有 識: Have Knowledge
–From the immigration questionnaire given to Chinese entering or re-entering the U.S. during the Chinese Exclusion Act
Have you ridden in a streetcar?
Can you describe the taste of bread?
Where are the joss houses located in the city?
Do Jackson Street and Dupont run
in a circle or a line, what is the fruit
your mother ate before she bore you,
how many letters a year
do you receive from your father?
Of which material is your ancestral hall
now built? How many water buffalo
does your uncle own?
Do you love him? Do you hate her?
What kind of bird sang
at your parents’ wedding? What are the birth dates
for each of your cousins: did your brother die
from starvation, work, or murder?
Do you know the price of tea here?
Have you ever touched a stranger’s face
as he slept? Did it snow the year
you first wintered in our desert?
How much weight is
a bucket and a hammer? Which store
is opposite your grandmother’s?
Did you sleep with that man
for money? Did you sleep with that man
for love? Name the color and number
of all your mother’s dresses. Now
your village’s rivers.
What diseases of the heart
do you carry? What country do you see
when you think of your children?
Does your sister ever write?
In which direction does her front door face?
How many steps did you take
when you finally left her?
How far did you walk
before you looked back?
Copyright © 2020 by Paisley Rekdal. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 11, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
“This poem is from a book-length work I'm finishing on the transcontinental railroad titled West, a poetic ‘translation’ of a poem carved by an anonymous Chinese immigrant into the walls of the Angel Island Detention Center during the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Act was passed thirteen years after the transcontinental’s completion, and each of the carved poem’s characters (or pair of characters) opens up into a cultural history of the workers who built the transcontinental, or into a history of the cultural impact the railroad had on the U.S. as a whole. During the building of the railroad, Chinese men were eagerly recruited by the Central Pacific Railroad; afterwards, the Chinese were portrayed as criminals, drug addicts, and a national danger to white labor.”