Review of Islanders by Teow Lim Goh (Conundrum Press, 2016). Reviewed by James Prothero
Islanders by Teow Lim Goh (Conundrum Press, 2016) is a little book of poems based on a fascinating and little-known part of American history, which is the cruel and xenophobic way that immigrants from Asia were handled at Angel Island, sort of a west coast version of Ellis Island sitting in San Francisco Bay. The notes at the back of the book detail the actual history and the poems are grouped around various incidents through the late 19th century into the 20th. Families were divided. Mothers were kept back when husbands and children were allowed to land, on the theory that they might become prostitutes. Some people were detained on the islands for decades and never did make it to the US mainland, nor home. The most interesting feature is that when the National Park Service looked over the buildings, they found numerous poems scratched into the walls or written with ink in Chinese characters in Cantonese. The poems told of the agony and ennui of prisoners separated from their families, not allowed into the population nor sent home, living in legal limbo on Angel Island.
And this is where I am both touched by the poems and also disappointed. I know that there is a long-standing trend in free verse poetry to write very minimally and in tense, almost prosaic, clipped bits of passage. And the story these collected poems will tell you will bring home the shame that anti-Asian bigotry on the west coast. It wasn't just the Japanese-Americans who felt the brunt of this during World War 2. White America from Washington State to California had a long history going back to the Gold Rush of treating Asians badly. This is just one more episode.
I am ok with the minimal free verse approach to the subject. And it's rather clear that Ms. Goh is imitating the style of the poems on the walls of Angel Island. But in the best of that sort of free verse, is very rich in poetic technique, as one sees in the work of Ted Kooser for example, who in “Abandoned Farmhouse” writes:
A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.
I want to forget this island
where waves drown
those who dream of escape.
I will never look back.
But I know that my dreams
I'll see our words on the walls,
touch the blood on the floor.
feel the fog on my skin,
smell the salt of the breeze.
I know that wherever I go
I will carry this island with me.
This is not bad; there is some small alliteration. But for the most part it is prosaic, simple sentences or complex sentences with one dependent clause, broken into short lines. I realize that Ms. Goh is leaning here to the Asian tradition and limiting lengths to the line lengths typical of the poems written on the walls of the men's facility at Angel Island. But the Asian tradition is extremely rich in short, powerful, and arresting imagery that gives its poetry power when other techniques are not used. I find myself wishing Ms. Goh had availed herself of the richer imagery, alliteration and other techniques and pushed these poems hard, till they glittered and shone.
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