Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal: A New Collection and the Old Railroad — Pt. 2

Samuel Bowles, Across the Contintent
Samuel Bowles 1865 map of original Transcontinental Railroad route

In the second part of the  conversation, KUER’s Diane Maggipinto asked the Utah Poet Laureate about her latest work.

Paisley Rekdal spent the better part of a year writing an epic poem called  “West: A Translation” to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the driving of the spike that completed the transcontinental railroad.

Her wide-reaching research connected her with the experiences of Chinese laborers, who were first welcomed and then shunned

Paisley Rekdal:  Before the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese were courted by the transcontinental railroad because they were a source of cheap labor. And then suddenly when that labor was finished they became a source of racial tension and labor tension. So I start with a poem from Angel Island, which was the Ellis Island of the West, and Chinese were detained there sometimes up to 22 months. Because they had nothing to do, a lot of these people would carve poems into the walls of the building. So I open my poem "West" with this Chinese poem and it's read in Cantonese by a man. And unless you know Cantonese, unless you can read Chinese you won't be able to understand it. And then I translate the Chinese poem character by character into a history of the Chinese workers or the African-American workers or the impact on American Indian communities or the just the cultural impact of the Transcontinental on our culture. And so by the end of the poem it's re-translated into English. 

Diane Maggiapinto: Would you read some to us?

PR: This poem — it's a short sort of sonnet and it's basically composed of so many of the details about the Chinese written by 19th century newspaper accounts. So all of this language is not mine.


A carload passed last night.

Their bones returned in barrels marked pickles.

Thick as bees, ants, locusts. Celestials lay siege to nature in her strongest citadel.

Their genius is imitation. Show them once to do a thing and their education is complete.

Wherever you put them, you'll find them good.

They can withstand freezing, hunger, thirst, and heat.

They're simple, narrow but not dull minds running in old grooves. 

Congealed quantities, crystals of social substance.

Eunuchate as boys or sodomites they breed defunct in the heat of germs, they can be shipped to shore in great quantities.

Even their clothes come identical, studded with rivets.

Photo of Chinese labor camp
Credit Golden Spike National Historic Site
Chinese Labor Camp

PR: What interested me about this language was how the Chinese were so dehumanized very early on. They were treated and described as robot-like or automaton-like, as if they could withstand incredible physical torments, things that white men couldn't do, and which is why they were sort of such a sought after form of labor.

DM: I know that you took at least one field trip. I wonder what it was like for you to go and sort of be among the ghosts the relics that were left behind over the five years that they were building the railroad.

PR:  It was so amazing to be able to reach down and pick up a physical piece of history. I remember picking up this button I couldn't believe I was holding basically a trouser button from somebody's pants. That was just there and had been there, you know, for 150 years. The sort of reminder that this is not a fantasy. This is not something in the past.  In some ways it's still part of our present and we could just reach out and touch it. This is a poem that's a little bit about that.


What am I searching for in this dead wreckage?

Trestles of bone spar webbed with orb weavers.

To thumb a slice of ginger bottle or scratch black from the bottoms of burnt opium pipes.

To call that body back in time and hold it as if object were owner.

And is it honor or indifference to translate material into personhood? 

As if I could wring the song note by note out of a bird or isolate the dance from the dancer in this sepia photo of a Navajo performing himself for East Coast tourists hanging slack-jawed from train windows.

I want to put that dancer back into the privacy of history, but he's got his own future.

He's out there now working on the railroad

DM: Spending a year researching and writing this epic poem is pretty unusual for a poet laureate. And I'm wondering if you discovered anything unusual yourself, or lesser known.

PR:  One of the things I learned in my research was actually one of the largest groups national groups or ethnic groups working on the transcontinental still and maintaining the railroads still are the Navajo. I know that this is a story largely of national unification and the glory I think of the industrial age and what America really accomplished and there is something great about that. But what fascinates me about the Transcontinental is that as much as it unifies it also divides in as much as it offers people more and more economic opportunities that also take some of those opportunities away for other people and it's important to sort of see the Transcontinental in its full ambivalence ambiguous and complex glory to really get a sense of what that history means.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.