To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Outsider Poems, A Mini-Anthology in Progress (9): Angel Island Poems & the Poetics of Error

from Yunte Huang, The Poetics of Error

Written on the walls of the wooden barracks of the detaining station on Angel Island off the coast of San Francisco, Angel Island poems delineate historical trajectories that are in many ways unaccountable in canonical discourses. They belie the pitfalls of teleological History by virtue of their modes of inscription. … I want to look at these poems as examples of tibishi (poetry on the wall), a traditional Chinese form of travel writing that provides an outlet for the large social sector which is denied the right to write history. Seen by its cultural function, tibishi in the case of Angel Island poetry becomes indistinguishable from graffiti, a scriptural practice that is sometimes condemned as vandalism and at other times commissioned as artwork. Not understanding the scriptural economy of these poems has led to a reductive hermeneutics in the hitherto efforts of transcribing, translating, and interpreting them. This kind of hermeneutics may sit well with an economic system that favors productive abstraction and with a political system that recognizes only fully-fledged citizen-subjects, but it lies at odds with what I call the poetics of error. Characterized by misspellings, misattributions, and mistranslations, the poetics of error in these poems has significant linguistic, historical, and cross-cultural implications. Read differently … misspellings spell out linguistic nonconformity and the fictionality of standard orthography, misattributions can be attributed to folk revisions of authorized history and intentional conflations of cultural origins, and mistranslations translate code-switching and heteroglossia. Understood this way, the poetics of error echoes the liminality as well as subversity of the anonymous poets' status in a world delineated by expansionist or nationalist historiography.

[A sampling of poems follows.]

Over a hundred poems are on the walls.
Looking at them, they are all pining at the delayed progress.


There are tens of thousands of poems composed on these walls.
They are all cries of complaint and sadness.


Let this be an expression of the torment which fills my belly.
Leave this as a memento to encourage fellow souls.


My fellow villagers seeing this should take heed and remember,
I write my wild words to let those after me know.


The sea-scape resembles lichen twisting and turning for a thousand li.
There is no shore to land and it is difficult to walk.
With a gentle breeze I arrived at the city thinking all would be so.
At ease, how was one to know he was to live in a wooden building?


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


In January I started to leave for Mexico.
Passage reservations delayed me until mid-autumn.
I had wholeheartedly counted on a quick landing at the city,
But the year's almost ending and I am still here in this building.


A building does not have to be tall;
if it has windows, it will be bright.
Island is not far, Angel Island.
Alas, this wooden building disrupts my travelling schedule.
Paint on the four walls are green,
And green is the grass which surrounds.
It is noisy because of the many country folk,
And there are watchmen guarding during the night.
To exert influence, one can use a square-holed elder brother.
There are children who disturb the ears,
But there are no incoherent sounds that cause fatigue.
I gaze to the south at the hospital,
And look to the west at the army camp.
This author says, "What happiness is there in this?"


Being idle in the wooden building, I opened a window.
The morning breeze and bright moon lingered together.
I reminisce the native village far away, cut off by clouds and mountains.
On the little island the wailing of cold, wild geese can be faintly heard.
The hero who has lost his way can talk meaninglessly of the sword.
The poet at the end of the road can only ascend a tower.
One should know that when the country is weak, the people's spirit dies.
Why else do we come to this place to be imprisoned?


Leaving behind my writing brush and removing my sword, I came to America.
Who was to know two streams of tears would flow upon arriving here?
If there comes a day when I will have attained my ambition and become successful,
I will certainly behead the barbarians and spare not a single blade of grass.

[Poems relate to the anthology Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940, edited & translated by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, & Judy Yung, University of Washington Press, 1980, 1991. The full version of Yunte Huang’s essay can be found at & more in his book, Transpacific Imaginations (Harvard University Press, 2008) .]


Hannah Stephenson said...

Interesting--graffiti poetry!

These are lovely.

Unknown said...

This is so sad... Americans are so cruel. :(
Those poor people. :c