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The Writing on the Wall

By Camille Dungy

“Over a hundred poems are on the walls.
Looking at them, they are all pining at the delayed progress.
What can one sad person say to another?
Unfortunate travelers everywhere wish to commiserate…”
(Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, Eds Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung)

Looking out the window of a bunkroom in the Angel Island Detention Center

Imagine you have traveled on a ship from China to America. Imagine it is sometime between 1910 and 1940, and you may or may not know the man who you will call your father when you arrive in the new country whose language you likely do not know. Imagine that when you arrive you are not admitted to the country you’ve traveled so far and paid so dearly to reach, but instead you are taken to an island in the middle of one of the world’s 10 largest bays. It’s called Angel Island, but you may not know that. All you might know is that you have been ushered into a room filled with perhaps 250 other men. You will not know that men from as many as 80 other countries have suffered the same fate as you, but you will know that the women and small children are kept in another building, that the Asian men are separated from the European men, that the European men received comparably better treatment than the Asian men, and that though you can see Oakland through the window of the wooden building you do not know if you will ever walk its streets. The air on the island is by turns foggy and cool and salty and warm. There are moss roses and fragrant stands of eucalyptus. You might call it beautiful, but you are a detainee, not a vacationer, and you are very far from any place that you could call home. Imagine if, in these circumstances, lying in bunks stacked three high and 6 deep, you glanced at the wooden walls around you and saw poems.

“On a long voyage I travelled across the sea.
Feeding on wind and sleeping on dew, I tasted hardships.
Even though Su Wu was detained among the barbarians,
he would one day return home.
When he encountered a snow storm, Wengong sighed,
thinking of by gone years.
In days of old, heroes underwent many ordeals.
I am, in the end, a man whose goal is unfulfilled.
Let this be an expression of the torment which fills my belly.
Leave this as a memento to encourage fellow souls.”

Imagine you saw not just one poem written on or etched into the walls, but hundreds. Imagine nearly every inch of available wall space was taken up by a poem, and there was only a little space left. Imagine you were one of the most educated men in your village, the man on whom several families had penned their hopes. Imagine you had little but a knife or a pen and your calligraphy was beautiful. Would you take the opportunity to add a new poem to that wall?

“…Do not treat these words as idle words.
Why not let them deport you back to China?
You will find some work and endure to earn a couple of meals.”

What I am describing is not fantasy. What I am describing was the reality for hundreds of Chinese immigrants who sought entry into America through the immigration station in the San Francisco Bay. If an immigrant’s papers were in order, they could go straight away into their new lives in America. But if there were health concerns or irregularities with papers, if the would-be immigrant suffered the fate of so many as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, they were sent to a detention center on Angel Island, in the middle of the Bay. Held there for 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months, and in one case as long as 2 years, many of these would-be immigrants took to writing on the walls.

These were not just idle scribbles. The Chinese immigrants, in particular, raised with a tradition of public poetry, composed carefully crafted verses that drew on Classical traditions, forms, and allusions. There is often little way to know whether a poem was written in 1910 or 1935, the poems these men wrote would stand the test of time.

The insects chirp outside the four walls.
The inmates often sigh.
Thinking of affairs back home,
Unconscious tears wet my lapel.

The poem above may well reference a poem written in the 6th century AD. The first poem I copied references a poet who wrote in the 8th century AD. The poets held at the Angel Island Immigration Station were partaking of a centuries-old tradition, creating a camaraderie far beyond the confines of the walls they found themselves isolated inside. Likely separated from friends and family by thousands of miles and piles of bureaucracy, these writers turned to the ancient tradition of public poetry to reconstruct their sense of self.

The west wind ruffles my thin gauze clothing.
On the hill sits a tall building with a room of wooden planks.
I wish I could travel on a cloud for away, reunite my wife and son.
When the moonlight shines on me alone, the night seems even longer.
At the head of the bed there is wine and my heart is constantly drunk.
There is no flower beneath my pillow and my dreams are not sweet.
To whom can I confide my innermost feelings?
I rely solely on close friends to relieve my loneliness.

Here is a picture of San Francisco State University Professor Charles Egan pointing at the poem quoted above. Here we are, at least 60 years after this poem was penned, with a man from a different country, reading this lonely man’s words and sharing them with people who have come to read them.

Professor Egan (SFSU) points to poems on the Angel Island Detention Center Wall

In the early 1940s the administration building of the Angel Island Immigration burned, and the facilities were turned over to the Army for the war effort. The buildings were painted again, and after the war the barracks were deserted for years. Eventually derelict, there was talk of selling the whole island off as Army surplus. There was talk of letting local fire departments use all the island’s building for practice. (This was the fate of several of the Julia Morgan designed employee cottages), but for the male detainee’s barracks, poetry once again came to save the day.

Look at this picture and notice how difficult it might be to spot the poetry.

If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you might miss it entirely. I’m reminded of a Lucille Clifton poem, “Mulberry Fields,” in which she talks about a similar problem. “they say that the rocks were shaped/ some of them scratched with triangles and other forms/ they/must have been trying to invent some new language they say.” In the case of the Angel Island Detention Center, as in the case of the Clifton poem, the language, actually “marked an old tongue.” But it was years before many people recognized what was being said and why it mattered.

Or, I should say in the case of the detention center that it was years before anyone who was not being directly addressed recognized the language and understood why it mattered. Because so many of the poets actually spoke to each other in thier “posts,” we know that the poems mattered to the people to whom they were addressed at the time. Eventually someone else saw the value as well. Someone walked through the detention center and recognized the language, recognized the poems on the wall, the hundreds of poems that documented the lives of nearly 175,000 people. Once the need inscribed on those walls was translated, efforts began to preserve the detention center and to give the Angel Island Detention Center a place of honor in a newly created State Park. Now this world history record is preserved and available for viewing. Scholars are researching the poems, and people and poets like me, who need to believe in the power of poetry to speak beyond the here and now, can stand in front of those walls and understand the power of poetry: to calm, to communicate, to commiserate, and to conserve.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 by Camille Dungy.