Teow Lim Goh seeks meaning in an immigration detention center, while Marjorie Maddox seeks spiritual understanding in the study of literature. Both poets have striking new collections that linger in the mind longer after the last pages are read.
From the 1860s until well into the 20th century, Chinese workers were brought to the United States as a source of cheap labor to help build, among a lot of other things, the Transcontinental Railroad. They experienced discrimination, hostility, and racism. Not surprisingly, many would send back to China for wives and families, as well as would-be wives.
Between 1910 and 1940, under the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants to the United States were detained on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. The detention center has quarters for both men and women. “Some of them wrote poems on the walls, ” said Goh in an interview last year with Les Femmes Folles. “There are no records of poems the women wrote, because the women’s barracks burned down in a fire.” In Islanders, Goh imagines the poems the women might have written.
I wasn’t quite prepared for the sorrow and tragedy these women experienced. Nor was I prepared for watching how, far too often, hope was transformed into fear, heartbreak, and sometimes tragedy. These are stories, told in simple language and stark reality, of what the women experienced after crossing the Pacific Ocean. Some had their children with them. Others were being sent to marry under family contractual arrangements.
All found themselves on Angel Island, and many would experience only that detention center as America before being returned to China. Some saw their children turned over to their fathers, while they had to remain in the center. This imagined poem is by a woman who was eventually allowed to leave and join her husband on the mainland.
Six months I waited
on that island, not knowing
if or when I could land. We wrote
on the walls, over
the paint and putty they used
to erase our words,
our verses etched on those
that came before. I copied them
into a notebook
that I hid. I still have it, but
I cannot bear to open it,
relive the dread
and the shame. I want to give it
to our children
after we’re gone, tell them
who we are, who we once were.
Goh does a marvelous job in telling these stories. Some women survive the experience; some return to China. And some die.
Islanders, to be published July 12, is Goh’s first collection of poetry. Goh, interestingly enough, has a degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan. Her writing has been published in such journals as PANK, The Toast, Guernica, The Rumpus, Winter Tangerine Review, and Open Letters Monthly. She also makes letterpress and art editions of poetry at her imprint, Black Orchid Press.
Marjorie Maddox searches for a different yet no less poignant kind of meaning. Throughout the 75 poems that comprise True, False, None of the Above, she is asking a question: can the spiritual be found in literature, even when that literature often is indifferent or even hostile to the spiritual? She writes not only of the literature found in the classroom and the literature found on the printed page, but also, and more broadly, what we might call the literature of faith, the literature of the heart.
This poem is taken from story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Old Testament book of Daniel. The three young men would not bow down to the golden image made by King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon and were thrown into the fiery furnace for their trouble.
His face is the greater flame
but doesn’t flicker. No furnace
fuels his glory. “Son of gods, ”
the king calls out and cowers from the heat.
Sparks crown our heads.
We are un-singed and sing of seraphs,
genuflect before his servant,
ten times as golden as any man-made
Hades that can’t consume
the luminous, the purified,
the once-upon-a-time burning bush,
the evermore-ignited blaze of Yahweh.
One of my favorite poems in the collection is “The English Teacher Contemplates Suicide.” What begins as a serious issue becomes something else entirely, as the teacher first has to write a suicide note “worthy of publication, ” catches herself mixing metaphors, starts doing some research to find some resources in the library only to discover them all checked out, and eventually returns to marking up student papers. The teacher inadvertently finds the spiritual in the mundane of her everyday experience.
Among other writing accomplishments, Maddox is the author of 10 previous poetry collections, including Nightrider to Edinburgh (1986), Body Parts (1999); Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (2004); Weeknights at the Cathedral (2006); Local News from Someplace Else (2013); and Perpendicular as I (1999 and 2013). She is the co-author of the anthology Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (2005) and author of two children’s books, including Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems (2009).
The director of Creative Writing and professor of English at Lock Haven University, she received a B.A. in literature from Wheaton College, an M.A. in English from the University of Louisville, and an M.F. A. in poetry from Cornell University. She’s also received numerous scholarships, prizes and other recognitions for her poetry.
The poems of both Islanders and True, False, None of the Above are unsettling. They are also richly rewarding. They challenge and ultimately overcome our conventional understandings of history and the spiritual.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish