both Chinese and English discretely in a single poem. For this reason, Eddie Tay’s third collection of poetry, The Mental Life of Cities,is a very interesting new book. In my last review, I showed the payoff of diglossic poetry in “Cities,” excerpted from the third part of the title poem. I’ll say a bit more about this hybrid form.
For one thing, all readers—whether or not they know Chinese—will have a curious experience of choice. Poetry, unlike most prose, cannot be skimmed; its rhetoric is shaped as much by lineation and sound as it is by grammar, and therefore the spoken rhythms of its speech must be followed. When we read Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and come across “So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years— / Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres” we may not know French but we can sound it out (even if poorly) and appreciate the rhyme. Eliot was being kind when he cloistered his Greek into an epigraph in “The Waste Land.” For when we read section vii of Tay’s lyric poem and come to “They don’t teach Leaves of Grass, 野草, Howl: / 老師說話你不能不听, / 不能不听” what do we do if we cannot pronounce the words? One can skip the Chinese and go straight to the translations, reading in a straight English scansion. Or pause at the ideographs and appreciate their visual representations—in fecund silence, as if reading a painting. Tay’s political geography is also of interest. In his preface, he gives examples of romanized pronunciations using pinyin; but he’s from Singapore (where Simplified Chinese is used) and writing in Hong Kong (Traditional Chinese). So a bilingual reader is presented with the choice of pronouncing these words in Mandarin (as Tay might) or in Cantonese (as most of the writing suggests).