Faraway Places resides in the spaces between the wild and the tamed, from orchid gardens and immense seas to caged birds and high alpine landscapes. It resists narrative and instead inhabits the residues of experience. It may be a private dictionary: “Those / who know the lore can use them / to find their way / in the world.” Haunted and searching, these poems navigate the distances between light and shadow, secrets and silence.
Between 1910 and 1940, Chinese immigrants to America were detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay. As they waited for weeks and months to know if they could land, some of them wrote poems on the walls. All the poems we have on record were found in the men’s barracks: the women’s quarters were destroyed in a fire.
Islanders imagines the lost voices of the detained women. It also tells stories of their families on shore, the staff at Angel Island, and the 1877 San Francisco Chinatown Riot. A blend of fact and fiction, politics and intimacy, these poems chronicle a forgotten episode in American history and prefigure today’s immigration debates.
In between seeing and saying. In between shadow and fire. The voices and words in Islanders honor the bodies of women disappeared from history, reminding us how it is that America has always been standing on the bodies of those it swallowed whole. In the lost voices of Chinese women detained at Angel Island we have the chance to yet hear something from the ruins: song. – Lidia Yuknavitch
These poems are imagined out of ash—script written on walls of a detention building that burned down and took the record with it. Teow Lim Goh would have those voices back, voices from the barracks, voices at the gates, on sea crossings to China, on bay crossings to San Francisco, amid riots and in cold examination rooms, in a brothel, in a prison shower, in rooms of privilege and power, challenging readers to navigate layered tone and intersubjectivity, all of it staged at the theatre of lost history, recovered. – Chris Ransick
Book artist Gail Watson and I made a selection of these poems into a gorgeous artist book, The Walls Speak.
Jenny Holzer features some of these poems in White Light, her permanent LED installation in San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center.