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Empire’s Scribe: A Review of Paisley Rekdal’s WEST: A TRANSLATION



Paisley Rekdal


West: A Translation


Copper Canyon Press / 2023 / 178 pp/ $22.00


Reviewed by Lynnell Edwards / April 2024  


  

 

Commissioned in 2018 to write a single poem commemorating the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad, Paisley Rekdal, then serving as Poet Laureate of Utah, instead wrote the great American poem: West: A Translation. Astonishing in scope and intelligence, its ambitions are as vast as the nineteenth-century frontier and the dreams for American empire. West is Rekdal’s eleventh book, and it is nothing less than an extraordinary explication of what it means, and what it costs, to document history.

 

The collection is brilliantly divided into two sections: “West,” which consists of forty-five poems, and “Notes Toward an Untranslated Century,” a series of micro-essays informing each poem. The poems primarily explore the building of the transcontinental railroad, including the experiences of the immigrant workforce recruited as labor, ninety percent of which was Chinese; the suffering and response of indigenous populations on whose land the railroad was built; and the white settlement of the West that followed.

 

As a work of documentation, there are poems that take the form of excerpts from personal letters; poems that present as public record or address; persona poems from the nineteenth-century captains of industry, from artists and ordinary people, from journalists; list poems consisting of series of phrases from an 1875 English-Chinese phrasebook, or the names of tribal lands, of train depots, of native and migratory birds, of the sites of lynchings of Chinese residents.

 

But West also relentlessly considers the impossibility of accessing historical memory, beginning with the opening poem, which is written in Mandarin and titled “The Poem,” per the table of contents. The accompanying translation and note in the second half of the book explains that this poem is one of a pair carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station, where Chinese immigrants could be held indefinitely. Faced with deportation, some committed suicide, and the poem reprinted is an elegy for one such individual. Rekdal is deliberate in not including the second poem. She writes in the accompanying essay: “And yet, what is a translation except a carefully cultivated loss?”  

 

The accompanying translation also explains that the eight-line poem is an example of regulated verse, closest in structure to a sonnet. Within the line, it is understood that two characters form a single unit of meaning. This syntax is the key to the general sequencing of the poems that follow. Accordingly, the first line of the opening poem translates: “Sorrowful news indeed has passed to me.”

 

Thus the first four poems of the book are titled “Sorrowful News,” documenting the rail journey of President Lincoln’s casket across the country; “Pass,” an extended riff on variations of the word pass and passing as applied to heterodox identities of indigenous people as well as Mormons and other immigrants to the West; “Learn,” a persona poem in the voice of a “Chinaman” arguing to repeal Gov. John Bigler’s prohibition of the Chinese in California:

 

                        We must remind you

            that when your nation

 

                                    was a wilderness,

             we exercised the arts

                        of commerce, science: we grew

 

a civilization while your own one

                        languished, helpless,

            in the dark.

 

And “Indeed,” a first-person-plural persona poem expressing the views of whites regarding the Chinese. The persona is as brutish as the former is brilliant, and is replete with racist assumptions:

 

                        they shall not walk

on our sidewalks or marry

a white man or woman    all this

and they shall keep the Negro

steady . . .     

 

The catalogue of characters in West includes the titans of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century West, such as Leland Stanford, Brigham Young, President Andrew Johnson, and John Bigler, an early governor of California. Other literary and historical figures whose lives intersected with the railroad and the settlement of the West include  Anthony Trollope, Frederick Law Olmsted, A. Philip Randolph, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Dennis Kearney, an Irish immigrant and one of the founders of the Workingman’s Party of California.

 

Punctuating the text are archival images: patches of maps detailing the progress of the railroad; individual portraits of migrant laborers; cultural artifacts from railroad culture, such as a postcard movie still showing a desperate rescue by the silent film heroine Helen Holmes of a man tied to the tracks as the huffing engine bears down; word art consisting of snatches of untranslated phrases in other-than-English languages. Many of these are persona poems, and Rekdal is particularly deft with the staggered line to mimic the natural halt and tumble of speech, as in “Not,” after a speech by Dennis Kearney, claiming for the Irish a kind of white privilege that should assure better working conditions and pay:

 

                                    None

                        but an idiot would hope to work

 

                                                                                    as cheap; none but a slave

                                                                        make the effort. Death

                                                                                     is preferable to life

on par with these.

 

Following the poems, “Notes Toward an Untranslated Century” is a series of thick paragraphs that modulate among historical facts informing the poems, information about Rekdal’s family and personal history, most often that of her Chinese grandparents, and commentary meant to point out parallels between the populist sentiment rising against the immigrant communities of the nineteenth century and Trump-era white nationalist rhetoric and policy toward immigration and racial discrimination. Rekdal also frequently investigates her own complicity as a writer: “We are all servants of empire one way or another; I do not exclude myself in this. The extravagance of this poem I have produced reveals that I, too, am empire's scribe."

 

But West also navigates the central tension between understanding history both as linear progress as well as a pattern of recursive movement. In “Sorrowful News,” Abraham Lincoln’s own words announce the promise of the railroad and our shared, linear historical memory: “One day a great line / will unite us.” In juxtaposition is another contemporary image dominating the western landscape: Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a massive land art installation of salt crystal, mud, and basalt on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake that represents “unfurling and return.”

 

In the persona of Robert Smithson commenting on Andrew J. Russell’s photo East and West Shaking Hands at Laying Last Rail, both are acknowledged:

 

                                   Nothing

            So linear as human

ego and desire, while the past

 

turns and returns, spirals

 

So too, the persona of Robert Louis Stevenson understands:

 

        the train taking us both not just forward then

but back to our eternal musings—

 

These two ways to think about history are enacted by the linear images of the rail lines, the family line, the line of poetry, while the recursive impulses of memory and mind and the nonlinear sequencing of the poems are symbolized by the spiral jetty.

 

A QR code printed on the back flap of West takes readers to an accompanying website with video poems linked to each of the Mandarin characters in the opening poem as well as archival materials for “self-exploration of the transcontinental railroad’s history through [the website's] interactive, non-linear structure.” Thus, we may progress through the digital West: A Translation in the manner of a line or a jetty, or both. What we may not do, however, is know the second poem inscribed at the detention center. It remains unknowable, untranslatable, and thus perhaps holy, humbling, a last western frontier we may not breach.


 

Lynnell Edwards is associate programs director for the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing, where she lectures and mentors in poetry and is the book reviews editor for Good River Review. Her most recent collection is The Bearable Slant of Light (Red Hen Press, 2024). More about her writing and work at lynnelledwards.com.

 

 

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