Journalism In Verse

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On Reading About The Lost Poetry Of The Angel Island Detention Center

in Culture by

My name doesn’t matter. I am a Jew.
I was in Auschwitz. I was ten then.
I survived a death march.
I was liberated from another
concentration camp. I made it to
America on a Liberty ship crowded
with refugees. I came
through Ellis Island.
I don’t want to talk about
any of that—I want to
talk about the poems. Poems
written in classic Chinese
style scratched on the walls
of a different place
across from Alcatraz
overlooking San Francisco Bay. I took
a sightseeing boat on
a visit there once, the tour guide
did not mention this. Now
I know. It opened in 1910
processing cases of Chinese laborers
under the exclusionary
laws of the 1880s, the first of its kind
in America sparked by a
post-Civil War recession in
which politicos and
opportunists portrayed the
Chinese as undesirables
depriving Americans of jobs.
They still came,
to Gam Saan
the Golden Mountain and
they waited to know their fate.

The detainees, held there for weeks
or months left disheartened verse behind:
         I heard I was forbidden to land
         I could do nothing but frown
         and feel angry at heaven
pained words:
         Today, we brothers are
         imprisoned in a jail; it is
         only because of our ancestral land
anguished words:
         I am like pear blossoms which have
         already fallen; pity the bare branches
         during the late spring
defiant words lost in translation:
         When I am idle, I have this wild dream
         that I have gained the western barbarian’s
         consent to enter America
these vestiges of desperation all heroically saved—
as was I, to stand witness to
humanity’s inhumanity.

 


Read More:
The Lost Poetry Of The Angel Island Detention Center [The New Yorker]

Howard Richard Debs received a University of Colorado Poetry Prize at age 19.After spending the past fifty years in the field of communications, with recognitions including a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Educational Press Association of America, he resumed his creative pursuits. Finalist and recipient 28th Annual 2015 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards, his work appears internationally in numerous publications, recently in Cleaver Magazine, The Galway Review, New Verse News, Silver Birch Press, among others, and his photography will be found in select publications, including in Rattle online as “Ekphrastic Challenge” artist and guest editor. His full length work Gallery: A Collection of Pictures and Words (Scarlet Leaf Publishing) is forthcoming in mid-2017.

Credit for italicized sections: Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, eds. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 © 1991. Reprinted with permission of the University of Washington Press. Image of Alcatraz, another former detention center.

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